We cannot question the truism that while politics divides, sport unites. Even more so in the season of the ICC World Cup, which India has won twice in the past.
There is a qualification to this: It unites, but only the partisan. We as Indians are united behind our team, as are others behind theirs. That’s what brings us to the controversy over Mahendra Singh Dhoni sporting on his big wicket-keeping gloves the ‘Balidaan’ (supreme sacrifice) dagger insignia of the Indian Army’s formidable special forces.
The International Cricket Council (ICC), which oversees the game, has objected to this. Under the rules of the ICC, as of any other significant international sports body, there are limitations on religious, national or commercial symbols or logos a player can display on his body or livery.
The logos, for example, are of sponsors, whose deals are approved by the ICC and the respective nation’s associations. The permitted national symbols can be worn. Anything customised is a no-no. Anything military is definitely out. It is a field of sport, not military combat.
The BCCI says it has appealed to the ICC to let him be. Popular opinion is behind Dhoni’s gloves. Think about it: Team India in the World Cup, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and our valiant special forces, who not so long ago carried out the post-Uri surgical strikes, immortalised somewhat more colourfully more recently by that Vicky Kaushal movie. Which Indian would argue on the other side of this irresistible triple-magnet of nationalism?
But someone must do so, and say the ICC is right. Dhoni should remove the insignia. A field of sport, competitive enough, should have no place for what symbolises killing or getting killed. That’s why some of us must dare to swim against the tide, particularly those of us who love the sport and also want India to win. If our sporting nationalism will be questioned, so be it. It might be comforting to borrow the old line from Jesus Christ: Father, forgive them, for they (those accusing us of being unpatriotic) do not know what they are doing.
Let us first list the arguments from the ‘nationalists’ and their trumpeters in the commando-comic channels already running nutty hash-tags like #DhoniKeepTheGloves. First, that we must respect the armed forces. Second, that India is being bled by the Pakistanis so a statement must be made wherever they’re present. And third, you cannot deny an individual his choice, especially because Dhoni is an honorary Lt Colonel with the special forces and has earned his ‘dagger and wings’ after making the parachute jumps to qualify. You can’t deny him his regimental insignia.
The third is answered easily: His regiment isn’t playing cricket for India. And when the regiment fights the bad guys for India, its troops do not wear the BCCI’s crest, or that of Hockey India or the Indian Olympic Association, although all of them represent the pride and glory of India.
That we must respect the armed forces and their sacrifices, is accepted. But what follows, that this statement, as also the protest against what the Pakistanis are doing in Kashmir, should be made by our cricketers in Lord’s, Old Trafford or the Oval and so on, is nonsense. Protests are made by politicians and diplomats, wars are fought by soldiers. Sportsmen bring glory for their nations by playing to win, not by becoming brand ambassadors for their militaries while wearing their sporting uniform.
Because it is a game two can play. If an Indian turns out in his Army’s colours, so can — or will — the Pakistanis. A game of cricket which only one of them can win will take the hues of a military contest. The spirit will immediately travel to the crowds, which are guaranteed to be predominantly Indian and Pakistani. This will turn sport into enmity, reminiscent of the bitter contests between warring Iran and Iraq in a distant past.
“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” wrote George Orwell in his prescient 1945 essay The Sporting Spirit. He went on to say that the “significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: And, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies…” Our sportsmen and women have contested against Pakistan, lately with much greater success than in the past, while displaying an unforgiving, “take-no-prisoners” fighting spirit, but only in the game. During and after the game, the two teams have been friendly and sporting, even humouring each others’ families and children.
At this juncture, fortunately, there isn’t a war actually on — Balakot was a tiny skirmish that cost no lives and happened almost three months ago. In 1971, while a full-fledged war was being fought, Sunil Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas played together as members of the ‘Rest of the World’ team touring Australia. This, when the IAF was routinely carrying out bombing runs over Karachi.
Again, in 1999, the two teams played in the World Cup in England on the day (night in India) of the fiercest fighting in Kargil. Hands were shaken, anybody who tripped and fell was helped along, as with tying the shoe-laces of rival batsmen. You didn’t want either side bringing in Tiger Hill there.
Military symbols, uniforms with their lanyards and epaulettes, medals, strings and finery, bands, marches and style are all heady. They also come loaded with baggage where success or failure could look like victory or defeat in a war. In any game of sport — including the India-Pakistan league match on 16 June in Manchester — one side will win, but the other will lose. Will it be then like your army lost that battle? And what if both sides brought their ‘armies’ on their sleeves into Old Trafford? The British will run short of police to be able to manage the crowds then.
At which point, we return to Orwell. “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield,” he wrote and used the example of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was both right and wrong.
Human civilisation has moved way forward since the World Wars and the Cold War. Frequent sporting contact has become an antidote for toxic old enmities. It allows players, their fans, their families and friends to learn more about each other, build people-to-people linkages, sometimes even help vent their frustrations with each other through sport.
I do appreciate that today this view is neither wildly popular nor so politically correct. But, from Olympics to ping-pong, from basketball to cricket, from football to hockey, brutally competitive sport has helped smoothen the edges of militarised hostilities, helped heal scars on our minds.
We certainly appreciate an individual’s special devotion to the Army, particularly as he also exhibits that by serving with it honorarily. Dhoni, for example, went to accept his Padma award in his full special forces’ regalia, including the maroon beret. It was a perfectly good gesture. The Rashtrapati is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Dhoni doesn’t have to take his regiment to the pitch. He will never be short of killer instinct behind the stumps. He could still feel the inspiration of that ‘dagger’ in his palms each time he catches a batsman out of his crease. Insignias or not, Dhoni’s will remain the deadliest pair of gloves behind the stumps.