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Team India?

The relatively healthy atmosphere that has surrounded Indo-Pak series is a direct reflection of the relative communal harmony that prevails in India today, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2007 23:10 IST

Is it my imagination or is there a qualitative difference in the way in which we are reacting to the just-concluded cricket series with Pakistan? In the old days, each India-Pakistan series was the sporting equivalent of war by other means. Passions would run so high that I always feared that they would spill out on to the streets. Indians would look for ways to prove that the Pakistanis were cheating. Hardcore Hindutva types would allege that not only did crackers go off in Muslim areas when India lost, but that in such cities as Hyderabad, the Muslims in the stands would actually cheer Pakistan. <b1>

This was a wild exaggeration, but it was not without any foundation at all. So us secular types would go blue in our faces trying to find explanations for this behaviour. We would retort that the real triumph of Indian secularism lay in the manner in which many of the matches went India’s way only because of the efforts of the Muslim cricketers in the team. Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan would become poster boys for Indian secularism.

This time around, however, the response seems curiously different. Of course, we care about winning. And of course, we are devastated when we lose — as we did in Mohali and Jaipur. But we treat the series in exactly the same way that we treated the matches against Australia. (In fact, you could even argue that we were more passionate about trying to wipe the smirks off the faces of the Australians, easily the most arrogant team on earth.) Finally, we have an India-Pakistan series that is about cricket and not about war.

What’s changed? There’s no shortage of explanations. It could be that as people-to-people contacts increase, the tension between our two countries has a way of dissipating. It could be that we are just playing so well that we have no reason to worry or get overly agitated. And it could even be that given the current chaos in Pakistan, Indians are much too smug to bother to be especially competitive.

All these explanations are probably valid to different degrees. But I have one of my own, and it is slightly more complicated — and, therefore, probably a little more suspect as well.

As much as we talk about India-Pakistan relations in terms of geo-politics, the truth is that a large part of how many Indians respond to Pakistan is determined by simple Hindu-Muslim hostility. I am something of a hawk on Pakistan, but I’m always a little embarrassed to find that many of those who agree with me do so not out of any considered assessment of India’s interests, but out of simple anti-Muslim feeling. An India-Pakistan cricket series, therefore, becomes a barometer of the state of Hindu-Muslim relations. The complaints about Muslims rooting for Pakistan emerges out of the traditional suspicion of the patriotism of India’s Muslims and the baggage of Partition. The sneering about Pakistani players (goondas, cheats, Lotharios, etc. in the eyes of their critics) also emerges from this same hostility to Muslims.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the relatively healthy atmosphere that has surrounded this series has less to do with our attitude to Pakistan or the sudden development of sporting spirit among Indians, but is a direct reflection of the relative communal harmony that prevails in India today.

For a start, even the BJP has largely abandoned the sinister notion that Muslims have some secret loyalty to Pakistan. Just before the last general election, L.K. Advani declared that his party would now get a substantial chunk of the Muslim vote because his government had improved relations with Pakistan. There were angry protests from eminent Muslims at the suggestion that they cast their votes not as Indians but on the basis of how Pakistan is treated. And Advani quickly backtracked.

But he is a slow learner. So, shortly after he took over as Leader of the Opposition, he went to Pakistan and attempted to prove his secular credentials (in an effort to occupy the space that A.B. Vajpayee was vacating) by showering excessive and inappropriate praise on Jinnah. As Javed Akhtar said at that time, “Many of these Hindutva people believe that Indian Muslims put up pictures of Jinnah in our homes and worship him on a daily basis. In fact, he means nothing to Indian Muslims.” Advani’s ill-advised Pakistan visit nearly became a suicide mission and, since then, he has finally learnt from his mistakes. Everything may not always be perfect between India’s Hindus and Muslims, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims have any loyalty to Pakistan or to the man who ensured that they became a tiny minority in their own country, thanks to Partition.

The breaking of the psychological connection between Indian Muslims and Pakistan in the minds of Hindutva advocates is a significant phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed. The last time around when Narendra Modi won a landslide in Gujarat, he did it by subliminally (and not-so-subliminally) linking Gujarati Muslims with Pakistan by making gratuitous references to ‘Mian Musharraf’. This time, even Modi has stopped raising Pakistan for domestic electoral gain.

Then, there’s the attitude of India’s Muslims as well. My ‘secularist’ friends always spit on me for saying this, but many of the Muslim community’s problems — at least in terms of how it is perceived by Hindus — are its own fault. Few communities can have a leadership that is as ideologically and morally bankrupt as India’s Muslims. The Sachar Commission’s findings show us how badly Muslims have done on most measures of development and prosperity. But the community’s leaders ignore these real and substantive issues to focus on a lunatic religious agenda.

How does it benefit India’s Muslims if some man is killed for drawing offensive cartoons in a Danish newspaper? Yet, the community’s leaders act as though this is a major issue and a minister in the Mulayam Singh government even announced a bounty on the head of the cartoonist. (Mulayam did not sack him — which tells you all you need to know about a certain brand of secularism.)

Time and time again, the Muslim leadership focuses on issues that caricature Muslims as primitive, bloodthirsty fanatics, intolerant of dissent and obsessed with global pan-Islamic issues. In doing so, they play into the hands of Hindutva extremists.

The good news is that over the last year or so, the moderates within the Muslim community have reasserted themselves and the extremists have adopted a lower profile. Politicians have also learnt that shameless cultivation of extremist Islamic agendas does not necessarily yield any electoral benefit. For all his pandering to bounty-hunters and the lunatic fringe of the Muslim community, Mulayam Singh Yadav was booted out of office when large numbers of Muslims switched their votes. Similarly, even the Congress, which came to office determined to win back the Muslims, has realised that there is no gain in encouraging the extremists — though mistakes were undoubtedly committed in the first two years of this government.

You can sense the improvement in the communal mood when you see the way in which mainstream India responds to Hindu-Muslim issues. We still don’t know whether Rizwanur Rahman was murdered at the behest of his Hindu wife’s family or whether the harassment he suffered from policemen and thugs paid off by his in-laws drove him to suicide. But for me, the most significant aspect of the episode was the manner in which Hindus and Muslims alike rose up together in protest. Most gratifying was the fact that so many of the protestors were young and completely unsympathetic to the traditional view that Hindu girls should not marry Muslim boys against the wishes of their parents. Calcutta is not the world’s most secular city — no matter what the Left may claim — so, the mass protests served as an effective reminder of the transformation of the public mood.

Am I being too optimistic? Possibly. History tells us that the moment things begin to go well, some lunatic does something stupid and vitiates the atmosphere. But as of now, it is hard to deny that the Hindu backlash that seemed in danger of building up two years ago — as Muslim leaders made one crazy demand after another — seems to have largely dissolved. Even the BJP has distanced itself from the VHP and its crackpot agenda. And the Muslim leadership has behaved with a responsibility that is as encouraging as it is surprising.

Who knows? Perhaps India is finally coming of age.

First Published: Nov 20, 2007 23:03 IST