It’s no secret that the two nuclear powers and South Asian neighbours India and Pakistan don’t get along. The tension between them is palpable on their heavily armed borders and among their politicians, and it has often spilled into cricket, the sport the two former British colonies are obsessed with.
But the energy on the cricket field was different on Sunday, when Pakistan beat India for the first-time ever in a cricket World Cup tournament. The two countries have faced off about a dozen times before, and India has always come out victorious. Even though India lost by a crushing 10 wickets, the historic defeat was not visible on Indian cricket captain Virat Kholi; he smiled and hugged the Pakistani cricket rising star Mohammed Rizwan who, along with Pakistani captain Babar Azam, helped clinch victory in the first match of the ICC Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup in Dubai with a record-breaking opening batting performance.
The sportsmanship on the World Cup field, however, did not translate on the ground for Kashmiri students in the Indian state Punjab who were attacked by mobs.
India's captain Virat Kohli hugs Pakistan's Mohammad Rizwan at the end of the ICC men’s Twenty20 World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in Dubai on Oct. 24.Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP
After India’s first-time-ever World Cup loss to Pakistan, tension filled the streets as unsuspecting students from Kashmir, a region under Indian control but also claimed by Pakistan, became targets of violence from their fellow Indians.
In the city Sangrur, several college students were physically assaulted and their dorm rooms were ransacked after the match. The Indian team’s only Muslim player, Mohammed Shami, also faced massive online trolling and was called a “traitor” as commenters accused him of throwing the game.
In a video widely shared on social media, the assaulted Kashmiri students are heard saying that they were attacked by “people from Uttar Pradesh.” Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and the heart of the Hindutva or the Hindu nationalist movement, an ideology promoted by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
One student live-streamed the attack on Facebook while they were being beaten with rods and sticks as the attackers barged into their rooms. It is unclear if the students had cheered for Pakistan or if the assailants assumed they were.
“You can take a look at the room. We were watching the match here,” a Kashmiri student is heard saying in another video. “UP waale (People from Uttar Pradesh) barged in. We are here to study, we too are Indians. Are we not Indians? Then what does [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi say?”
Nasir Khuehami, spokesperson for Jammu and Kashmir Student Association, told Free Kashmir Press that he had received phone calls and messages from students in various colleges across Punjab, who were targeted by mobs.
“The videos I am receiving of these attacks are very distressing,” he said. “Punjab Police have assured us that they will look into the matter and take strict action against those involved in these attacks.”
Sharda Ugra, a senior sports journalist based in India’s capital New Delhi, said that this sort of riotous behaviour following a cricket match is alarming. “It is not normal, but it has been normalised in the current political climate in the country,” she told VICE World News.
“In the past, these things have happened but have not been condoned at an official level. You won't have government ministers not condemn it and not talk about it,” she said. “The hostilities and hatred have been generated by the [current] political establishment, particularly towards the Kashmiri Muslims. It's almost like a standard policy.”
India’s Kashmir region used to be a semi-autonomous state with its own flag and has been disputed between India and Pakistan since 1948. It was brought under the Modi government's direct control in 2019. Since then, military presence has surged, internet blockades and curfews became frequent, the state is constantly on high-security alert, and almost all of the region’s political leaders are detained.
Over the years, as Modi’s government has clamped down on the region’s freedoms, the area’s 12 million residents have increasingly sided with the Pakistan cricket team and chosen to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence day instead of India’s Independence day.
Hundreds of messages were left on the Indian Muslim cricket player Shami’s Instagram account calling out what they said was his poor performance and accusing him of playing in Pakistan’s favour. Some commenters called for him to be thrown out of the Indian team.
This sparked calls from people on social media asking Shami's colleagues to come out in his support, especially since the match began with Indian players taking the knee in support of #blackivesmatter. Many observers say the gesture is hollow unless Indian cricketers publicly denounce the bigoted attacks on Shami.
Former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag tweeted: “The online attack on Mohammad Shami is shocking and we stand by him. He is a champion and anyone who wears the India cap has India in their hearts far more than any online mob. With you Shami.”
The sports journalist Ugra said the media are partly to blame for the hysteria. “News television also encourages this behaviour.”
“It both artificially creates and feeds into this kind of gatherings and incidents, and keeps adding to the caricature of the ‘volatile’ subcontinent cricket fan,” she observed. “Same with social media. It keeps growing and growing. And sadly, there are little to no official establishment voices [speaking] against this in the media or social media, because it's very easy to be branded unpatriotic.”
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