Almost a year back, talking about India-United States partnership at the Bombay Stock Exchange, the US Vice President Joe Biden said, “As an Irish American, it pleased my heart to see you beat England (at sports of course!)”.
Those words, in a very subtle way, tell us a lot about the history that the English and Irish nations share. In another significant incident, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, during the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games medal ceremony stood with their heads hanging down and gloved fists rose in protest against racial injustice and for dignity and equality.
Using sporting metaphors and sporting events to deliver messages, especially political ones, are not alien to our knowledge. But use of sports as a political tool has remained minimalistic.
This is because the broader notion among the theorists and practitioners of politics is that sports and politics are separate entities and should not be mixed. But historical evidence suggests otherwise. In the past, sports has been used as a political tool, as a means of diplomatic recognition or isolation, as a vehicle of protest and propaganda, as a catalyst of conflict, as a way to gain prestige or further international cooperation, as a vehicle of internal social control, and as a stimulus to modernization and unification.
It should not come as a surprise to know that the Indian leadership, too, has immense discomfort in accepting that sports and politics are not alien to each other. In fact, its discomfort is so high that several senior political leaders (as well as a few eminent sportspersons) have on record voiced their opinion against mixing the two.
This discomfort was most noticeably visible during the 2012 Indian Grand Prix when Ferrari decided to sport the flag of Italy’s Navy on the nose of two cars participating in the event. Ferrari claimed that this gesture was to “pay tribute to one of the outstanding entities of our country, [and] also in hope that Indian and Italian authorities will soon find a solution to the situation involving two sailors from Italian Navy.”
Both the marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, are accused of killing two fishermen off the coast off Kerala. Annoyed by Ferrari’s decision to sport the flag despite India’s objection, the Ministry of External Affairs came out with a statement which read, “Using sporting events to promote causes which are not of a sporting nature is not in keeping with the spirit of any sport.”
The problem with such an understanding of the government, and its agencies, is that it forgets how often India has used cricket to mellow down tensions with Pakistan. Use of cricket to deflate tensions between the South Asian neighbours dates back to 1987, if not earlier. Zia-ul-Haq, then president of Pakistan, launched ‘cricket diplomacy’ by watching an India-Pakistan Test match in Jaipur along with Rajiv Gandhi, the then Indian prime minister.
Further, in 2005, then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh invited president Parvez Musharraf to New Delhi to watch another match. Later on, it was said that the peace process was “irreversible”. Again in 2011, Singh invited President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to watch the World Cup semi-final between the two rivals at Mohali. The match resulted in greater engagement between the two sides and was followed by meetings of the defence secretaries and foreign secretaries of both nations.
Another matter which is of vast interest is that of Parvez Rasool, an all-round cricketer from the conflict ravaged state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). There were reports suggesting that the government intends to “fast track” his selection to the national team in an attempt to mellow down political tensions of this insurgency ridden state. This attracted sharp criticism. The critics were of the opinion that Rasool should be playing because of his “cricketing merits” alone and nothing else.
This brings us to the question, what is so wrong about mixing sports and politics? Especially, when we have thriving examples where sports has been a means to political ends, at both domestic and international levels.
If one can play for raising funds towards disaster relief, if one can play to educate people about various diseases, if one can play for the cause of the socially/economically deprived, if one can play to claim/save/regain the honour of a nation, then why should one not play to defuse political tensions between nations?
What makes sports a potent tool is its widespread reach, its ability to cut across identity based divisions. The symbolic potency of sports in conveying diplomatic signs on an unrestricted stage is amazing. This is not to suggest that sports alone could resolve perturbing longstanding issues. Rather, it provides a window, in other words, creates a favourable environment where policies could be implemented and tested.
As a nation with the splendid desire of becoming a major global player in the coming future, India should not shy away from constructively using sports and sporting events. With a new government taking charge at the centre, and its demonstrated curiosity to engage with the neighbours, who knows a few sporting initiatives might significantly enhance the effectiveness of diplomatic and economic endeavours?
(First published in South Asia Monitor on 31st May, 2014)