The Pakistan cricket team thrashed Virat Kohli’s team to win their first Champions Trophy title last Sunday. A section of the Indian media decided not to cover the matches involving Pakistan and argued for India to boycott the Pakistan cricket team. A country which sponsors terrorist attacks against India, they reasoned, should not be indulged with sporting contacts by the latter. Both this argument and a more ambitious one—using India’s heft in the cricketing world to organize a broader, more punishing international boycott of the Pakistani cricket team—have been a part of public discourse in India for many years. This is worth examining. After all, the Afghanistan Cricket Board decided to scrap cricket ties with Pakistan after the 31 May Kabul blast was traced to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), in response, has accused its Afghan counterpart of “playing politics”. Can a sports boycott serve as a legitimate tool to highlight to the world Pakistan’s use of terror as a state policy? And can such a boycott be an effective coercive instrument in changing the behaviour of the Pakistani state? The history of major sporting boycotts may offer a clue. The biggest success through a sports boycott was realized in South Africa in the apartheid era. Anti-apartheid activists recognized the utility of such a boycott in denting the morale of the country’s white regime. They actively mobilized international opinion to press other countries to suspend their sporting ties with South Africa.
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The South African regime contended, like the PCB, that sports and politics should not be mixed. The anti-apartheid activists countered: there can be “no normal sports in an abnormal country”. This argument resonated worldwide, including in international forums ranging from the UN to the Non-Aligned Movement. As a result, South Africa was expelled from the Olympics in 1964. New Zealand cancelled its rugby team’s tour to South Africa in 1967 and the South African cricket team tour to England in 1968 could not survive the public pressure on selectors to pick Basil D’Oliveira, the South Africa-born cricketer of colour, in the English cricket team. By 1970, Rob Nixon notes in his powerful article Apartheid On The Run: The South African Sports Boycott, “the ruling bodies of over twenty sports had expelled South Africa.”
While this was a successful example of a sports boycott contributing to effective political transformation, there are many unsuccessful ones too. In 1980, the then US president Jimmy Carter persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets left Afghanistan only after nine long years and the 1980 boycott is no more than a footnote, if at all, in the history of the Cold War. Its only success was in attracting a retaliatory boycott by the USSR and several of its allies in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The Arab countries have often attempted to boycott Israeli sporting contingents without any success at generating a sustained global movement; there have been episodic boycotts of Israeli teams and athletes by some Muslim countries protesting against the occupation of Palestinian territory. The difference in South Africa’s instance was the near global support that was also manifested in harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions in addition to the sports boycott. Both the US and the USSR had numerous allies to provide them the oxygen of support during the reciprocal Olympics boycott, and Israel has had the West’s almost unwavering support.
Implementing an effective international sports boycott of Pakistan, including in the Olympics, will be very difficult because of its continued relevance to great powers. Pakistan has provided the US with geographical access and logistical support in the fight against the Taliban. For China, Pakistan is a tool to keep Indian ambitions limited to South Asia and also, of late, a link between its less developed western provinces and the Indian Ocean.
Moreover, terrorism has not shown the same capacity as racism to attract unequivocal condemnation. Almost all major countries have flirted with this evil to achieve short-term objectives. Ironically, it was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that not just made the US boycott the 1980 Olympics but also fund terrorist groups to force a Soviet withdrawal. As of today, the Russians are hobnobbing with the Taliban and China is supporting Pakistani terrorist groups in the UN. India too doesn’t have a clean hand, given its past engagement with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
The lack of a global consensus on terrorism is evident from the fact that the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism first proposed in 1996 by India in the UN General Assembly has not seen much progress since then. In such a situation, the idea of mobilizing opinions in different capitals for a sports boycott targeting Pakistan seems illusory. For its part, India has already ruled out bilateral tournaments with Pakistan. The Pakistani players are no longer seen in the marquee Indian Premier League. These steps have indeed hurt Pakistan cricket financially—evident in the $60 million legal notice sent by the PCB to the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) to claim the losses suffered by the former.
But this quantum of loss is too little to induce any behaviour change by the Pakistani state. India’s credible options are in the military and diplomatic domains. The idea of a sports boycott is unworkable for the moment.