Next spring, India is scheduled to conduct its most consequential general election in the nation’s history – a contest that will determine whether India continues its downward spiral into bigotry and authoritarianism, or reverts to the rich pluralistic traditions of its past.
Though the election is slated for April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign will effectively commence this coming October when cricket-enthusiastic India hosts the World Cup.
Modi, following in the footsteps of other populist leaders, is resolute in extracting every last ounce of political advantage from the sporting event.
This became evident when Modi recently commanded the renaming of the world’s largest cricket stadium, where the World Cup’s first game is set to be played, after himself. This act conveyed the message that the Indian cricket team represents his own political party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – and not the nation as a whole.
Up until now, the international sporting world has refrained from challenging Modi’s appropriation of Indian cricket. It is high time for them to do so.
Cricket prides itself on fairness and decency. Yet, Modi is not only the nemesis of India’s democratic institutions and rule of law, but he is also the figurehead of a movement that has launched deadly attacks on India’s minorities.
Those who closely monitor events speak of the potential for genocide against India’s 200 million Muslims, and there is little reason to believe they are being overly alarmist.
In India, Muslims fear for their future, facing arbitrary demolition of their homes and constant threats from lynch mobs in many areas. In eastern Assam, nearly two million have been stripped of their citizenship, rendering them stateless. Tragically, attacks on mosques by far-right Hindus have become commonplace.
Jammu and Kashmir, under long-standing Indian military occupation, lost its autonomous status in 2019.
Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, accurately predicted the 1994 Rwandan genocide five years before it occurred. Last year, he warned that “the early warning signs of genocide are present in India.” Stanton further highlighted the similarities between the situation in India and Myanmar before the killings there.
A report by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative found that eight out of ten stages of genocide are present in India, with indicators of the ninth stage, extermination, “becoming more and more visible.”
Drawing parallels, it is not entirely unfounded to compare Modi’s political exploitation of this autumn’s World Cup in India with the notorious Berlin Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler in 1936.
Hitler’s propaganda genius, Joseph Goebbels, saw an opportunity to turn the Olympic Games into a political event, and the rest of the world acquiesced, sending the message that Hitler was a respected figure on the world stage.
It is noteworthy that Modi received his political education in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a paramilitary organization with nearly 600,000 members. Founded in 1925 and modeled on European fascist movements, it is the main proponent of Hindu nationalism, which centers around the notion that Indian Muslims pose a foreign threat. The BJP, currently in power, serves as its political wing.
One prominent RSS figure, Madhav Golwalkar, expressed admiration for Hitler, suggesting in 1939 that Germany’s “purging the country of the semitic Race – the Jews” was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.”
Although the RSS disowned one of Golwalkar’s books in 2006, he is now revered among RSS followers. Similarly, Nathuram Godse, the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, is gaining increasing popularity among them.
Just as there were signs in 1936 Berlin Olympics that went largely unnoticed, there are now indicators of a potential genocide in India.
This is a moral crisis that, regrettably, has gone largely unnoticed. Even US President Joe Biden, supposedly the leader of the free world, recently accorded Modi a hero’s welcome in Washington.
Britain has not fared any better. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak failed to stand up to Modi when the Indian government launched a tax raid, widely seen as an intimidation tactic, on the BBC after it aired a documentary detailing Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.
As the World Cup approaches, the lack of any significant controversy over India’s human rights record is all the more bewildering, considering the scrutiny Qatar faced during the run-up to the Fifa World Cup last year.
The situation in India is escalating by the day. Muslims protesting the potential demolition of an Islamic shrine in Gujarat were rounded up and publicly flogged last month.
Indian Christians are also under attack. Hindu nationalist militants have killed over 100 Christians in northeastern Manipur since May, destroying churches and displacing 50,000 people in a brutal campaign of terror.
Anti-Muslim violence even extends to the cricket field. Indian police arrested Muslims for allegedly supporting the Pakistani cricket team after Pakistan defeated India in a T20 World Cup game two years ago. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, criminal cases were filed against students in two medical colleges for celebrating Pakistan’s win, with three Kashmiri students imprisoned on sedition charges for three months for sending WhatsApp messages in support of Pakistan.
To be fair, India’s cricketers behaved admirably. When the only Muslim player in India’s squad, Mohammed Shami, faced abuse on social media, India’s captain Virat Kohli bravely defended him, stating that “attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do.”
However, India’s prime minister has not demonstrated the same humanity. His latest propaganda tool, the Narendra Modi Stadium, will host the opening and final games of the World Cup, including the much-anticipated India-Pakistan clash. The stadium is situated in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and the site of the brutal 2002 pogrom when he served as its chief minister.
Modi previously hosted Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the Narendra Modi Stadium earlier this year to watch an India-Australia exhibition match before official talks between the two leaders. They took a lap of honor around the pitch in a buggy and posed for photos with the team captains, and Modi was presented with a framed portrait of himself.
Eminent journalist Gideon Haigh questioned in The Australian, “why are we tolerating the intolerant,” drawing attention to how Modi’s BJP had undermined Indian cricket governance.
Furthermore, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) has been accused of serving the BJP’s partisan interests. Notably, its secretary is Jay Shah, son of Home Minister Amit Shah, and Ashish Shelar, a prominent BJP politician, serves as the treasurer. When Shelar secured the role in October 2022, he made sure to thank Modi and Amit Shah “for their guidance.”
As the Cricket World Cup approaches, the BJP government will undoubtedly use it to bolster its popularity. However, it is essential to question whether we should assist Modi in turning a global sporting event into a political rally, especially when India, a global superpower and the world’s most populous country, is turning violently against its minority populations.
As the thrilling Ashes series concludes in England, the focus of the cricket world shifts to the upcoming Cricket World Cup. Now is the time to raise the critical question.