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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 8, New Delhi, February 6, 2021

You don’t Know Anything About That Other ‘Religion’, Mr Minister! | Sri Ram Pandeya

Saturday 6 February 2021, by Sri Ram Pandeya

A union minister tweeted the following a few days back: “Playing 109 balls to score 7! That is atrocious, to say the least. Hanuma Bihari has not only killed any Chance for India to achieve a historic win but has also murdered Cricket.. not keeping win an option, even if remotely, is criminal. PS: I know that I know nothing abt cricket”.

The union minister doesn’t know much about cricket, as he confessed, so he was commenting as a minister or a general observer of how sports are matters for life skills. The above two positions are not unrelated, more so in the recent past with the ‘social campaigns of the government’ like “Fit India”. I argue here that this statement of not knowing about cricket (and yet enthusiastic enough to be making a critical observation) symbolizes the civil society of the country drifting away from knowledge to opinion, from wisdom to vulgarity (see Strauss 1941), and indeed from pursuits of dignity to egoism. Perhaps, like this test match (which was tweeted about), those at the helm are not noting the point that history is making.

This piece recounts the following four events to connect the hegemony of two rhetorical religions in the Indian society: Hindutva and cricket. The first event that I take here is how Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had invented the phenomenon called Hindutva out of the congregation of various caste communities in the beginning of the twentieth century. The second is what I call here as the deconstruction of cricket in 2008 in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the sake of the market. Thirdly, Narendra Modi was voted in for a second term with a thumping majority in 2019 with the promise of providing efficient governance by taking quick decisions, among others. The fourth is the above-mentioned tweet by the minister.

Let me now try to connect the above events. The points to be noted are the following. Hindutva was discovered but T20 (the format in which IPL is played) cricket was a deconstructed version of textual or classic test cricket. There was an agent of change, connoting a private or even communal motive for the invention of Hindutva. On the other hand, cricket was deconstructed under the push and pulls of the market. Therefore, while the growth of Hindutva was backed by the visible and thus the vulgar strings of social seclusions, cricket was deconstructed by invisible yet domineering hands of the market.

As it has been discussed before, since Hindutva had agents and visibilities, ample references would be available. One may refer to Savarkar’s original work (see Savarkar 1923 (2003)) due to dangers of misinterpretations of historical reference points, as they might not be present in the mainstream. So, I move to explain the point of ecstasy about cricket as religion, and then shall seek to draw a linkage with how the pursuit to draw a test match by the Indian cricket team was seen as counter religion by a union minister.

The above happened when adherence to the skills of text-book cricket was symbolized as a pursuit of dignity in the social media and amongst the middle classes. It is to be noted that in the recent times the above classes have been consolidated as the new social base of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was once considered to be largely representing the interests of the urbane and the well offs and their pursuits of nationalism of a non-plebian kind. I argue here that the minister represented the political class’ anxiety about how a form of hegemony like cricket could challenge the formations of Hindutva that has happened after a prolonged and mannered polarization of the Indian society.

I take the cue to what a religion is supposed to mean and do from Savarkar himself and on these lines consider Hindutva and cricket both as religions (see Savarkar 2003 (1923)). However, as mentioned before, I talk about cricket here. Cricket has a text of reference of the form that is considered as the classic. Like religion as an identity was planted, cricket has had a colonial form of dissemination. While for the colonizers, it was just another part of their lives; in South Asia with caste system as the primary way of existence, cricket emerged as an alternative “way of life”, much like Hindutva (Savarkar 2003 (1923)).

With the patronage of the aristocracy, the game of five days could easily align with people under feudal form of existence. The religion saw the coronation of its ‘God’ when Bharat Ratna was given to Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar in 2014, though that is not his primary identity. Sachin’s identity is that he plays cricket, like no one else, an Indian who is the ‘best in the world’. For all of us cricket lovers, he represents a sense of patriotism because of his ability to smash the best of the bowlers of the world around the park. Much like many of us, he might have been an inspiration to Hahuma Vihari as well, who is a test match specialist, unlike Sachin who can easily be considered as one of the top five batsmen to have played the shorter format of the game ever, as well as he can be seen as the best and had the capability to get into any dream test team of his time.

In popular circles, arguably the religion of cricket had emerged with India winning the world cup in 1983 and went a full circle in another victory in 2011 (similar circle can be noted to have been completed for Hindutva in 2019 elections). Notably, the game’s world cup is played in a non-classical form and it was Sachin’s dream coming true as well (as he talked about it many times) to win it. Of course, winning a test series in Australia was a dream as well but nothing like winning the ODI world cup.

