Commonwealth Games Blogs

'Friendly' rivalry during India/Pakistan match

DELHI, INDIA - In the floodlights of central Delhi's Dhyan Chand National Stadium on Sunday, the air was thick with nationalism (and grasshoppers).


Among the crowd were little old ladies with their faces painted and young boys zipping around with orange, white and green Indian flags.


The national hockey team broke out in an early lead off a penalty corner. And with every goal (and there were many), the fan fervor only seemed to grow.


"India jeete ga," the fans hollered in rounds. "Go India!"


It's interesting because although hockey happens to be India's national sport, and won the country a total of eight Olympic gold medals, the team hasn't placed in the Olympics since the 1980s. Accordingly, public interest has waned in recent years, as all eyes and ears turned to cricket.


But on Sunday night, you wouldn't have known the fans ever left. The stadium was packed with well over 15,000 supporters for a landmark game against India's neighbour, Pakistan.


What drew in the crowds wasn't necessarily because Pakistan was expected to be a major medal challenger. India easily won 7-4. The main attraction was because of the longstanding rivalry between the two nations, which digs deep into the countries' shared history of Partition.


"It's always good to win," the guy squashed beside me on the bus after the game said. "But it's even better when it's Pakistan." 


Lines drawn


As I've mentioned in a previous blog, there have been tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India for hundreds of years. But the biggest outward expression of animosity was in 1947, after imaginary lines were drawn, dividing the provinces of Punjab and Bengal (and forming Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh), after a quick retreat of the British colonials.


The lines drawn during Partition were meant to divide Muslim Pakistan from secular India, but it did much more than that - it divided families and communities, and resulted in an exodus of close to 15 million people. Sikhs and Hindus, like my family, moved to India and Muslims moved to Pakistan. Each community hoped for safety in the religious majority. It's estimated that nearly a million people died along the way because of fighting.


Over 60 years have passed since Partition, but the event is still a major scar in Indian society. "Animosity between nations and communities is not uncommon," my great uncle Nand Khosla, explained to me today. He was in college in 1947, when the family left Lahore. "But when the animosity is accompanied by violence -generation after generation - then it becomes a disease, and that's what it is." 


Taking it out on the field 


Although there isn't the same level of direct fighting today, the lingering sentiments come out in other ways - through sports like hockey and cricket, and most amusingly - through a very elaborate bird fight on the only road link between the two countries.


OK, so it's not an actual bird fight, but rather a bizarre choreographed border ceremony, during which the soldiers of both Pakistan and India wear crested hats. Then the officers - chests puffed - kick, stomp, gesture, holler and goose-step for around 45 minutes before opening and then re-slamming the border gate.



It's become a veritable spectator sport. On the India side alone, it's estimated there are over 8000 visitors a day. That's more fans than are at most sporting events in the country.


And the fans are just as nationalistic, cheering, "long live Pakistan" and "long live India."  They are of course aided by a man who dashes around, indicating when to cheer for the homeland and jeer at the neighbour, respectively.


Here is a photo essay of the border ceremony.


Toning it down


As of July this year, it's been reported that the aggressiveness of the ceremony has been toned down. Supposedly officers were complaining that their feet and knees were suffering from the prolonged goose-stepping.


There are other minor changes too: "We will only change the 'fist gesture' - no thumb will be shown and aggressive looks will be replaced with a handshake and a smile," Nadim Raza, a spokesman for the Pakistan Rangers told the BBC.


Personally, I was utterly amused by it all, and would like to believe that most of the performance is just that - a performance.  The officers that partake in the ceremony likely interact on a day-to-day basis, for administrative reasons.


But some people believe that these types of activities, that foster intense nationalism, only breed intolerance.


Between us, the type of cheering and jeering at the border and at the hockey game wasn't all that different. So can any of these activities - sports or ceremonies - really help break the tension?


Let me know your thoughts.


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