The rise of the cricket team of the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) has undoubtedly been on the fairy-tale stories of the cricketing word in the recent years. The team, nicknamed the “Tigers” have made cricket arguably the most popular sport in Bangladesh, following patterns elsewhere in the subcontinent. The team has evolved from being a pariah to a weak side, whose test-playing status was questioned by others, to a maverick side that could put up a tough fight to occasional giant killers to its present status as an important force in the world of cricket. The relationship of cricket and political-ideological feelings has always been part of its pull and vitality in Bangladesh.
During the Pakistan period, cricket, like the armed forces, had an unofficial ‘not welcome’ sign for those from East Bengal. Cricket had the image of being a game elites played, especially fair-skinned sharif elites in the context of Pakistan. This attitude was brought out well from an account I had heard from a person who was visiting a veteran left-wing trade-unionist in Barisal, Bangladesh. The veteran fighter of the masses was irritated by the cricket enthusiasm of the young people of Barisal. He said, “Amago polapain khyalbe cricket? Cricket khyallbe Hanif Mohammed!” (translation – Our boys will play cricket? Cricket is for the Hanif Mohammeds!). Hanif Mohammed was a legendary cricketer from Gujarat and then West Pakistan, and this comment revealed his attitude about cricket and Bengalis being incompatible. Things have certainly changed since then, especially after its World Cup appearance in 1999 and attainment of test-playing status in 2000.
Notwithstanding that fact that popular cricket is the sighted male version of the game it has been, cricket has long become a proxy for nationalism, both insurgent and assertive. Written off as a ‘basket case’ after 1971, the rise of Bangladesh cricket has also been envisioned as a struggle of an underdog people, fighting against insurmountable odds, fired merely by their indomitable spirit. This echoes the popular narrative of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation struggle and nation-state formation itself. More than one politician from Bangladesh has associated wins against Pakistan in cricket as being revenge for 1971. Thus, cricket also comes with the hegemonic assumptions of a nation state. When the idea of the nation-state is a contested one, cricket also reflects these multiple contestations, by proxy.
The political divides within Bangladesh continue to get refracted through the lens of cricket. Before the rise of the BCB team as a major cricketing power, the cricketing audience’s allegiance was mostly divided between the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) team. These divides were as much about domestic political attitudes and self-identities as they were about cricket and got best reflected during “India-Pakistan” matches. Support was defined more by what the supporter opposed more. Those, for whom, the original sin of Pakistan and its state ideology defined their predominant dislike, came to support the BCCI team. Those, for whom, the regional hegemonic moves by Indian Union in general and anti-Bangladesh actions like border killings by BSF in particular serves as the primary dislike, PCB team was the one to support.
On top of these, there were undercurrents, true and alleged, that made rounds. For example, the suggestion that the Hindus of Bangladesh tended to support India, with the innuendo that it is religion that ties these citizens to the Indian Union, which is thier “natural” homeland as per the 1947 Partition’s logic. These attitudes have sad on-the-ground consequences in the form of harmless taunts to not-so-harmless aspersions about “disloyalty”. The similarities to the narrative in the Indian Union that Indian Muslims secretly or overtly support Pakistan in cricket are unmistakable.
On the one hand, support for Pakistan is made part of a narrative where shared Muslim-ness is the basis of support with the allegation that such support is a grave disrespect to the hundreds of thousands who brutalized and killed in 1971 by the Pakistani occupation forces. This leads to the more damaging allegation that such support is a sign of their Pakistani collaborator or razakar political stance.
Now, BCB being a viable team, much of these energies now make themselves known in BCB vs PCB or BCB vs BCCI matches, where the pro-Bangladesh sentiment is at times coupled with anti-Pakistan or anti-India sentiment, as the case may be. Visible and well-known groupies of the BCCI and PCB team like Sudhir Gautam and Mohammad Bashir were alleged to have been manhandled when in Bangladesh. While the allegations were ultimately unsubstantiated, the popular discussions around it bring out earlier fault-lines.
Recent political events also cast their shadow. This is particularly evident in the age of social media. Indian Union’s Border Security Force has the sordid record of regularly gunning down people it considers criminal trespassers from Bangladesh. Naturally, there is a strong sentiment against this in Bangladesh, especially in the context of relatively weak military prowess vis-a-vis the Indian Union as also its geo-strategic location that links its economic life strongly to the Indian Union. This sense of powerlessness and unfairness was channelized by a Facebook picture that went viral few years ago after a win of the BCB team over BCCI team. It showed a crouching tiger amidst tall south Bengal grass and was captioned “Amra kantatar-e noy, maathe mari” (translation – We vanquish you in the cricket field, not in barbed wire). The reference to the barb-wired Indo-Bangladesh border and the killings associated with that border is unmistakable.
The post-partition nation-states of the subcontinent, whose hegemonic self-identities carry the indelible imprint of Partition-era faultlines, make it very difficult for people to hold multiple loyalties or “wrong” loyalties. That is true for cricket too. Thus, it is not easy being a genuine fan of the BCCI or BCB or PCB team while being the citizen of the ‘wrong’ nation-state. When the BCB team wins big against some team other than the BCCI team, the press in West Bengal is typically jubilant. When the BCB team defeats BCCI team, the loyalties of West Bengalis understandably remain unacknowledged, unpublished and undiscussed. No one can doubt that Bengal was partitioned in 1947 on the basis of religion, which conceived West Bengal as the Hindu Bengali dominant homeland and East Bengal as the Muslim Bengali dominant homeland – with the West faring much better than the East in providing security to its minorities. Nonetheless, it is a fact that there have been more Hindu East Bengalis playing for the BCB team at a given time than Hindu West Bengalis in any other international cricket team.
With corporate money and glitz riding high on cricket hyper-nationalism, the game is often reduced to war by other means. With cricket stars being elevated to the dubious status of warrior-gods, it is important that this phenomenon is put in the context of greater society, beyond nationalism and pride. Few are able to do that better than Mashrafe Mortaza, the philosopher-captain of the BCB team who says, “I am a cricketer but can I save a life? A doctor can. But no one claps for the best doctor in the country. Create myths around them. They will save more lives. They are the stars. The labourers are the stars, they build the country. What have we built using cricket? Can we make even a brick using cricket? Does paddy grow on the cricket field? Those who make courtyards using bricks, make things at factories, grow crops in the fields – they are the stars.”
Mashrafe goes on to bury any comparison between real Bangladesh liberation warriors of 1971 and cricket stars – “What do we do? If I say it very bluntly – we take money, we perform. Like a singer or an actor, we do performing art. Nothing more. The Muktijoddhad (Liberation warriors) didn’t face bullets to get money on winning. Who is being compared to whom? If there are any heroes in cricket, they are Rakibul Hasans or martyrs like (Abdul Halim) Jewel…Rakibul Bhai had dared to enter the cricket field with ‘Joy Bangla’ inscribed on his bat (before the 1971 Liberation). That’s big. Even bigger was his going to the front with his father’s gun. Shohid (martyr) Jewel left cricket and joined the crack platoon (a 1971 Liberation war guerilla formation). That is bravery. Dealing with fast-bowling has romanticism and duty, not bravery.” And he has this to say on cricket-based patriotism – “I say, those who cry ‘patriotism, patriotism’ around cricket, if all of them for one day did not drop banana skin on the streets or did not spit on the streets or obeyed traffic rules, the country would have changed. This huge energy was not wasted after cricket and was used to do one’s work honestly even for a day, that would be showing patriotism. I don’t understand the definition of patriotism of these people.”