Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peace Between Wickets: A Political Game

The Indo-Pak political stasis is precisely this with subsequent governments trying to make and break records. Peace is outsourced to other areas – like cricket and the entertainment industries
by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, March 29

They are sewing the Indian and Pakistani flags even as troops of army personnel are getting ready to protect the players and the spectators. As if the sheer disparateness of these two aspects of the cricket World Cup semi-finals was not farcical enough, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Pakistan’s PM Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari for the March 30 match, a day after secretary-level talks between the two countries. While the Indian premier mentioned the great match that will be a “victory for sport”, the underlying business is another game.

Welcome at the border
There is a naïve belief that cricket can act as peace-maker; 6500 visas have been issued to Pakistanis to watch the match. Such moves have been made earlier by both countries. This is a subterfuge to deal with political atrophy. It is interesting that three South Asians are in the running for the cup but there is no such attempt to woo Sri Lanka, and India has a huge stake there with large numbers of its Tamil population being in refugee camps and tortured.

The Pakistan issue is important due to emotional reasons. The separated-at-birth theory would work only if we use Independence from the British as the time-frame. If that is the case, then cricket is paying obeisance to our colonial heritage. The political dimensions ought not to be lost. Indians did play a rudimentary form of sticks and stones in gulli-danda; the Raj introduced cricket, the sophisticated version with bat and ball. As a nation with the largest areas under its control and the industrial revolution giving it the aura of a true renaissance, Britain luxuriated in clubs and a game that was more epicurean than pugnacious. There wasn’t any goal to be scored; there was the stratum of runs, a set number of innings and strategic field placements. The men were dressed as gentlemen in all white.

When they brought the game to India, unlike the chess-playing nawabs who were too consumed by their passion to bother about the extending British rule, they tried to act as the traders they came in as. Cricket became political machination and the hierarchy inherent in the game helped bring in the maharajahs and the minions. The imperialists, convinced they were the superior race, made it their business to tame the tribal societies with animalistic passions and over-the-top emotions. The score card revealed less what was happening on the field than off it – a price was being extracted for such ‘friendly’ gestures.

Scene from 'Lagaan'

In the film Lagaan, the poor take up the challenge to play a game they do not know only to avoid paying the unfair taxes. They learn by watching from behind the fence, a bunch of illiterate and in different ways incapacitated men. However, and this is the huge flaw, it is the Englishwoman who helps them, a sort of Mountbatten idea that divided the villagers. Her attraction towards the rustic protagonist is a political manoeuvre. Grains as tax to be replaced by affection as tax.

Using the peace principle serves a similar context. The masters, in this case the establishment, cannot deal with diplomatic issues. The gathering of defence forces at the borders when seen from the cricketing vision would be defensive play, where the batsman goes slow in scoring to stay at the crease long. It serves to tire the opposition and also to chalk up a personal score. The Indo-Pak political stasis is precisely this with subsequent governments trying to make and break records. Peace is outsourced to other areas – like cricket and the entertainment industries. That both are commercial enterprises also adds to the trade as diplomacy element.

Mukesh Ambani and daughter at an IPL match

The semi-final match at Mohali will showcase the power of India’s corporate sector. Eight heads of business houses have sought to park their private jets at the airstrip and it is the defence ministry that is helping them. High profile politicians will be around. In keeping with India’s secular polity, there will be applause for the Pakistanis. Trivia will not fail to mention how the faithful among the opposite team offered prayers and the Indians stood by respectfully.

Sport as religion is the most political aspect of the game. It expects blind belief and the painted faces become maps of nationalistic religiosity. God is in the geography. Like religion, the State’s appeal lies in it being imposed benignly in the games sector. However, like all faiths, its identity gets more leverage with expansion. The seers propagate spiritual salvation by appearing before you on high-definition screens. Icons replace deities and rituals are easy to mimic, whether in joy or sorrow or penitence. The Confession box of the studios serves to purge guilt and clarify innocence.

Ball tampering, dope tests, kickback deals are the ugly faces of sport, but that has been made possible due to institutionalisation. Sports lend themselves to politicisation precisely because they are organised. Even the evolution in cricket has been possible because of this. Team India has the name of a business group, just as labels appear on other sports stars' costumes. The positive aspect is that games are not restricted to the arena or the gladiatorial ring and most certainly not about man against beast, as in a bull-fight. In cricket, the knee pads and helmets have made the game less bloody. It has taken survival instinct to another level that has to co-exist with the killer instinct. The latter’s role is essentially to display the country’s wares, much like nuclear weapons. And as with nuclear arms, this too is for global consumption.

In Mumbai, the supposedly most cosmopolitan place in India, a pugilistic regional party like the Shiv Sena had once dug up the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium and still holds the country captive to its threat that it will not permit Pakistan to play in the city. What does it reveal? Is it a limited viewpoint? Or is the central government letting a lesser source be in the line of fire and carry forward its own ideology and that has been reciprocated by Pakistan’s own rigid stance? Projecting a soft-focus image only hides the blemishes; it does not make them vanish.

Making a statement is an old concept. However, is it as idealistic as when teams boycott games, including the Olympics, to protest against policies of the host government or take up specific causes? Sport by its very nature is a means of getting people together. To superimpose peace over it denudes the very intent of sports and shows it up for the battle it has become.

Two-in-one flags, soppy songs and hospitality are like tinsel. They aren’t the real metal.

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