The Nationalist Impact of Cricket in India

For India, three distinct passions help shape the national identity.  

Politics, the indigenous "Bollywood" film industry, and the sport of cricket all are a major part of the essence that is Indian culture. But while the former two passions often lead to divisions in Indian society and can have negative effects on the country, cricket has become the best example of an almost complete Indian unifier. As even outsiders like America's Nike corporation have come to learn -- all of India does indeed “bleed blue” when it comes to cricket.

The same can't be said of India's other passions.

In independent India’s history, politics has managed to breed fractured nationalism. The Indian identity is broken up and based on caste, class, religion, region, or language. Indian politics, then, has been driven by these divisions, often incorporating missions which focus on only one of the Indian identity areas at the expense of the others. For example, Chief Minister Mayawati, a female Indian polotician in power in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, seeks to champion the lower castes which have not always had a political voice, propelling their views above the others in India in her state. Similarly, Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the state of Gujarat was a leader during one of India's most trying religious rifts, the communal riots of 2002 in which Hindus and Muslims violently clashed.

The Indian film industry, too, is divisive, as it is organized along linguistic lines. Hindi cinema, Bengali cinema, Telugu cinema, Tamil cinema, etc., all make up what is known in the West as Indian cinema. While certain films do manage to appeal to a pan-Indian audience, film as a medium is unable to create a unified national sentiment as its focus remains on the differing cultural nationalism of a particular aspect of Indian identity.

Cricket, then, is perhaps the biggest unifier, albeit the struggles it still may have in incorporating the entire country. While sport involves an armchair variant of patriotism, where the love for your country is measured in terms of runs scored, and where spectators could be completely apolitical and ignorant of the country’s larger problems, it does provide a measure of unification unseen in other arenas. It should be said that the unification element is short-lived and dissipates after matches until the next great victory presents itself. But cricket is the sole medium that unites the most Indians, regardless of caste, class, religion, region, or language.

On April 2, the streets of most parts of India were overrun by celebratory crowds as complete strangers embraced and exchanged words of praise. It didn’t matter if you were Muslim or Hindu, High Caste or Low Caste, from Bihar or Maharashtra: the ‘Indian identity’ superseded linguistic, regional, class, caste, or religious affiliations. India had won the Cricket World Cup, and for once, being Indian was a matter of collective pride.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the two other passions of India – politics and the film industry – have capitalized on this unique unifying ability of the sport. Numerous films have been made on cricket, with overtones of Indian nationalism being tied to the team’s anticipated win. Politics’ interaction with cricket is often dubbed as ‘cricket diplomacy.’ As India played Pakistan in the World Cup semi-final on March 30th, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani attended the match as a guest of the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, accompanied by statements promising the resumption of dialogue between the two neighbors.

Still, the internal problems of India are themselves reflected through the domain of cricket. Nationalism is meant to be voluntary, and while the political heavy-handedness of the Indian state was able to curb the legitimate expression of the Kashmiri people, their sense of alienation is evident from the lack of support for the Indian team.

If nationalism by definition is the collective voluntary expression of national identity, the fleeting nationalism of cricket achieves this to a far greater degree than the fractured nationalism of politics or the cultural nationalism of Indian cinema. The true flag of Inia is not saffron, white, and green, but rather blue.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons