Cashing in on the sporting spirit

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Assamese athletes carrying the Games torch to the Indira Gandhi athletics stadium in Guwahati on February 8. Photo: R. Ragu
Assamese athletes carrying the Games torch to the Indira Gandhi athletics stadium in Guwahati on February 8. Photo: R. Ragu

M.S. Prabhakara

Can the feel-good factor from the success of the National Games held in Guwahati be used to address the alienation in the Northeast?

A REMARKABLE feature of the National Games that recently concluded in Guwahati was the performance of sportspersons from two northeastern States Manipur and hosts Assam. Manipur, which led the medals tally throughout the first week of the games, finally ended up second behind the Services with 51 gold, 32 silver, and 40 bronze. Assam, whose total tally of 148 medals surpassed both Services (142) and Manipur (123), was third with 38 gold, 53 silver, and 57 bronze.

Besides, athletes from Manipur figured in teams from other parts of the country too. This was especially so in events such as Wu Shu, a traditional Chinese martial art introduced for the first time in the National Games. If one were to make a list of medal winners purely in terms of the State of origin of the winner, Manipur would probably appear at the top of the list.

This is truly extraordinary, given the perception, not entirely without basis, that Assam and Manipur are affected by insurgency and a separatist mindset that has taken the route of insurgency, and constantly need to be hectored to become part of the "mainstream." And yet, without ever compromising on the strong sense of their unique self, the two States have been the most enthusiastic participants in sports at the national level (and at the international level as part of national teams), competing on equal terms with athletes from other States with far superior infrastructure and support systems, and winning.

The case of Assam is even more interesting. The run-up to the games was marked by a series of apparently unending snafus; the opening was deferred twice. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) threatened to disrupt the games, and finally withdrew its boycott call only, as it said, in response to the appeal by several distinguished Assamese sportspersons. The obverse of this grand gesture was the outfit's disdainful dismissal of other appeals by the authorities, including a unanimous resolution by the State Assembly. Finally, when ULFA decided to stay neutral, the weather threatened to play spoilsport and the sportspersons were hardly in a positive frame of mind on the eve of the games.

And yet, at playtime, the athletes surpassed themselves. The participation by the people of Assam was no less remarkable, considering the many hardships in attending the events at venues separated by long distances and poor public transport. It is easy to dismiss this as a common feature in the State. In this instance, however, there were several unique features that could and should have militated against such participation. This did not happen.

Is there a message then from the Games? Certainly. A fairly straightforward one for the national political leadership and the leadership of sports as a competitive activity and commercial enterprise. The State and the region are more than ever active partners in the national and international markets, no less so in sports. This feel-good factor is crying out to be exploited. However, those in the State and the region, until now left out of the process except as objects or recipients of such a process, should also have a say, perhaps a decisive say. A sentiment that the increasingly aggressive regional bourgeoisie, including the political leadership, will heartily support.

Do the Games have a message for ULFA as well? The outfit, which despite its lofty disdain of all things `Indian' closely monitors everything that happens in the State and the region as well as national and international events, cannot but have noticed the success of sportspersons from Assam and the region, the extent of the popular support to and participation, even if only as spectators, of the people in the games.

ULFA too has sent out its own message. In a press release issued midway through the Games, it noted that operations by the security forces against ULFA had not been suspended, even though the organisation had withdrawn its boycott call. It pointedly referred to the killing of one of its cadre in the wake of the withdrawal of the boycott call. "They have continued their operations which has once again prompted us to take to the path of violence," the statement said.

The resolution of what ULFA describes as the "Indo-Assam political conflict" is nowhere in sight. The peace process initiated by ULFA, in the form of the People's Consultative Group, seems to have totally lost its script even though those involved in it seem willing to come on board again.

The problem, as always, is finding a middle ground, difficult if not impossible in this instance since what is being sought to be negotiated is not greater autonomy for a constituent unit of the country but the sovereignty and territorial unity of a country that is nowhere near to being on the verge of disintegration, or defeat in war, or occupation by a foreign power, the usual prerequisites for the collapse of a formally structured and internationally recognised nation state.

India despite its many internal weaknesses and inequities is a very strong country a reality that ULFA at least in public refuses to recognise and acknowledge, though this reality is clearly factored into its own calculations in the search for the mirage.



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