Cricket, Religion, and Nationalism: Once bitten, twice smitten

Nagpur has seen hectic WT20 action. Express reporters on way to stadium, took a detour, to chat with swayamsevaks to see how their relationship with cricket has evolved over the years.

Written by Sriram Veera | Nagpur | Updated: March 20, 2016 12:04 pm
cricket, cricket news, cricket world cup, world t20, t20 world cup, world cup news, nagpur, cricket India fans waving the tri-colour. (Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul)

In Nagpur, where New Zealand trounced India on a turner, elderly members of a Hindu-nationalist organisation have an amiable relation with the game and don’t oppose it any more. In the 50’s, one of RSS’s early founders MS Golwalkar had urged the political leaders of independent India to disown cricket and promote indigenous games like Kabbadi. The subsequent decades, though, have swept in an attitudinal change, and the swayamsevaks have a more amicable outlook on the game.  (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)

Couple of years after Jawaharlal Nehru played a game of cricket with other ministers of parliament in the newly Independent India, MS Golwalkar addressed a gathering in Nagpur. “The costly game of cricket, which has not only become a fashion in our country, but something over which we are spending crores of rupees, only proves that the English are still dominating our mind and intellect. The cricket match that Pandit Nehru and other MPs played some years back was the very depth of this Anglicism. Why could they not play kabbadi, our national game which has been acclaimed by several countries as a great game?”

Golwakar, known simply as Guru ji, was the second RSS swayamsevak, and the most famous name of the organisation that promotes Hindu nationalism. Several of his speeches were made at the vast 12-acre RSS complex in Resham Bagh in the heart of the city.

Around 20 kilometres from the RSS headquarters, whose leaders once denounced cricket, India are about to start their T20 world cup campaign. An attitudinal change with respect to this game has spread across the country since that speech from Golwakar. Even the communists of the day, like Ram Manohar Lohia, were against cricket. These days, as the sociologist Ashis Nandy once wrote, cricket is seen as an “Indian game accidentally invented by the English”.

Shiny tar road snakes through the residential neighbourhood of Resham Bagh infested with coaching classes — a ubiquitous presence in most towns in India, especially in its Northern and Western regions- before it curls into a small lane that leads up to a gated complex. At the corner, an old man with ramrod back in Khaki shorts walks past us, holding a cane.

It brought a smile and recognition that the RSS building must be somewhere close. It turned out it wasn’t just a building but a vast campus.

The RSS headquarters at Nagpur has is a unique Ganesh idol.

“Char hindu ek saath, ek disha mey mooh rakh key jaate hain, toh paanchva unke kandhe pey hoga,” says the mild-mannered and genuinely friendly swayamsevak Suresh, who takes us on an informational tour of the campus. (If four Hindus are walking in unison, facing the same direction, then the fifth would be on their shoulders). It’s a line that makes you chuckle, and he smiles, “Samjhe na?” The implication was that Hindus aren’t a united lot, and only death – a funeral- sometimes unites them. “That’s why RSS exists. To unify this lot who are divided by gods, caste, dharam, and what not.”

So what about cricket? In a small house, that lies across the road, a stone’s throw from the temple inside the RSS complex, a television screen is showing highlights of a game from the T20 tournament. “No, no we are not against cricket. Guru ji’s speech should be seen in the context of the times he spoke. Any sport is good in building morals and values, what he said was that why are the Indian games like Kabaddi being ignored? See now, we have Kabaddi leagues in the country, watched by so many people. Guru ji would have been very happy with this development.”

He gives us a tour of the sprawling campus that houses three blocks, bhavans, named after four famous swayamsevaks — Madhav, Pandurang, Yadav, and Madhukar that can host up to 1500 people. This is a training institute, he informs, where people from around the country come for the third, and final, programme of initiation for the sevaks. The complex also has a structure resembling a chariot that houses the samadhi of Dr Hedgewar, the founder of RSS, and a smrti chinha, flames representing a sacrificial fire of yagna, lies outside the chariot-structure in memory of Golwalkar. It’s a lovely structure, apparently designed by Golwalkar himself, who incidentally didn’t want any memorial for himself. Soil from various states in the country was collected and water from all the rivers were used —as a symbolic gesture of unity.

The talk shifts to the recent developments at JNU and the general mood in the country. “Aaj aapne pada paper mey? That man from Hyderabad, what’s his name, Asaduddin Owaisi, has said that he won’t say, ‘Bharat mata ki Jai’ even if a sword is kept on his throat”.

The three-time parliamentarian from Hyderabad had reportedly said in a rally in Maharashtra: “Mohan Bhagwat I will not chant that slogan. What will you do? I won’t say it even if you put a knife to my throat …nowhere in the Constitution does it say that one should say Bharat Mata ki Jai.”

Our guide, the swayamsevak, takes a pause at this juncture and says, “Every morning, across the country, between 6.30 am to 7.30 when people gather in our shakhas, they chant ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. Others probably do on August 15 or whatever, but we chant it every day.” He repeats the number in case its numeric strength hadn’t impressed us.
The tour ends at the karyalaya, the main office, where two elderly men pop their heads away from the newspapers and beam a genial smile. “What else have you seen in Nagpur? Please go to “Diksha bhoomi’ where Ambedkar led a mass gathering to convert to Buddhism.” For an organisation that exists to promote the cause of Hinduism, it seemed a surprising place to recommend a visit.

In 1956, on the morning after he led the conversion of 365,000 Dalits in Nagpur, Ambedkar had clarified in his Marathi speech that he had not chosen Nagpur because of RSS.

“Some people say that because the great battalion of the R.S.S. was here in Nagpur, we took the meeting to this city in order to lay them flat. This is completely untrue … Those who read Buddhist history will come to know that in India, if anyone spread Buddhism, it was the Nag people … Nagpur was chosen because of this,” says a 1964 translation done by Rekha Damle and Eleanor Zelliot.

Inside the complex, near the entrance, not far from the karyalaya, lies a strange-looking idol. Almost robotic in appearance, it has the look and feel of your regular Ganesha but with a distinctly different attitude and body parts. A cartridge belt runs across the body from the left shoulder to the waist, the arms look like weapons, a launcher seems to form the crossed left leg, and the face a jumble of weapon rods. For its part, RSS sees their work as an aggressive revival of Hindu nationalism in people, splintered by numerous variables of personal faith. Some critics might say that this is the god that best suits militant brand of Hinduism.

One thing, though, is clear. Even some swayamsevaks love the game of cricket.

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