Tuesday, October 5, 2010

And the games people play...Reflections on the Commonwealth Games

A number of Indians, and unfortunately too small a number, were of the opinion that the only reason that the Commonwealth Games were being hosted by India, was to generate pride in the acquisition of a status symbol. This status symbol was to be the hosting of a ‘world class’ sporting event. It would demonstrate to the world that India was a super-power, an economic force that could be taken seriously. It could now hold a place among the leaders of the nations. While not grudging India this position, or its desire to be a leader among nations, a number of us felt that India had no business strutting around on the world stage in this manner when the country was beset by a variety of problems. These problems include a civil war that has been created by the Indian state not responding to the basic needs of its tribal and rural population. It includes the precarious economic conditions of peasants forced to commit suicide, children who are not given the chance of education but forced into labour. The problems are numerous, and the generation of pride was not going to help address any of these problems. On the contrary, the generation of pride would drop a veil over these problems and force us into a false sense of complacency.

It was for this reason that a couple of weeks ago, when the mess around the organization of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) first hit the international press stands, there were a number of us who were delighted. Our intense desire was to see the Games cancelled and the Indian government be shamed and taught a lesson. Our hope was that such a cancellation would shock the Indian socio-political system to sense, and force it to mend its ways. This shock we hoped would create the space for a developmental process that benefited all Indians, not just a small segment of elites, as is currently the case.

Recent events have intervened however to indicate just why the generation of this pride is such an issue for the Indian socio-political system. When the international media first focused on the CWG, by pointing out the filthy state of the Games Village, a number of us took this to be the gospel truth. Subsequently however, with other images becoming available we realized that this filth and incompleteness was only a part of a larger picture of competent attempts to meet ‘international standards’. Personally, it was when the Australian news crew tried to suggest that it had sneaked explosives into the Games village that a number of issues were made glaringly clear. It became clear that a good amount of international coverage on the incompetence of the Games authorities was not motivated by the same spirit in which some of us opposed the Games. This international coverage was motivated by an attempt to reinforce a global hierarchy, where white ‘developed’ nations are perfect, and can dictate to coloured ‘developing’ nations the norms for being civilized and developed. The focus on Indian poverty, the lack of a decent working environment for the labour involved, the child labour involved in producing the event; while in themselves valid, were merely ways in which India (and other countries like China, South Africa, and in future Brazil) could be ‘put in place’ within the global hierarchy.

It is partly for this reason, where countries of the South are constantly shamed, that pride and the acquisition of status symbols becomes an obsession. This desire to redress humiliation is understandable. What these countries (and India particularly) seem to fail to realize however is that by grasping for these status symbols they are setting themselves up for further humiliation. For those all giddy after the completion of the Opening Ceremony and the fact that the Games were not cancelled know this. This occurrence does not change the many valid critiques that were mounted against the Games by the international media. The validity of these critiques remain. The international media continues to mock India, even though the Indian population seems to have been induced to forget this fact in the euphoria subsequent to ‘successful completion’. It is because, despite the dishonesty of the motivations, the validity of the critique remains, that countries like India should realize that this mass spectacle route will never really give them the status they desire.

We should recognize that the Olympics and Commonwealth Games are parts of a larger model of development that were built on the colonial extraction of wealth, that continue today. There is no way the formerly colonized countries can ever manage to beat the inventors of the game, especially when the rules were and continue to be formulated by these former colonizers. The hope for these countries lies in changing the rules of the game. Indeed, the hope for these countries lies in formulating a new game, where the rules emphasize genuine equality. Part of the formula in rewriting the rules then, rests in rejecting the models of the existing game. Rejecting the wasteful expenditure of the Olympics and CWG is a critical part of the formula.

There was a time when, under what has come to be called Nehruvian socialism, there was a partial attempt to be different and reinvent the game. Though we did not succeed and eventually got sucked into this international game, the important fact is that we tried. The CWG attempt by India perhaps represents the final abandonment of this attempt to change the rules of the game. For this reason then, we should see the kind of derisive international media attention as our just and entirely expected rewards. We would be better served if we took note of the some of the valid critiques raised by both national and international media, and sought to work on setting the Indian house right, even as we set about to change the rules though which the international game of nations is played.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 6 October 2010)

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