A part trigger for George Orwell’s “War minus shooting” pique, happened to be football matches he watched in Burma and India. Faintly disgusted with spectator behaviour — supporters rattling oppositions with boos and insults and strong cordons of police posted to prevent anything untoward — he penned the essay, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, where he took apart notions of international sport as something that creates goodwill between countries. Orwell summarily dissed sport, calling it a “modern cult”, noting that while obsession with games in England was bad enough, the fierce passion aroused in young countries like Burma and India where games-playing and nationalism were recent developments, was even more disturbing.
Last week, Virender Sehwag, pop-patriotism’s grappler rapper Yogeshwar Dutt and the immensely inspirational Phogat sisters, were far from delving deep into those Orwellian anxieties about sport. They went straight for the real war and shooting. Their jousting target on Twitter and television was 21-year-old Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur, a daughter of a soldier who was killed when she was two, and someone who must have thought long and hard about the personal loss resulting from complex chains of events leading to war, before arriving at her pacifist conclusions. But four sportspersons thought it fit to mock her pleas for peace with memes, facetious comparisons and churlish outrage over how she was “anti-national”, though nothing in what she said hinted at anything remotely treacherous. But these are times when words like anti-national acquire monstrous proportions and get thrown around loosely. There might still be retractions when the full import of their insensitive takedowns hits the four.
They are all citizens in a democratic country entitled to their opinions about the army, military opponents or any other topic that catches their fancy. But do years spent playing sport, where you represent the nation while its identity becomes a chant on the lips of fans and supporters, allow you to see the clear distinction between war and sport? Sport often drills into its practitioners the constant message to fight fiercely for something bigger than yourself — mostly the nation. But does sport equip you to understand the urge to not fight? Sport deals in binaries — victory or defeat. But predisposed to always ascertaining who’s better at the end of a dust-up, persistently pushing the boundaries of legal competitiveness and forever divided along lines of us and them, sportsmen and their historical records are not too kind to nuance or a no-contest. Unless you are Muhammad Ali, and eloquently resist draft for the Vietnam War, asking, “Shoot them for what?”
The extra intensity when wanting to beat Pakistan at cricket and hockey and the martial metaphors mouthed around these contests will easily explain M.S. Dhoni’s battle fatigue gloves, Gautam Gambhir’s bubbling anger when there’s talk of India resuming playing with Pakistan and Virat Kohli’s thumbs-up to the surgical strikes. Gambhir might have called out the trolls here, but he has spoken the hawk’s tongue in the past using the Soldier’s Children card often. There’s little surprise when Shahid Afridi echoes Dhoni’s musings — at different points in time — about wanting to join the army, though IPL’s millions and thousands filled inside stadiums are nothing like the anonymity of a soldier. But accustomed to entering arenas under the fluttering flag, the itch to “fight for the country” morphs into jingoistic statements often. It was only a matter of time that Sehwag — who whistled and hummed while at the crease — would be drawn by the cry of the bugle. Wouldn’t hurt the TRP equivalent of his Twitter timeline for which he recently said he made around Rs 30 lakh, either. Still, his mocking was poor humour — though one is tempted now to replace his name with that of his bat manufacturer in the scorecards of the matches he hit triple centuries. Yogeshwar and one of the Phogat sisters sounded like career sloganeers.
Having grown up on raucous applause, indulgent adoration and commentators who never criticise, the crowd-pleasing Sehwag might just have broken the heart of one solitary fan who had chorused with a thousand others at the Mohali stadium lending support to her cricketing heroes. But no matter. He had saved the country.