February 22, 2019: After two Pakistani shooters and their coach were denied visas to participate in the ISSF Shooting World Cup in Delhi, the International Olympic Committee revoked the two Olympic quotas on offer in the Men’s 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event. Furthermore, it announced that it is suspending all talks with India regarding hosting future events in the country given the non-discrimination principles laid down in the Olympic charter that prohibits any National Olympic Committee from discriminating against any athlete irrespective of their nationality.
Feb 22, 2019: Committee of Administrators Vinod Rai says that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will be writing to its international host body ICC to boycott playing with Pakistan as a way of “telling the cricket community that in future we must sever ties with nations from where terror emanates.”
March 5, 2019: Almost a fortnight after the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) revoke on India, the world wrestling body, United World Wrestling (UWW), has asked all the national federations under it to stop communication with the Wrestling Federation of India. Two days later, the President of UWW issued a statement saying, “United World Wrestling this week sent a letter to all its National Federations to communicate that following recent world sporting events, the current climate in India is sensitive for hosting competitions.”
March 17, 2019: Hosting rights for the Junior Asian Championships scheduled to be held in July were taken away from India and given to Thailand instead. India had agreed to host the event after original hosts Lebanon declined and withdrew.
March 20, 2019: The closure of Pakistan’s air space in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes has resulted in India losing the hosting rights of the junior Davis Cup and Fed Cup, a source in the national federation said on Tuesday. However, AITA officials were quoted the media as saying that the move was actually a welcome one as it saved Indian sports administrators from asking the Indian government for visas for Pakistani visas which had a high chance of getting denied.
It has been over a month since the gruesome terrorist attack in Pulwama that saw the deaths of over 40 CRPF Jawans. The responsibility for the attacks was claimed by Pakistan-based terror outfit the Jaish-e-Mohammad and after that, tensions between the two neighbouring countries inevitably escalated fuelled shamelessly by politicians, hatemongers and unconfirmed media reports. And while as time passed, a major stakeholder (read: Indian politicians) deigned to mention it as a major achievement for the current government, the repercussions of deteriorating diplomacy between the two countries continues to affect India’s standing in the world of sports.
It would be too simplistic to say that “sports and politics should be kept apart.”
Just like war, global sports too has a long history of statement-making and resistance in a similar way that art and artists have. And while we may be familiar with the African American Olympic protest movement and the Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics as the US Anthem played in the background, Jesse Owens‘ defiance of the Aryan myth of supremacy in 1936 and more recently, Colin Kaepernick taking the knee to protest police brutality, these examples are by no means isolated or less in frequency.
In fact, it wasn’t just ethnic minorities who took a stand against self-proclaimed supremacists. In 1934, Albert Richter, one of the greatest race cyclists in inter-war Germany famously refused to perform the Nazi salute after a race, choosing instead, to stand with his Jewish trainer Ernst Berliner. Berliner had never left the cyclist’s side and trained him at great personal risk at a time when it was almost impossible for Jews to breathe in the country and in return, Richter’s gesture of putting his hand on his knee instead of up in salute was a powerful image. The cyclist paid a price for it though- he was found dead in 1940 under inexplicable circumstances.
When it’s not about making statements, it is about making sure of the survival of sub-cultures in open defiance of socially-created cultural hegemonies- most lucidly explained by the dominance of skateboarding in certain parts of America which is a part of the pop-culture for marginalised and economically backward settlements. These groups even vocally resist the bureaucratisation of the sport. For them, the culture is a part of them and there should be no space for competition or nothing to achieve for just living their life. It took hold of minority colonies in the same way that the hip-hop or punk culture did.
When an Indian shooter was denied travel to China
So far, I have tried to establish why it is quite naive and misinformed to exclude politics from sports and vice-versa but in the current context of escalated tensions between India and Pakistan, there is one more pertinent example that we must dig up before we talk about using sport for diplomacy.
In April 2010, Indian shooter Pemba Tamang was the centre of headlines in all sport-related news in the country. Four years prior to that, Tamang had proven his mettle by winning a Gold medal for India at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in the Men’s 25 metre rapid fire pistol event (ironic, given that this was the event at the centre of the controversy at the recent ISSF World Cup in Delhi) and was gearing to participate at a Shooting World Cup in Beijing.
However, his plans hit a snag because the army shooter from Arunachal Pradesh had been issued a stapled visa by China. China issues stapled visas to Indian citizens from the state of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir as its stance has always been that the two regions are “disputed”, despite India strongly objecting to the claims quite consistently over the years. In 2012, under the UPA Government, China agreed to stop issuing stapled visas for Jammu and Kashmir citizens but it has refused to soften its stance on Arunachal Pradesh which it has claimed is a part of Chinese territory since 2006.
9 years after the incident involving Tamang, The Bridge caught up with the shooter who now trains in Maharashtra and he had a firsthand perspective to offer to stem from his own experience which still holds true in 2019:
“Because I was issued a stapled visa by Chinese officials, immigration at Mumbai refused to let me travel because the Indian government does not recognise these visas as valid. It was very strange at the time because I had previously travelled to Beijing multiple times before on stapled visas without it being an issue. I was told about the Indian government’s policy regarding stapled visas after all other formalities surrounding immigration were done with. It was new back then. I had to return and was unable to participate in the World Cup.
People from Arunachal have always been caught in this dispute, not just in sports but in most other walks of life. However, this was the first time that I experienced it first hand. I have been to China approximately four or five times in my life. I still have not gotten a normal visa. I travelled to China once after that, when we went for the Asian Games in 2010 but then, the accreditation card issued to athletes sufficed as enough documentation. This October, we have the Military World Games in China as well which I hope to be travelling for, of course, pending selection trials.
For this particular World Cup in 2010, the NRAI tried their best to get a fresh visa for me so I could participate. But it was short notice and, consequently, all effort was useless and without result.
In my understanding as a sportsperson and a military man, my take on the matter is quite simple. Sports has always proved to be an effective way of establishing healthy competition. Rivalries on field mirror national sentiment and the victories are celebrated. Sports ki bhavnaao se dosti badhti hai. If visas are not issued, dosti kaise badhegi? Why segregate just a small colony of people in a political war that is no closer to being resolved. Ultimately, it is the people who suffer in battles they may not have chosen for themselves.”
-Pemba Tamang, Indian Shooter.
We may not be in a position to decide what is right and what is wrong when it comes to matters as sensitive as diplomacy, we may not be qualified to. But that does not stop us from measuring the consequences of political tensions with the limited information we have and see that sportspersons are being dealt more than what they may have bargained for presently. For a long time, a sporting stage served as a major platform for oppressed folk to make a statement, to fight their battles in a way that draws attention to themselves, to represent the hopes and dreams of a public consciousness that mirrors their own. So why can’t that method continue now?
At the end of the day, who really are the losers?