India Row Evokes Cricket’s Ultranationalist Tebbit Test

The expulsion of Kashmiri university students who cheered Pakistan’s cricket triumph over India brings to mind the old, disturbing “Tebbit test” for the sport.

03.23.14 4:00 AM ET

Norman Tebbit, not widely known outside Britain, was a pugnacious member of Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet. He is now a sweet old man, enjoying retirement in the House of Lords. But in his political heyday (the 1980s), he was regarded by many as the archetypal Little Englander, that brooding species of nationalist inclined to believe that his island has gone to the dogs, what with all the immigrant Singhs and Khans around.

Tebbit came spinning back to mind earlier this month with the news that a university in a town not far from New Delhi—the Swami Vivekananda Subharti University, named for a 19th-century Hindu evangelist who traveled the world to spread his word—had suspended 67 students for shouting with delight when Pakistan defeated India in a cricket match. The students were Kashmiri Muslims, all citizens of India, and their pro-Pakistan celebrations provoked an almighty brawl on campus, with the vastly more numerous local, non-Kashmiri students reactingwith muscular indignation.

The college authorities corralled the “anti-national” Kashmiris before busing them to a neighboring town, from where they could make their journey back to Kashmir. They were also officially suspended for “creating a ruckus on campus and shouting pro-Pakistan slogans, which caused tension…” Not to be outdone, the local police invoked the Indian Penal Code and charged the Kashmiri students with sedition. It mattered not to the cops that the prosecution was risible, and it took the vigorous intervention of the chief minister all the way from the students’ home state for the charge to be dropped. The university, too, came to its senses and revoked the rustication of the students. (One suspects that the young men will not be hurtling back to their alma “step-mater” any time soon.)

Most people would agree that celebrating an Indian cricket defeat by Pakistan is an impolitic act when performed in an Indian public place. Yet Muslim Kashmiris, many of whom have had a long-running conflict with the Indian state, are given to supportingPakistan’s cricket team, not merely because they identify more readily with players of their own faith, but because cricket is a sphere in which they can let off steam, and distance themselves from India without violating laws. Non-Kashmiri Indians hate this: cricket is, after all, a sport about which India is passionate, and games against Pakistan are often freighted with jingoism. When Kashmiris cheer for Pakistan in their own towns and villages, they do so out of the rest of India’s sight and earshot; but when they shout for the “enemy” while studying or residing in parts of India outside Kashmir, hackles are raised—the way Norman Tebbit’s were, back in 1990.

That year, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the British politician formulated what came to be known as the Tebbit Test. Referring to the people of Indian and Pakistani origin who live in Britain, all of whom cheer raucously for India or Pakistan when those teams play England at cricket, he said: “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It is an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are? I think we have got real problems in that regard.”

For this injection of racial politics into sport, for this devising of a 20th-century shibboleth, Tebbit was widely pilloried; and the dismissal of his “test” reflected the thick skin and self-confidence of a mature, multicultural society at ease with itself, however turbulent the racial debate on its fringes. If anything, the reaction to Tebbit was a little fevered: His words, read today, seem mild. He was asking a legitimate question about integration, and was hardly asking that the Bobbies cart you off to the clink if you—a British citizen with origins in the Indian subcontinent—should cheer the fall of an England wicket, or a fine shot by a Pakistani batsman.

Compare the British pillory of Tebbit with the reaction in India to the Kashmiri students. Apart from faint murmurs of embarrassment among the country’s intelligentsia, there was little public expression of outrage over the treatment meted out to the young men. In fact, the opposite is true: Arnab Goswami, India’s most vociferous (and widely watched) news anchor, lit into the students on air. “This was not an ordinary cricket match,” he said. “To cheer Pakistan against India will not be tolerated.” Responding to the university’s decision to take the students back, Javed Akhter, a leading Indian poet, Tweeted: “Why the suspension of those 67 Kashmiri students is revoked. They should be rusticated and sent back to Kashmir.”

In contrast to the Britain of Tebbit’s pomp, India today is thin-skinned, under-confident and paranoid, uncertain of what it means to be Indian and unsure of the frontiers of Indian democracy. How else to explain this Manichaean reaction to young men from a part of India, Kashmir, which bridles against its place in India?  You are either with us or against us, but you must be with us even if you’re against us. This story isn’t just about cricket. Sport is a substitute for strife, and if India can’t tolerate a few dissonant “hurrahs” at a cricket match, how is it any better than the many intolerant countries in its own neighborhood? How is it, in fact, any better than Pakistan?