Notably, the deconstructed version of cricket is the form that has been rhetorically called as religion by the fans and in the media, the one where aggression and idolization have come out to be more valuable than perseverance and teamwork. The team that was symbolic of the religion revolved around and was dependent upon most of all one player Tendulkar for its victories in the shorter format in the 1990s (incidentally the decade of electoral boost for Hindutva as well). Further, beating Pakistan in a world cup match has been seen as a strong nationalist symbol over the years. While in a T20 game players can even single-handedly win you matches, an all-round teamwork is the only way to win the classical form.

Then on a sunny January day in India, Hanuma Vihari’s innings of 7 runs of the first 109 balls in a test match in Sydney came under scanner by a minister of the government of the nation that Vihari was representing, so this author took that a little seriously. Of course, Vihari was at the top of his game at wit as well in replying to the minister’s tweet . Where had Vihari gone wrong in the way he played that was seen to be?

The Indian Cricket team on the 11th of January 2021 went ‘wrong’ in the following ways. They lived an examined life of test cricket and not a rhetorical religious way of life of domination, numerical aggregation or individual idolization. They did not follow the ways of a T20, where the predominant method of playing is to score more efficiently, seeing the game in terms of numbers. The calculations of limited over games were replaced by a scientific fervour of a sport. Eventually, the dichotomy of winning and losing was to be broken to get into a struggle for the dignity of the team and indeed that of the country and its sporting progress.

I contend that the ultra-nationalist proposition of supremacy of ‘own way of playing’ (represented by the IPL) was “murdered” by Vihari, as the minister termed it and further called it “criminal” as well. Indeed, it is that the religion’s motive of domination and conversion was radically modified to take to its classical form, where the game’s result could be a draw as well with none of the teams winning. It was a clear departure from Swami Vivekananda’s favourite football, a game laden with goals and penalties.

Test cricket represents a skillset where one manoeuvres for days and works on strategies, which further involves a project of travelling into places and playing in the conditions of the other, that includes as well grounds curated by the home team to their own advantage in a fair manner in being open knowledge for the test of skills that teams hone over years. Rather than procedural, “complex equality” of the kind comes to the fore where people of different classes contribute to the victory of the team.

The umpires are of the kind of the classical liberal form wherein they come into picture only when the players disagree with each other. It is indeed that in the above manner, which is a revisit to its classical form, the hegemony of cricket of the religious kind is impacted to the extent of creating a counter-hegemony of equality and dignity against that of idolization, devotion and aggression of a religion. The particular match in question indeed ended when the Australian captain Tim Paine agreed to shake hands without the attractiveness of shootouts (as it happens in other field games).

The government with the decision-making power of a 56 inched chested leader was prone to attack the religion, which was revisited by the Ajinkya Rahane led team, in not going to trying to win but becoming “a way of life” in an alternative manner. The way the Indian team went around in the match was seen as a symbol of fighting not for winning but to save nation’s pride and raise the standards of the sport in the popular imaginary as well, right from social media to the chai shops in India.

The Viharis and the Ashwins are going to go a long way in rediscovering the spirit of this country which the political masters of the day are missing. The masculine and the presumably efficient (can always be measured in a given situation) ones very often miss the hard work and diligence (in changing circumstances) it takes for the societies to come off age. The changed pitch and players’ bodies of the fifth day of test cricket should not have to be seen with the same shades of efficiency of a three-hour game but that of perseverance and radical revisits to the textbook methods of the sport. The objectified ‘beauty’ of IPL, the fast-paced aggression, some score was settled of it when cricket emerged as a symbol of restoring dignity in the hands of ‘young men’ not looking to take quick decisions on that afternoon in Sydney.

I knew you would miss the point, Mr Minister!

References

  • Guha, Ramachandra. 2020. The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind. Noida: William Collins.
  • Palshikar, Sanjay. 2014. Evil and the Philosophy of Retribution. New Delhi: Routledge.
  • Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. 2003 (1923). Hindutva (Essentials of Hindutva). Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan.
  • Strauss, Leo. 1941. "Persecution and the Art of Writing." Social Research 8 (1/4): 488-504.
  • Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.

(The author teaches Indian political thought in the Department of Political Science at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.)

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