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Politics, religion overshadow sports diplomacy in Indian cricket

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At least 14 people were booked for allegedly cheering for Pakistan and celebrating their victory. In Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, the police filed cases against students and staff of two medical colleges under India‘s main anti-terror law. In Punjab, Kashmiri students in two universities said they were assaulted by other students

BANGALORE – The aftermath of an Indian cricket loss to Pakistan at the Men’s T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates continues to ripple across India.

On Oct 24, Pakistan handily beat arch rival India in the first cricket match between the sides in nearly two years. When Pakistani captain Babar Azam scored the winning runs, his counterpart, Virat Kohli, came forward to shake his hand in congratulations.

Back home in India, the loss was not taken as well.

At least 14 people were booked for allegedly cheering for Pakistan and celebrating their victory. In Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, the police filed cases against students and staff of two medical colleges under India‘s main anti-terror law. In Punjab, Kashmiri students in two universities said they were assaulted by other students.

In Rajasthan, a school teacher was arrested for making “assertions prejudicial to national integration” and fired from her job.

In Uttar Pradesh, the police lodged cases against seven people, including Kashmiri students, for offences such as “promoting enmity between different groups”, “criminal intimidation” and “sedition”. The state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath later said his government would “not tolerate” people who supported an “enemy country”. It is not clear yet if the students shouted the slogans as accused.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that people cheering for Pakistan in cricket matches have faced criminal action. In 2017, for instance, at least 19 people in the states of Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh were arrested for celebrating Pakistan‘s victory over India in a major tournament.

Matches between the two cricket-crazy countries always draw millions of viewers, but rising political tensions have meant that the teams rarely play each other. Pakistani cricketers face an unofficial ban in the Indian Premier League, the sport’s richest tournament.

Some Indian politicians had even called for the Indian team to boycott the recent match, citing the targeted killings of civilians in Kashmir in recent weeks by armed groups allegedly backed by Pakistan.

Soon after the match, Mohammed Shami, who was India‘s most expensive bowler of the day, faced abusive comments on social media – he was called a “traitor” and told to “go back” to Pakistan. Facebook said it removed the abusive posts.

Several former cricketers sprang to Shami‘s defence, but appeared to suggest that he had been targeted only because of his performance.

Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar tweeted: “@MdShami1 is a committed world-class bowler. He had an off day like any other sportsperson can have. I stand behind Shami and Team India.”

Shami‘s teammates did not initially respond, but last Friday, captain Kohli tore into the critics, calling them “pathetic”.

He noted that the attacks against Shami were based on his religion, saying: “Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do… (The critics) have no understanding of the fact that someone like Shami has won India matches in the last few years.”

More on this topic   Related Story Students, teacher arrested in India for celebrating Pakistan cricket win   Related Story Deadly surge in Indian Kashmir violence leaves six more dead Before their match with Pakistan, India‘s cricketers “took the knee” to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The gesture stood out. Indian cricketers command immense respect and adulation, and some of them have gone on to win elections and be nominated to Parliament. Yet most voice political opinions warily, especially if they can be perceived as anti-establishment.

In February, Wasim Jaffer, a former Indian player, resigned from his post as coach of the Uttarakhand state team, citing interference in team selection.

He was immediately accused by state cricket officials of favouring Muslim players. Prominent sports writer Sharda Ugra said: “We have seen this kind of communal toxicity played out in politics and public forums in India but now it’s permeated into cricket… (Jaffer‘s) Muslim religion has been thrown in his face to settle a score.”

While some former Indian players defended Jaffer, current cricketers dodged questions about the incident.

Mohammed Kaif, a former player, wrote then: “(Religion) has never come in the way of Indian cricket… As a country, we need to do a lot of soul-searching. We are at a vital point in our history; we can’t afford to divide ourselves.”

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