In response to a news photograph of Mahendra Singh Dhoni in his Army uniform, a reader commented: “A soldier is never off duty… Representing his country on and off the field.” This perfectly sums up the increasingly visible trend in India: the blurring lines between the soldier and the sportsperson.
This is not just a reaction to the fact that Dhoni is formally enrolled in the Indian Territorial Army as a lieutenant colonel, but is also a reflection of the larger societal expectation that every citizen should be a soldier, so to speak.
How else do you explain Dhoni’s decision to skip the West Indies tour and instead serve the Army at that time? Dhoni has not retired from international cricket; so isn’t it natural to assume that his primary commitment would be to play for the nation? Yet, instead of asking probing questions about the country’s senior-most player picking and choosing which tours he will play, or examining his performance in the recent World Cup, we get a gushing media that raves about Dhoni’s “brave” decision to serve in an Army unit in Kashmir.
Gautam Gambhir, who has been a virulent nationalist whether it comes to making the national anthem mandatory in cinema halls or to forfeiting India’s match with Pakistan in the World Cup, and has ridden his jingoistic fame to a parliamentary election victory, called Dhoni’s decision “a historic step,” while Kapil Dev says it will “motivate the youth of the country” to “spend some time with the Army”. The Army chief said that Dhoni “will be protecting a lot of people” while businessman Anand Mahindra tweeted that Dhoni looked good in the military uniform.
The enveloping of sport by military symbolism was most prominently seen after the Pulwama terror attack, when the Indian cricket team wore military caps on the cricket ground. Then there was the balidan badge controversy during the World Cup, when there was a nationalist outpouring of support for Dhoni’s right to wear gloves with military insignia. There were even calls for a boycott of the World Cup, while Union Minister Smriti Irani posted the balidan badge on social media in solidarity. No cricket team of any other nation has done what the Indian team was trying to claim as a right in both the instances.
This whole development is ironical, considering that hundreds of Army personnel have represented India in various sports, and not one of them has felt the need to display their patriotism through Army symbols.
The veneration of the army, of masculinity, violence and nationalism is an integral part of authoritarian societies, especially fascist ones. As the Oxford Dictionary of Sports Studies puts it: “Fascism in the first half of the 20th century proposed a doctrinaire ethos of physical culture in which the body as the armoury of the individual was little more than the tool of the state.” The Italian fascist state under Benito Mussolini exemplified this total alliance between the state and sport. Italy winning two football World Cups in 1934 and 1938 aided the regime’s pursuit of national glory and, in turn, its attempt to enforce discipline and order in society.
The danger of creeping militaristic values in democracies cannot be understated. It has the power to destroy democracies. The entire public discourse in India is governed now by issues of national security, as tellingly seen in the 2019 general election. In this mood, any doubting or critical voice on the issue of national security is shot down as anti-national.
Sport does not exist in a vacuum, but is constantly interacting with other social spheres. Fascistic and authoritarian values are not isolated to the political sphere alone, but gain traction through their resonance in popular culture. And sport has always been an arena where national identity and feelings of nationalism were constructed and celebrated. What has changed under the present right-wing regime is that the nationalism has acquired a distinctly religious character. A tweet from Harbhajan Singh — a cricketer of such stature and himself from a community that has undergone the worst communal massacre — after the Chandrayaan 2 launch, mocking not just Pakistan but other Muslim nations, is an indicator of this new character of nationalism. American sports writer John Tunis wrote in 1936, “An Italian triumph in football, cycling, tennis, or any other sport… is seized upon, written up and paraded as proof positive of the superiority of the race and its governing principles.”
Such forms of masculine, war-mongering nationalism are particularly attractive to a nation like India, marked by the angst of being a developing country and one with few international sporting laurels. The angst is channelled by right-wing ideologies into finding internal and external enemies. Conveniently, sports stars’ political views are confined to showering laurels on the present regime’s hyper-nationalist achievements. (Yet, ironically, the Pakistan-obsessed cricket nationalism of India has no trouble with its team being sponsored by a Chinese company — after all, China is the main strategic ally of Pakistan).
Indian sporting stars are lauded for their courage in serving a basically ceremonial role in the Army, but are they capable of displaying the courage of a Kumar Sangakkara to speak out against lynching and the spread of hate and bigotry?
Let the Army do its job, and let sportspeople do theirs. Let us not confuse the two. A nation becomes great when its citizens perform conscientiously the thousands of occupations they are engaged in. Let them respect the Army without unnecessarily valorising militarism. If militaristic dominance of society is the greatest hallmark of success, then Pakistan, ruled by the military for half of its existence, should be India’s role model. Does that give our new nationalists some food for thought?
The writer is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada.