Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sachin's first words; his first political stand

With his ‘Mumbai for all’ statement, Tendulkar finally took a political stand, striking a chord with Ali and Owens. But what is it that deters our sportsmen from being politically outspoken?

After keeping quiet for two decades on anything that appeared even remotely sensitive, last week Sachin Tendulkar delivered his version of Ali’s I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong remark. "Mumbai belongs to India, that’s how I look at it. I’m extremely proud to be a Maharashtrian, but I am an Indian first," said Tendulkar.

The Mumbai-for-all remark was a departure from all those years of silence. And it’s not just Tendulkar. If Indian sports stars have a common trait, it’s being apolitical. So why did he take this figurative leap that evening? No one can answer that except Tendulkar. But whatever the cause, the remark got the Shiv Sena chief all worked up. He warned Tendulkar "to keep off the political pitch" for his own well-being. Tendulkar may have angered Bal Thackeray, but with his one statement he aligned himself with the Muhammad Ali and the Jesse Owens of the sporting world. His words became representative of larger constituencies. And by speaking his mind, many say, he reinvented himself.

Tendulkar’s silence, and now his statement, only reiterates an abiding question: why has India, which has seen wars and riots, battled communalism and casteism, failed to produce a sports icon of defiance? For all the sportsmen and women who have come from humble backgrounds and oppressed classes, why have we not produced any symbol of protest? Why don’t we have an Ali?

"This is a major failure of Indian sports," says sociologist Ashis Nandy. "During the colonial times we were brainwashed into believing that sports was apolitical in nature. That it was not right to let politics enter sports." And even after Independence, Nandy says, we didn’t change. "The only politics which seemed valid to us was the politics of nationalism. Apart from the time when India refused to play with South Africa because of apartheid, we’ve never been political," he says.

In 1975, when the Emergency was clamped, "writers, artists, social scientists protested" but bureaucrats and sportsmen kept away. "Sportspersons did not open their mouths during the anti-Sikh riots or during the Gujarat riots," says Nandy.

But sportsmen steering away from politics is perhaps a trend that’s not limited to India. Says Prof Vinay Lal, lecturer of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Of Cricket, Guiness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture: "It is true that our sportsmen and sportswomen have never taken strong stands on political matters, but I would say that this is by and large the case all over the world. The case of Muhammad Ali might seem different but Ali had converted to Islam, and, in some respects, had already become marginal to American society. Even without the conversion, let us not forget that as a black man Ali already stood at the margins, and therefore was emboldened to take some risks".

Lal says the example of Jesse Owens too has to be viewed within broader geopolitics. Owens became a living repudiation of Nazi racial ideology and "was almost thrust into becoming a political symbol". Lal adds: "I think we would be hardpressed to find white sportsmen and sportswomen in the West who have been spokespersons, eloquent or otherwise, against injustice, discrimination, and racism."

Both Ali and Jesse Owens became symbols of the fight against injustice and racial oppression with the "knowledge that they had, or would have, a world audience".

Indian sportspersons, on the other hand, lack that visibility on a global platform. "I suspect also that they have only in recent years come into money in a big way, and they are probably loath to jeopardise their commercial interests by appearing to take political positions," says Lal.

Ace shooter Abhinav Bindra agrees. Sportspersons need the support of the establishment. "Trying to support even non-sports issues could come in the way of your progress. Let’s focus on producing world class sports icons. When we do that, hopefully we’ll be able to produce sports icons of defiance," he says.

Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan points out that Indian sports may not have a symbol of protest at present but it has had sportspersons in the past who have spoken their minds. "There was Ranjit Singh and Duleep Singh, who objected to Bodyline. Lala Amarnath too. But that was during the colonial era," says Visvanathan. "None of our sportsmen had strong political views after that. There are cricketers and others now who wear a black band for AIDS and tiger conservation but that’s social work and not a political statement." Cricket, in particular, and sports in general in India, is a sign of mobility rather than a search for justice, Visvanathan says.

"When Mohun Bagan beat the British football team (East Yorkshire Regiment, 1911 IFA Shield final), it was a political statement against the Queen. In 1936, when Dhyan Chand’s team beat the Nazis, it was a statement. Post Independence there were no statements. It started changing from 1960. Commercialisation killed it," insists Visvanathan.

Of course, Sunil Gavaskar refusing the MCC membership in 1990 because a steward had once returned him from the gates of Lord’s, too can be considered to be a political statement of sorts, but it was Sourav Ganguly’s shirt-waving on the Lord’s balcony that captured the imagination, post-Independence.

"He understood the symbolism of politics," says Visvanathan of Ganguly.

"Taking his shirt off at the Natwest Trophy was a political statement against the Whites. By removing his shirt, Ganguly said we got a six-pack mentality of cricket. Bhutia is another example but he is a meek fighter and sports is anyway regionalised in India. Hockey is not big enough now. It will not capture the imagination if some hockey player was to revolt. So Indian sports is a politics of a silent movie. There is no speech involved here," adds the sociologist.

But do sports fans want sports stars to have political views? "It’s unfair to expect sports stars - many of them who have never gone to college - to be idealists of society. They don’t have the intellectual bandwidth, and worse, they might even mess it up if they speak on certain sensitive issues," says historian Ramchandra Guha.

But there have been some exceptions. Jaipal Singh, a Munda tribal who captained the Indian hockey team to gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, was one of them but he remains largely forgotten. He formed the Adivasi Mahasabha - later to be known as the Jharkhand Party. An active leader of the Adivasi cause, as a Member of Parliament in the 1950s, he lobbied for the rights of the scheduled tribes and the demand for a separate state, which was realized in 2000 when Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar.

Even before Jaipal, there was an Indian sportsperson who did play such a role, one whose exploits were chronicled in Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field. In his seminal chapter ‘Caste’, Guha writes on Palwankar Baloo, an "untouchable" who bowled left-arm spin and is regarded as the first great cricketer produced by India.

In 1915, in the Quadrangular for the Hindu-Parsi match, when Baloo was dropped, protests were held all across Mumbai, accusing the Hindu selection committee of having conspired to throw Baloo out. In 1919, there were similar controversies surrounding Baloo but he played after much furore. "From 1895, when Baloo first began playing competitive cricket, the Palwankar brothers - Baloo, Vithal and Shivram - had struggled to be included in mixed teams, struggled to be served tea and cakes in the cups and plates used by their fellows, struggled to be rewarded with the leadership status their achievement had called for. The 1920 Quadrangular was their most substantial social victory to date," writes Guha.

"In that sense, Baloo is the only sports icon of defiance India has produced so far. He initiated talks between Gandhi and Ambedkar and also mediated between them," he adds.

In the Nineties, Tendulkar was a messiah who was supposed to salve the wounded pride of a nation by scoring runs. "There were such silly expectations in the ’90s surrounding Tendulkar. He had to score runs and give Indian people a false sense of success," says Guha.

In his 20th year of playing in international cricket, Tendulkar might have turned a corner and realised that in an India so starkly different from the ’90s, it is not enough for a man of his stature merely to score runs. He needs to go beyond the boundary, rise above the surrounding parochialism, enlist himself as the member of the world religion and become the transcendent athlete. That Friday evening when he said "Mumbai for all" was the day he took the first baby step towards it.

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