India – Pakistan Davis Cup Controversy Brings Politics, Once Again, Into Sports

by Rajagopalan Rohinee

In crises, there is no better arbitrator than sports. Yet, paradoxically, sports (and sportspersons) are the first to be in crosshairs when political discourses go awry. The fallout brought about by flawed politics on sportspersons emerges in various forms, too.

There was Adolf Hitler who spun the narrative of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by disallowing participation of Jewish athletes. If that could be regarded as an exercise in moderation (by Hitler’s standards), Middle-eastern violence spilt over before the world when Palestinian terrorists abducted Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Interspersed along the way, then, are the other eventualities involving the non-participation of players – both forced and voluntary – in certain countries.

The latter bias is experienced by Israeli athletes who are often regarded as anathema by their Islamic neighbours in the Middle-east. It is also faced by sportspersons hailing from two nations in the Indian sub-continent – from India that gives the region its name and its immediate neighbour to the west, Pakistan – wanting to travel across the border for tournaments. And, this has been reiterated in the wake of the recent act of terrorism.

The suicide attack on India’s paramilitary forces on 14th February, in Kashmir, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) led to the death of 44 personnel. Even as the nation mourned for its dead, numbed and shocked by the audacity of the attack, calls grew louder asking for a fitting response. And, once it emerged that the bomber – a radicalised Kashmir-native – belonging to a terrorist outfit hailing from across the border, beyond calling out for the engagement of the Indian army, clamouring also grew asking for a blanket ban in all bilateral activities involving Pakistan.

Several Bollywood producers and actors have announced their decisions to stop upcoming movies from being released in the west-Asian country. But the louder impact has been on the sporting front, with Pakistani shooters not being granted visas to play in the Shooting World Cup (starting 23rd February) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) contemplating asking for a ban on Pakistan cricket team’s participation at the Cricket World Cup, to be played in England in May this year.

Narrowing the scope of this problem from other domains to tennis, this frustration also looks likely to spread over to the upcoming Davis Cup Group I tie between Pakistan and India, in Islamabad, in September. Prior to the attack on Indian soil – and on Indian soldiers – the All India Tennis Association (AITA) had cautiously admitted that India would be travelling to Pakistan rather than forfeit it and incur stringent penalties from the ITF. However, the wave of nationalistic fervour going around in the country has made it imperative – and near-impossible – for the AITA to take a like-minded call as the other sporting bodies of the country regardless of the consequences it would have to face.

So, why would Indian tennis – and the rest of the Indian sporting authorities – want to put their reputations on the line? Beyond India, then, why does every nation want to put the onus on sports as an entity to bear the burden of avenging politics?

Shallow as this seems, it is, however, not hard to understand why this has endured for so long.

Between the two nations, sports is about demonstrating nationalism – not just patriotism – as it is about displaying jingoism. When a team or a player enters a sporting arena, their presence ceases to be about the team or the player in isolation but becomes a part of the whole – the country, so to speak. To that end, references to the team or the player’s nationality are sought to be put out in the more beyond cursory acknowledgement. And while it is not right, those who are keen to hype up nationalistic references beyond tokenism in such manner, don’t consider it wrong in any way.

Then, perhaps, it is because of the latter mindset that sports finally makes itself known as a leveller unlike any other. Its spirit was truly reflected in the likes of Luz Long who helped Jesse Owens sprint away to Olympic glory before Hitler’s eyes at the Berlin Games as in tennisdom, it emerged the strongest in the teaming up of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi.

Pakistan's Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and India's Rohan Bopanna

Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and India’s Rohan Bopanna