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Cricket players from India and Pakistan after the recent clash in the T20 World Cup in Dubai, October 2021.
Only a game? India and Pakistan’s cricket teams after the recent Pakistan victory in the T20 World Cup. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

India v Pakistan: arrest of Muslim fans show how cricket is more than just a sport in these two nations

With the exception of cricket, India – a country of nearly 1.5 billion people – is spectacularly below average when it comes to international competitive sports. The world’s second most populous nation has the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per head of population. So its saving grace – so far as proving its sporting prowess is concerned – has been cricket, in which it is a dominant force.

Once regarded as a British colonial import, cricket is the only sport that unites most Indians, who are deeply divided by caste, region, religion and skin colour. So, whenever there is an apparent lack of patriotic fervour when it comes to supporting India – especially when the country is playing arch-rival Pakistan – there is going to be a backlash.

After the Indian cricket team’s recent loss to the Pakistani team in the T20 cricket world cup, a section of the Indian populace descended into a paroxysm of hate, pillorying Mohammed Shami, the only Muslim cricket player in the Indian team, on social media. This drew a blistering response from the team’s captain, Virat Kohli who declared that: “Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do.”

But in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Rajasthan at least 14 people (mainly young Muslims) were arrested and charged after the match for celebrating Pakistan’s win, some of them under sedition laws which carry a life sentence. There’s a long history of bitter cricket rivalry between Pakistan and India, but this knee-jerk reaction against these so-called “acts of sedition” is a new low.

War by other means

Authorities in the three different states called on various sections of India’s Penal Code to detain and charge people celebrating Pakistan’s win. In Uttar Pradesh, where seven have been detained, one person was charged with sedition. Others were charged with various offences, including Section 153A, for promoting enmity between different groups, Section 504, intentional insult aiming to breach the peace. Police have also invoked Section 66F of the Information Technology Act, which covers “cyber terrorism” and also carries a life sentence.

In Rajasthan a female private school teacher who posted “we won!”, accompanied with a photograph of the Pakistan cricket team, was arrested for “assertions prejudicial to national integration” under Section 153B of the penal code. She was also sacked from her job.

Women wearing COVID masks hold up placards in English condemning the arrest of media students for celebrating Pakistan's win in a ercent cricket match.
Women in Jammu and Kashmir protest the arrest of three Kashmir medical students for celebrating Pakistan’s recent win against India in the T20 WOorld Cup. EPA-EFE/Farooq Khan

In Jammu and Kashmir, six people – students and staff at two medical colleges – were detained for allegedly posting pro-Pakistan slogans after the match under an anti-terror law which prohibits supporting “cessation of a part of the territory of India”. This is particularly significant, because the contested Union Territory of Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between the two countries, so for one of the students to post a picture of the Pakistani flag on his Facebook page with the message: “I love you Pakistan, I miss you Pakistan, Jeet Mubarak (Congratulations on your victory) Pakistan”, was seen as deliberate provocation.

Subliminal message

For all the talk of cricket being “only a game” and that the “spirit of sportsmanship” must always prevail, sport is primarily war by other means. The two countries have fought four conventional wars since Pakistan was established following Partition in 1947.

Because of their mutual love for the sport, cricket provides an avenue for the two countries to play out their mutual enmity without resorting to force of arms. Cricket can never be “just a game” when India play Pakistan – it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports, a contest of national identity and an opportunity for one to heap humiliation on the other.

While sport provides a symbolic platform for competition between contending nations, it can push rival countries into rabid nationalism. Football rivalry led to war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, when rioting during the lead-up to the 1970 Mexico World Cup led to a 100-hour armed invasion of Honduras by the Salvdorean military.

An Indian man watches Pakistan beat India in the T20 Cricket World Cup on a television in an electronics store in Mumbai, October 2021.
Disappointment: an Indian fan watches Pakistan win its match against India in the T20 World Cup being played in Dubai. EPA-EFE/Idrees Mohammed

For many people in India, the thought of Muslim citizens actually crowing about a win by their bitterest rival on and off the sporting field is seen as unbearably disloyal. Meanwhile, for some Indian Muslims, Pakistan’s victory provides subliminal support for their resentment against what they see as Hindu majoritarian domination, particularly in recent years under the government of the Hindu nationalist BJP under Narendra Modi.

Read more: Why Hindu nationalists are cheering moves to build a temple, challenging a secular tradition

If the love of a sport can bring unity and fellowship, it can also provoke institutional and national bigotry. Let’s not forget that after the game, celebratory gunfire erupted in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad and Karachi and the country’s interior minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said the win was a “Victory of Islam”.

This is not the first time people have been arrested in India for supporting Pakistan. In 2014, 60 Kashmiri students were arrested for supporting Pakistan in the Asia Cup one-day tournament. The following year 15 men were arrested for supporting Pakistan in a Champions’ Trophy one-day game. But it’s also worth noting that very few of these sedition cases are ever successfully prosecuted.

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