‘Karachi captured’: subcontinental cricketing wars

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 15/03/2004
The cricketers are now the avatars of a nation’s sublimated violence that will be enacted on the playing fields of Pakistan.

Subarno Chattarji 

The current historic tour of Pakistan by the Indian cricket team has received blanket press coverage which preceded the actual journey by the team across the border and the commencement of games. The Times of India (among others) assiduously reported the visit of the three member Indian delegation in Pakistan to check out security measures. The delegation’s satisfaction with arrangements in Pakistan was combined with last minute anxieties about whether the tour would go ahead, and the final clearance came from the PMO.  

That the tour has obvious political implications was indicated in the way the scheduling of one-day internationals was changed so that they did not clash with the elections. Chandrababu Naidu, staunch NDA ally, was the first to raise the bogey that if the ODIs were to coincide with national elections and if India lost it would make a dent in the NDAs electoral fortunes, take the sheen off India Shining. Post Karachi it is significant that both the BJP and the Congress sought to make political capital out of India’s victory, the latter claiming in one mass SMS sent in its name, that India had won because of the presence of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi.  

That the men in blue have been co-opted into the India Shining campaign was evident during their tour of Australia but with elections at hand their fortunes seem even more closely related to that of India and its political classes. This is not the first time cricket diplomacy has been brought into play (recall General Zia-ul Haq’s surprise visit to watch Pakistan in India) but this tour highlights in unique ways the fraught relationship between goodwill and peace on the one hand and infiltration, nuclear issues, and terrorism on the other. 

Preceding and coinciding with the tour have been the revelations and pardon of Abdul Qadir Khan, the continued killing of militants and civilians in Kashmir, the renewed hunt for Osama bin Laden, General Musharraf’s reiteration of the centrality of Kashmir to all negotiations (and his simultaneous invitation to tea for the Indian team), and the visit of Colin Powell to the subcontinent. In an obvious sense the Indian cricketers are innocent of these events and yet in crucial ways they swirl around the spectacle of the game, imbuing it with meanings that encompass a wider field of reference. From Moscow television to BBC World the first ODI and India’s tour is hailed as a breakthrough in bilateral ties because the game is a symbolic representation of collective desires, anxieties, and fears. As Mike Marqusee puts it in his study of Muhammad Ali, ‘Precisely because they are universal and transparent, innocent of significance or consequence, sports became charged with meanings; because they meant nothing in themselves, they could come to mean anything.’[1] 

 The interface between the game and its political contexts is indicated by Nina Martyris’s piece ‘Mumbai’s sister city in holiday mode’ (Times, 13.03.2004): ‘On the way to the stadium from the airport you pass the Pakistan air force block which has a permanent slogan on its wall which reads: "Prepare any strength you can to muster against them." The them is not named, but it is a pronoun heavy with menace, in stark contrast to the current joyous sentiment of the street.’ The permanence of the unnamed but reasonably identifiable ‘them’ contrasts with ‘the current’ bonhomie implying that the latter is or may be only a passing phase. There is a sense in the Indian media coverage that the welcome extended by the Pakistani hosts is an elaborate gesture whose substance cannot be quantified or judged for certain (and General Musharraf’s concurrent statement on Kashmir contributes little to that certainty).  

What seems undeniable so early on in the tour, however, are the efforts to maintain security and order on and off the field. The Karachi ODI exemplified professional management combined with graciousness and courtesy. All the fears about the volatility of Karachi were belied during the match and Sourav Ganguly along with the media has expressed its admiration for the quality of goodwill and sportsmanship on display. While concerns about security and crowd behaviour were justified in the context of the bomb blasts outside the hotel of the touring New Zealanders, there is an irony in Indian concerns and a lack of self-reflection in media reports. The references to the Shiv Sena threats against the last Pakistan team that toured India and their digging up of a cricket pitch to make the point are almost absent. If at all they figure it is through Pakistani voices reminding Indians of an unsavoury past. The riotous crowd behaviour at Eden Gardens during the 1996 India-Sri Lanka World Cup match is never mentioned. These silences create an impression that only venues in Pakistan are volatile conveniently ignoring the passionate insanity that cricket creates in the entire subcontinent. 

Martyris writes about the conflict-security cusp within which the tour operates: ‘So far there has been no "war of words", except for sections of the press using unfortunate terminology like "Pakistan A butchers India" to describe the friendly Lahore match. But when the Indian team rolls into town from the airport, their arrival is reminiscent of the allies rolling into Berlin, with guards in the cavalcade pointing their guns watchfully at the passing streets which have been emptied of humans.’ The conflating of war with sport is a common phenomenon. During the European Cup semi-finals between England and Germany in 1996 one English tabloid had the headlines: ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’. As Marqusee points out, ‘Sport became both preparation and substitute for war, a theatre of competition not merely between individuals and teams, but between nations and peoples.’[2]  

While Martyris cites a Pakistani report, her paper had the banner headline ‘KARACHI CAPTURED’ (the latter in red) the day after India won in Karachi. That this headline featured in the Times of India despite the goodwill hype indicates the unease that influential sections in India (reflected in Pakistan as well) have over toning down their nationalistic rhetoric. (Praveen Togadia’s outburst against Prime Minister Vajpayee is a clear articulation of that discomfort). ‘CAPTURED’ is a curious word in the context of a cricket match and ties up with Martyris’s unfortunate analogy of the Indian team’s entry into Karachi with the allies entering Berlin. Does she imply that the Indian team is a conquering force akin to the Allies? The historical context is apparent in the Allied victory over Nazism and that could be extended to political and media rhetoric about Pakistan as a failed or rogue state so common during the Kargil conflict. Or could it relate at least subliminally to hawkish political and defence establishment desires in India for a take over of ‘Mumbai’s sister city’? Whatever the implications the theatre of war metaphor is pervasive and disturbing. 

The uneasy negotiation with peace is apparent in the new Pepsi advertisement featuring Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Yuvraj, Kaif, and Zaheer Khan. When Ganguly asks his team mates what they have for him they reply that have aloo parathas, goodwill, and peace for their hosts. The feel good factor evaporates when Ganguly says that they’ll have to share their Pepsis and Yuvraj expresses outrage. Ganguly is satisfied at the dissension and derides their gifts as ‘dramebazi’ before they head off to stirring music through a tunnel (more common in football than in cricket) into the stadium. The message is clear: goodwill is all very fine but, as Kapil Dev put it, winning is of the essence. The cricketers are now the avatars of a nation’s sublimated violence that will be enacted on the playing fields of Pakistan 

The history of cricket - the ghost of Miandad’s last ball six in Sharjah being laid to rest by Nehra in Karachi - is inevitably intertwined with the history of conflict and bitterness between the two nations. One can only hope that the goodwill and superb cricket performed in Karachi will continue and that some of the atavistic rhetoric and desire will quieten.


Subarno Chattarji teaches English at Delhi university. Contact: subarno@mantraonline.com  



[1] Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2000), 13.

[2] Ibid., 46.



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