The internet divide: it’s just not cricket

By Ghazala Akbar:

In cricket as in politics, the Machiavellian dictum holds: if your opponent is your enemy, then your opponent’s enemy is your friend. Pakistanis, on the back foot on just about every front these days took time off — from bemoaning the state of their own Nation — to admire and applaud England’s recent drubbing of India 4-0. Never mind the fact that our own team got a similar pasting last year, 3-1. This was different. It is not every day that we get to see a prolonged public flogging. It is not every day that super heroes come crashing down to earth not so much with a bang but a whimper.

A word of German origin encapsulates this emotion: Schadenfreude—glee at other people’s misfortunes. Who can resist a sly smile when the nouveau riche neighbour has a flat tyre and his gleaming SUV comes to an embarrassing halt? And when his monstrously loud Generator splutters and conks out in the middle of a power outage, there is even more cause for satisfaction and mirth. Everyone needs— and gets their comeuppance from time to time. In cricket just as in the game of life you have to accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days the statue.

However, what is happening on cyberspace these days between our two countries is not quite cricket or the remotest bit gentlemanly. Ill-directed bouncers and beamers are hurled with alarming frequency amidst the occasional wily googly. While our leaders talk solemnly in platitudes of dialogue and confidence – building measures, (Cavalli, Birkin, Mikimoto?) there is a vicious discourse being conducted between Indians and Pakistanis, with a sub-text that does not make for pretty reading. Schadenfreude—over just about every topic —appears to be the dominant feel-good emotion.

No adverse story on India or Pakistan (where admittedly most of the bad news is coming from these days) passes by without a stream of vitriolic comment and triumphal gloating from the other side. The language is coarse, abusive and inflammatory. Internal problems are a source of much ribbing and taunts. One recent post blamed the disturbances in Karachi as divine retribution for the Hindus killed during the partition riots in 1947. An appeal for flood victims in Badin is greeted with hoots of delight and the advice that Pakistan should export the excess water to its brothers in the Islamic world.

Clips from anchors or participants on talk shows criticising their own societies or governments are selectively edited to ridicule and deride. Music videos are a battleground to trumpet cultural and religious superiority and denigrate the other. Often the comments degenerate into abuse of the mother/sister variety. It is a no-holds- barred verbal proxy war. Even the lofty intellectual fraternity are not immune from it. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Pakistan triggered a volley of cross- border accusations and counter accusations.

Can this trend of name – calling and denigration of the Other be dismissed as insignificant musings of a few intentionally provocative ‘trolls?’ Does the anonymity and safe distance provided by the internet emboldens people to say what they really feel, free from any threat or repercussions? Are these postings the creation of embedded intelligence operatives engaging in cyber warfare? Or is this really a true reflection of deep – seated hostility, distrust and loathing both sides feel towards each other? Probably a bit of all four. Let us be honest. There has always been a love- hate relationship between the two countries since we separated. A never- ending family feud with violent origins carried from one generation to the next. It is just not about the wounds of Partition. It is about Ideology and Nationhood, Us and Them, a thousand year war or so we have been conditioned to believe.

And yet, whenever Indians and Pakistanis do interact with each other face- to-face, there is camaraderie, fellowship, and an acknowledgement of a common cultural strand. And this is not just restricted to what are euphemistically referred to as ‘the educated classes’. In the Gulf countries millions of skilled and unskilled labour from India and Pakistan, have been living side by side in peace and amity– even during times of heightened tension in their home countries, there have been no clashes. This is true too of the UK, the US — and globally where ever our people have emigrated or work as expatriates. In Birmingham recently, where three boys of Pakistani origin were killed Sikhs and Hindus also mourned. And whenever the Indo- Pakistan tennis duo, Bhopanna and Qureishi play it is a cause for joint celebration.

The sad fact is that feelings of hostility and hatred are exacerbated because millions have grown up in both countries without having actually known a citizen of the other country. (I first saw a Sikh when I was 22 and that too in the UK!) In the absence of proper people-to-people contact, misconceptions are based on racial or religious stereo types. Opinions and prejudices are formed on a very superficial knowledge of their neighbour over the fence. The only common denominator is cricket or movies. Often the attributes or failings of individual cricketers or entertainment stars are seen to typify and typecast a whole nation.
The reality is that there is more that unites than divides. Like it or not we both live in the same pond. Poverty, illiteracy, energy shortages, rising prices and corruption are common problems. The visual image of Indian muslim children breaking fast with Anna Hazare is a pause for reflection. It is a powerful message in the month of Ramadan: there is a need for spiritual and moral cleansing of the individual and society. There is a need to think about out-of-the-box solutions for old problems. There can be unity amongst diversity. People power can change entrenched mindsets and force governments to change policies.

Slanging matches and shadow boxing on the net may be amusing but the discourse must move on to another level and not remain mired in the past. Indo- Pak relations needs a re-match, a new meeting ground and a fresh set of players. We may not win but what more is there left to lose? It’s not as if the present stalemate is getting us anywhere. After sixty-four years without a result, even an exciting draw is as good as a win –provided we learn to play with a straight bat.

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