Monday, May 31, 2010

SPORT: All-Indian Superstars

Irfan Yusuf watches his cricketing namesakes hit sectarian politics out of the park in Gujurat ...

Humility is one of my strengths. Indeed, I can confidently state that I’m the most humble person I know. To confirm this, over the weekend, I took the ultimate humility test. I sat down at my computer, from whence many an article for this magnificent website has emerged, and surfed my way to Google News. There, I typed the words "Irfan Yusuf" and clicked.

As my self-effacing nature expected, the first item was an article on WYD published under my name in the New Zealand Herald. But what followed was quite instructive: article upon article from newspapers, sports blogs, cricket blogs, TV websites and e-zines about two Indian cricketers. There’s no doubt that in the online Irfan Yusuf stakes, Irfan Pathan and Yusuf Pathan are hitting me for six!

Growing up with a name no one could pronounce wasn’t the nicest experience. Was it "Eefun"? Or "Urfun"? Or "Earphone"? And if that wasn’t bad enough, people constantly misspelt my surname. "No, it isn’t ‘Y’ ‘O’ ‘U’ double-’S’ etc". Get the drift? I doubt I’ll have any more problems with spelling or pronunciation on my next trip to India. Thanks to a pair of Gujarati cricketers, millions of Indians now know how to spell and pronounce my full name correctly.

The Pathan brothers are all-Indian superstars. They hail from the north-western Indian state of Gujarat, part of which borders Pakistan. Gujarat was also the hometown of the great lawyer Mohandas Gandhi, who spent some years in South Africa fighting apartheid and went on to become the spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement.

There is a spiritual side to the story of the Pathan brothers. Until recently, their father Mehboob Khan was the caretaker at the Jammi Masjid (congregational mosque) in Mandvi, a suburb of the Gujrati town of Varodara. He had inherited this role from his father and grandfather. The mosque is 400 years old, older than any mosque — or indeed any church — in Australia. With the exception of Indonesia, India has more Muslims than any other country on earth. Yet Indian Muslims make up only around 15 per cent of India’s population. Most are relatively poor.

After the 1947 Partition, people on the "wrong" side of the India-Pakistan border left everything behind to make it to the "right" side. The Pathan family were different. Sher Jaman Ibrahim Khan, the paternal grandfather of Irfan and Yusuf Pathan, migrated from the Manshera district of Pakistan to India a few months before Partition.

Although India is officially secular, it has seen a rise in pseudo-religious far-Right Hindu nationalist politics. It isn’t alone in this regard. Until the most recent elections, two Pakistani provinces were dominated by pseudo-religious Islamist parties.

I describe such politics as pseudo-religious because I believe that no religion teaches its followers to be intolerant toward the poor and the vulnerable. The situations of millions of Hindu, Sikh and Christian Pakistanis are made to feel even more precarious thanks to misdirected blasphemy laws promoted by Pakistani politicians who only use Islam as a divisive wedge. On the other side of the border, similar wedges — of the allegedly Hindu variety — are used by Indian politicians to make millions of Muslim and Christian Indians feel vulnerable.

The Pathan brothers may tour across the world scoring runs and taking wickets with millions back home cheering them on. However, their home town in Gujarat is frequently the scene of communal violence whipped up by extremists from the governing fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP) party. Go to the BJP website and you’ll see that Gujarat and India’s proudest son, Mahatma Gandhi, barely rates a mention. You’ll also read essays blaming allegedly foreign "Semitic" faiths for India’s woes.

The BJP State Government of Gujarat led a massacre of religious minorities in 2002 that saw thousands of civilians murdered and hundreds of women raped by mobs armed with official records showing the residential and business addresses of Muslims and Christians. While the rest of India tossed out the BJP in the last national elections, Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narenda Modi remains the man who allegedly orchestrated much of the 2002 violence — or at the very least turned a blind eye to it.

This explosive environment even affects national heroes like Irfan and Yusuf Pathan. In May 2006, Indian journalists spent time in the Pathan family home. Don’t let the headline "Genius in the time of hatred and bloodshed" put you off reading the inspiring story of young Indian athletes who honed in their skills in an environment where their poverty-stricken families and communities were subjected to discrimination and even violence.

The religion that South Asians follow most fanatically - cricket - is, ironically enough, one which overrides sectarian exclusions. Pakistan’s national side has no shortage of Hindu and Christian players, and Muslim, Sikh and Christian players step up to the pitch for India. In both India and Pakistan, religious fundamentalism sits side by side with a blend of tolerance and pluralism that is often best displayed on sporting fields.

The good news is that the Pathan brothers were able to use cricket to rise above the sectarian bigotry. We often hear that sport - and religion - and politics shouldn’t mix. But sometimes spectator sport can become a powerful religious force in its own right allowing its practitioners and fans to overcome the obstacles set by sectarian politicians.

First published in NewMatilda on 17 July 2008.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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