If the Pakistan cricket team, now in India for the T20 World Cup, browses through this morning’s newspapers, they will find a major surprise awaiting them: Pakistani and Indian national flags being waved together at the “World Cultural Festival” that was organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom most nationalists call the Indian “spiritual guru”.
In the context of what is happening in India today, where any support for Pakistan is seen as seditious and anti-national, should this act of camaraderie, without drawing the ire of “patriotic” Indians, be seen as a sudden change of heart or a genuine desire of many not to mix politics with cultural events, that should include sports as well?
Cultural events, in any case, challenge the boundaries of nationalism, but flag waving at the sports arenas is a phenomenon unparalleled in its display of nationalism. The Indian cricket fan the world over is recognised for his astonishing display of lung power and flag waving to support his team. The Tricolour must be the most recognised Indian product in cricket playing nations and in places like England it overshadows the Union Jack as well. In fact, in the last series played in England, the predominantly “Indian” crowd at the ground booed and jeered paceman James Anderson, giving the impression that the match was being played in India.
This “Indian” crowd, most of them second or third-generation British Indians, holding British passports and for all practical purposes nationals of that country, don’t think that this act could be construed as “anti-national” in the country of their adoption. That they are allowed to do so without falling foul with the “law” is obviously a sign of the British being a tolerant nation that does not see in this harmless act signs of “treason”. The same holds true for the British Pakistani youth, who fill the ground with a sea of green flags and taunt the English on the cricket ground.
What is very surprising though is that majority of these flag-waving fans condemn such acts if they take place in the country of their roots. In many interactions with them, I have realised that what they consider their fundamental right in the country they live in, is a right they would want to deny an Indian or Pakistani citizen, if he does that in his own country. An Indian waving a Pakistani flag or a Pakistani waving an Indian flag will be seen as a traitor. The rights and freedom of speech end when it comes to the citizens of the two nations, and any flag, other than their own, won’t be tolerated by these very freedom loving foreign “nationalists”.
Is it that partition, religious strife, terrorism and the two countries’ constant war posturing, have scarred their psyche beyond repair? Not everyone, though, is infected with this xenophobia, as I witnessed in the 1999 India-Pakistan World Cup match in Manchester, which was played in the backdrop of the Kargil war.
Many Indian and Pakistani friends came to the ground displaying flags of both nations and pleaded for peace with the message that a sports field should not be turned into a war zone.
The one-and-a-half decade of the 21st century has seen the epochal 2004 Indian tour of Pakistan where “we” the Indians realised “they” the Pakistanis are people just like us and similarly the Pakistanis who came here subsequently, felt the same.
If politics divides, sports can bind, as has been the experience of the people of the two nations. When Pakistani skipper Shahid Afridi said in Kolkata, “I have got more love in India than in Pakistan,” believe him to be true, as I know most of us who visited Pakistan on cricket tours have felt the same. Let us get on with the game.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @pradeepmagazine)