Kannur, November 19 – Cricket in India is not just a pastime, it is a passion. This was confirmed afresh as we arrived today in Kannur, a seaside city on the northern coast of Kerala. The topic dominating the national headlines, prime time news and everybody's tongue was a tempest prompted by a seemingly innocuous statement uttered by Indian cricket's reigning divinity, Sachin Tendulkar. Here is what he said a week ago: "Mumbai belongs to all India. That is how I look at it. And I am a Maharashtra, and I am extremely proud of it, but I am an Indian first."
If that does not sound like a verbal bombshell, one needs first to know (1) that Sachin's status within India is like that of Derek Jeter, Magic Johnson and Eli Manning rolled into one; (2) that Maharashtras are a people defined by their language, widely spoken in Mumbai (called Bombay throughout the British Raj but changed in 1996 by linguistic nationalists in the Shiv Sena Party led by a communal supremo named Bal Thackeray); and (3) that the entire furor erupted after an incoming member of the Mumbai assembly took his oath in Hindi rather than Marathi only to be beaten up by Thackeray's language police.
This happened as all India was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sachin' teenage debut as a megastar batsman. Hence the resonance of his remarks on Mumbai belonging to all India, a comment that Thackeray instantly denounced as breaking his Marathi heart and insulting all true Maharashtras, "who will never accept such language."
In neighboring Gujarat, students staged a demonstration and burnt an effigy of the party leader for "insulting" the "maestro."
Still, if the initial headlines raised doubts about the sobriety of the world's most populous democracy, the near-unanimous response dispelled them. In neighboring Gujarat student demonstrators burnt an effigy of the party leader for "insulting" the "maestro." India's brace of outstanding English-language dailies joined in ridiculing Bal Thackeray and editorials noted that his real motive was to make Marathi the sole language permissible in local public service tests. Most revealing were the remarks of fellow Hindu nationalists, who prudently distanced themselves from Thackeray's diktat, and the blizzard of press comments and letters to the editor, as in this sample:
"For a Keralite, the tussle between the 'icon' and the 'supremo' as well as the gush of Marathi sentiments seem absurd. A term like 'Kerala for Keralites' cannot be imagined." M.D.G. Prasad (Indian Express)
"My father had said in 1966, 'With Maharashtra for Maharashtrians and Kashmir for Kashmiris, where is India for Indians?" Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs and Congress MP for Kerala (Indian Express)
"The words used by the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray – asking Sachin to stick to cricket and dare not tread into the realm of politics – express his skewed mindset. It is time the state marginalized such voices, thereby preserving the fabric of unity in diversity." V. Chandrasekar (The Hindu)
"No civilized society can put up with the kind of behavior exhibited by Bal Thackeray and his ilk. They attack students who attend recruitment examinations, bully a legislator for taking the oath in the national language and what not. The Shiv Sena leader has now taken on an Indian icon. It is time leaders promoting divisive forces were told in no uncertain terms that India is one country." P.A. Shakeel Mohammed (The Hindu)
Obviously, in this test match the better batsman has (at least for now) prevailed.