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The relationship between sport and nationalism is perhaps as old as the guttural territorial instinct in animals, including human beings. Sport allows for an expression of identity, cloaked in the fine silk of pride and excellence. Even as the political discourse hijacks much of the conversation, the mood in the country is tempered by the recent terrorist attack in Pulwama. While politicians’ squabble over semantics and intent, trying to draw mileage over a gruesome incident, the BCCI has taken the high ground. And it is showing no signs of yielding the pedestal, just yet. The mixed reactions that filtered through when the Indian team wore camouflage caps in the last ODI against Australia underlined the sharp division of opinion among those that take a strong view about the undeniable relationship between sport, territory and identity. But with the BCCI putting money where their mouth is, the arguments of the critics are set to be muffled even at their loudest. The cancellation of the IPL opening ceremony, in tune with the sober spirit prevailing at this time in India, helped the BCCI make a INR 20 crore donation to the Indian armed forces. It is an entirely desirable development that should give voice to a more informed debate about the need for a healthy spirit of patriotism in the service of universal benevolence. And if sport can catalyse that conversation, through the kaleidoscopic lens of cricket in India, the IPL and BCCI might be striking just the right note at the onset of another scorching summer. In his 1789 discourse, Richard Price spoke eloquently about the idea of patriotism. He contended in “A discourse on the love of our country” that patriotic feeling, though ‘a noble passion’, must be purified and ruled by reason. In many ways, this idea allows for a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism. According to this well dissected discourse, nationalism as a purely physical expression of affinity toward one’s own country could cloud judgment and induce enraged behavior. Hooliganism in football or war mongering among the masses are good divisive examples of such an expression. On the contrary, patriotism would express itself in the form of sober expressions of identity aimed at galvanising a positive energy and then channeling it to benefit a nation and its people.
Sport unites and sport divides. The United Kingdom is able to send one unified contingent to the Olympics even while it also nurtures fierce rivalry among its four football and rugby teams, who would not stop short of straining every available sinew to defeat each other. Here in India, the IPL is an opportunity to hold a mirror to our own instincts and question the sentiment that drives behavior. Seated inside the M A Chidambaram stadium in Chennai, a sea of yellow and a symphony of passion greet you with resounding regularity. The bright hues that fill this iconic venue are a colorful reminder of the simmering energy that pervades our country and what we might achieve with it in the decades to come. Defending champions Chennai Super Kings faced off against Royal Challengers Bangalore in the opening fixture of VIVO IPL. Even as the arrival of M S Dhoni and Virat Kohli drown the stadium in a chorus of feverish echoes, the big question that needs quiet reflection and answers is how we wish to represent modern India to ourselves and to the world. Just as sportspersons represent the country on the field of play, we as citizens represent the country long after the lights have been turned off. Over the past few weeks of non-stop jostling, aroused by the inhuman acts of terrorism in Kashmir, we the people have been clawing our heads in and out, much like an insecure turtle. There has been a steady mixture of jingoism and rampant nationalism, punctuated by random acts of patriotism. Our people have stepped in like never before to make generous contributions to support the endeavors of our heroes and some of their beleaguered families. Despite many of those positive tides of loving expression, much needs to be done to institutionalise the spirit of patriotism in our day to day behavior. While Price may have spoken his timeless words in the context of the French Revolution, their echoes have great validity to an India that awaits a grand revolution of its own. The BCCI’s gesture today should ignite a keen desire among sports loving Indians a bias for action. A desire to contribute to the national discourse through responsible behaviour and informed choices is the least we could offer ourselves, our families and communities. That is perhaps the only way to build a nation that soars on the strength of patriotism rather than ebbing and flowing on bursts of ill-informed nationalism. Let us hope that sport can help awaken such spirit all across the country as the IPL circus travels from one city to the next.
It is in this context that the generous gesture from the BCCI needs to be recognised as a catalytic fuel that has the potential energy to stir a chain of reactions that can help our cricket mad country find its voice of patriotism.