When 22-year-old Umar Daraz recently hoisted an Indian flag with a picture of Virat Kohli in Okara, a small Pakistani town situated about 80 kms from the border of India, what did it exemplify?
The incident occurred in the wake of the India vs Australia ODI series in which Kohli averaged 76.20 with two hundreds and two fifties.
Umar — an ardent cricket fan — is skilled to sew a flag that is hard to find on his side of the fence.
A flag is a piece of cloth that draws geographical boundaries; it declares religious affinity and binds those with similar faith.
Perhaps despite knowing this, Umar neglected the advice dispensed by well-wishers and publicly displayed it on his rooftop — crossing the fine line between brave and brash. Soon after, he was arrested under Section 123-A of the Pakistan Penal Code for ‘acts of damaging the sovereignty of the country’ — the punishment is a 10-year jail sentence or fine, or both.
Take a look: Suspicion is in the air
In March 2014, a group of 67 Kashmiri students were suspended for being guilty of cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match in Meerut.
The students belonged to a part of a valley where raising a Pakistani flag is an extreme form of rebellion and can be treated as a criminal offence. Yet, there they were, 70 kms from Delhi, chanting pro-Pakistani slogans and cheering for Shahid Afridi as he blasted Ravichandran Ashwin for two consecutive sixes to steal a one-wicket victory against India.
Later that month, the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) banned Bangladeshi fans from carrying rival country flags in the stadium. This order came in effect after images of Bangladeshi locals were seen waving the Pakistani flag in the concluding Asia cup.
Pakistani cricketers — including Javed Miandad, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan — termed the ban as being against the spirit of sport.
The truth is, an Australian flag in Okara with a picture of Steven Smith would not have resulted in an arrest nor would the fans of Brendon McCullum evoke the emotion the Afridi fanatics in Meerut did.
Flags are used in a battle right at the forefront, carried by traders across the globe and by pirates in deep seas. Kings have them and so do schools. Almost any group of people that affirm complete loyalty to a certain union hoist a flag.
Humans have an inherent right to choose their affinity and swear allegiance to whatever brand or band they subscribe. It cannot be forced upon their heart.
Will Daraz’s arrest reduce his love for Kohli and increase it for Ahmed Shehzad?
Will the Kashmiri students not cheer for Afridi when he bats in the next ICC World T20 scheduled in India?
Will the Pakistan cricket fans cease to exist in Bangladesh?
This forced rhetoric can possibly work (or not) on a broader scale to influence the thought process and conduct of a larger audience when persisted over a longer time span. But, it goes against the basic right of freedom of expression.
Given the delicate past of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the quagmire is dangerous. The three countries have been involved in multiple wars, while separatist groups continue to fight within borders of all three countries, with serious accusations of cross-border government support.
Sensations run extremely high when countries, divided by border but bounded by ancestral bond, collide on or off the field. Thus, it should be treated with extreme caution and care.
Where does one draw the line?
Back in 2007, on August 14, my brother and I were driving back from the 4th Gwadar Off-Road Freedom Rally. We stopped in the beautiful beach town of Ormara to get some high-quality Iranian fuel. I walked across to an ice vendor and requested him to fill up my ice box.
I asked, “How come I don’t see any Pakistani flags here? It’s Independence day.”
He responded, “this is not your Pakistan; it’s our Balochistan.”
I noticed a small black flag fluttering outside his hut as I walked back to my vehicle.
While the ice vendor in Ormara has the right to hoist whichever flag he wants on his private property, the absence of Pakistani flags on her Independence day over a drive of 600 kms from Gwadar to Hub Chowki should be a serious cause of concern for the authorities that run the province, and more so for those who control the show in Islamabad.
In the backdrop of multiple anti-state groups denouncing their allegiance to Pakistan, young Daraz faces charges of “damaging the sovereignty of the country”.
Based on that judgment, a dear Indian friend and a cricket enthusiast — who recently wore my Pakistani jersey during the course of an entire T20 game against England in Dubai — should also be tried for treason by the Indian authorities.
Flags hold contrasting levels of affinity and sentimental bonds. Weight is variable to its use and veneration is often a function of its purpose. A flag bearer in a religious procession is vastly different from a schoolboy holding up his house team banner on sports day, or from a soldier wearing one in battle.
The same flag can also be used to fulfil different objectives. A national flag on a private rooftop differs in significance when the same flag is hoisted at the top of a parliament building.
More than anything else, a flag represents an idea and it is honoured for the spirit it embodies, especially in sport.
Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way little else does. It speaks to the youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than the government in breaking down racial barriers. — Nelson Mandela
On that note, I confess that like my fellow countryman, Umar Daraz, I, too, am a fan of Virat Kohli. However, I don’t think I am ready to wear the Indian jersey yet; maybe for M.S. Dhoni someday.
Or perhaps for my Indian friend who wore the Pakistani jersey on my insistence.
Guilty as charged? Not yet.