NEW DELHI — For most fans in cricket-obsessed India, an unexpected loss in Twenty20 World Cup competition on Sunday to archrival Pakistan meant heartbreak and despair. For a few Indians, cheering for the wrong team — Pakistan — brought serious consequences.
“Some anti-social elements used indecent words against the Indian team,” the office of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in a statement.
India vs. Pakistan cricket has always been about more than runs and wickets. Since the countries first faced off in 1952, each match has been fanned by nationalist passions and framed by the history of one of the world’s most dangerous and long-running geopolitical feuds. Pakistan is majority-Muslim, and India is majority-Hindu.
This is not the first time that Indian citizens have landed in trouble for supporting the other side: Fifteen men in central India faced sedition charges for shouting pro-Pakistan slogans during a cricket final in 2017.
But for many Indians, the harsh measures taken this week by authorities — spanning several states and involving, for the first time, an anti-terrorism legal provision — reinforced concerns about the drift of a country they long believed to be superior to Pakistan because of its liberal democratic values, its sense of national confidence, and, of course, its prowess in cricket.
“We used to laugh at the Pakistanis for taking losses badly, looking at everything in Hindu-Muslim terms and seeing everything as about national honor,” said Shekhar Gupta, a veteran Indian journalist and founder of the online publication ThePrint.
But now, police in different Indian states are engaging in displays of “competitive nationalism,” Gupta grumbled. “It’s a race to the bottom,” he said. “We’re held to ransom now by awful politics.”
After news of the detentions spread this week, a leading newspaper, the Indian Express, criticized government officials for scoring a “self-goal [against] democracy.” A former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, Kaushik Basu, warned that the arrests did “vastly greater damage” to India’s national standing than the cheering that was being discouraged.
Mohammad Shaban Ganie, the father of a 21-year-old student who was arrested in Uttar Pradesh, said even if his son did not go to jail, the criminal record would prove costly.
“This will ruin his career and life,” Ganie said. “Even if it’s a crime, these kids should be given a warning and pardoned. It’s just a game.”
When the British departed South Asia in 1947, they left behind two states — India and Pakistan, which were created amid great sectarian violence from what was once the nation of India alone — and an open question over the fate of contested Kashmir that remains unresolved after three wars between the two countries. The British also left behind a shared obsession with cricket, another arena in the enduring cross-border struggle.
In 1982, Imran Khan, the captain of the Pakistani cricket team who is now Pakistan’s prime minister, suggested that claims over Kashmir could be settled by cricket. In June 1999, the two countries’ teams met on a grassy oval in Britain while their armies fired at each other in a high-altitude conflict in the mountains of Kashmir.
Today, Kashmir is again a point of volatility in bilateral relations. In February 2019, a Pakistan-based terrorism outfit carried out a suicide attack in India-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian soldiers, prompting a retaliatory airstrike from India and accusations that the terrorists’ plot was abetted by the Pakistani state. In August that year, India revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status in the name of stabilizing the region, a move that overturned a decades-old status quo and incensed Pakistan.
Since then, flights and trade have been suspended between the two countries. Kashmiri militants sympathetic to Pakistan have continued to carry out attacks against Indian civilians and soldiers. As hype surrounding the Sunday match intensified, an Indian cabinet minister suggested that the game be canceled, given the border tensions.
Enmity along the heavily militarized border did not always translate into the world of cricket.
In 1999, after the two governments conducted nuclear tests, Indian spectators gave the Pakistani team a standing ovation after the visitors clinched a thriller in Chennai. When the Indian team embarked on a rare tour of Pakistan in 2004, families in Lahore offered beds to Indian fans who couldn’t book a hotel, and fans mobbed Indian players as celebrities, said Syed Talat Hussain, a Pakistani political commentator.
Nikesh Rughani, a cricket commentator for the BBC who produced a podcast series interviewing one retired Indian player and one Pakistani player in each episode, said the athletes often enjoyed a deep bond. Once, in the 1980s, the two teams chased each other through a Bangalore hotel, throwing colored powder to celebrate the Indian festival of Holi, the players recounted to Rughani.
“The politics and social media seem to cause all this divide, when really, most people on the ground and the players seem to get on like a house on fire,” Rughani said.
After India’s defeat this week, some of the old divisions resurfaced. Pakistan’s interior minister claimed a victory for Islam; Indian social media users hurled abuse at the Indian team’s only Muslim player, Mohammad Shami, prompting the Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar to come to his defense.
But in both countries, many fans seized on something else: a video of Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, putting a hand on the back of his Pakistani counterpart, Mohammad Rizwan, to offer his congratulations.
In an op-ed published on the Indian website scroll.in, Sana Mir, a former captain of the Pakistani women’s team, said the gesture was exactly what made the Indian team great.
“It shows a lot of security within,” she wrote. “It means they have a lot of confidence to bounce back.”
Shams Irfan in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.