Playing For India


What our babus propose, our judges dispose!

Or so it seems. Indian sport — and with it the careers of several young
and talented sportspersons, in particular — finds itself in a peculiar
quandary, admittedly not of its own making. In 2008, in a piquantly timed move,
the Indian government came out with its perverse version of a New Year “gift”
for foreign-based people of Indian origin who were not citizens: a directive
effectively prohibiting anyone who does not carry an Indian passport from
representing the country in international sports meets.

The directive disappointed and angered non-residents who felt that
allowing their kids to represent their homeland was but a minor concession the
Indian government could give in return for the remittances and expertise they
have been collectively repatriating into their mother-country for decades.
Furthermore, if an Italian-born foreigner like Sonia Gandhi could be offered
India’s prime ministership, and run the country albeit by remote control, why
stop a person of Indian descent from bringing sporting glory to the nation?


Equally vociferously, those who supported the policy decision viewed it
as apt justice for “Indians” who opt to live and train in the more salubrious
climes of the countries whose citizenship they have embraced, and who then
feign Indian-ness only to be able to participate in international sports events
where they otherwise wouldn’t have a sniffing chance of participation — leave
alone, success — if they sought to represent their adopted countries.

The issue of local contenders who face the odds of living and training
in the grind of India’s less-than-international-standard conditions, and thus
are unable to shine against the imported “Indians” in the selection trials, was
another spiky issue in the controversy. Where would the home-grown talent end
up if the latter routinely jostled them out of reckoning and deprived them of
their own national colors? When would these sons and daughters of the soil ever
get international exposure in the field of competitive sport?

The prohibitory policy directive from India’s Sports Ministry (“Not
Required Indians” Little India, February 2009) appeared at the time to have
effectively resolved the controversy for good. But true to the traditional
Indian belief that nothing dies, it only gets reincarnated in another form, the
contentious issue raised its head again when the High Court of Punjab and
Haryana last month struck down the governmental directive as discriminatory,
and instead directed the government to allow people with Overseas Citizen of
India (OCI) cards to represent the country in international tournaments.

In Sorab Singh Gill v Union of India, the High Court bench was ruling
on the petition of a shooter of Indian origin who obtained an OCI card in 2007,
won two gold medals representing India in the Asian Championships in Kuwait,
but was sidelined under the 2008 policy directive. The Court based its judgment
on an April 2005 gazette notification by the Ministry for Home Affairs
specifying that, apart from a multiple-entry lifetime visa and the exemption
from registering with the Foreign Registration Office on every visit, an OCI
cardholder could claim equal status with NRIs “in respect of all facilities
available to them in economic, financial and educational fields….”

Two later notifications from Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in
2007 and 2009 heaped several more benefits on OCIs, but the key citation was
the April 2005 directive. But even here, the Court resorted to some rather
sharply convoluted reasoning.

For one, the word “sports” features nowhere in the cited notification.
That however did not restrain the Court from enthusiastically accepting the
petitioner’s argument — based on two precedents from the Delhi High Court and
the Supreme Court of India — that, since modern educational policies regard
sports as an essential component of good education, the expression “education”
must be given a broad meaning.

The relevant question is how broad? Isn’t there a real danger of
vitiating a concept by diluting — even polluting — it beyond a reasonable
point? How far can one stretch an argument and expand its scope before it snaps
like an over-extended rubber-band?


True, education at its most basic involves the positive development of
every student’s mind, body and spirit. Also true, every educational institution
catering to a growing generation of youths is duty-bound to provide facilities
for sports and wholesome recreation as part of that experience. But aren’t we
comparing apples with oranges? Can we honestly equate the honest-to-goodness
sporting activity envisaged in a school curriculum with the glittering tamashas
put on brazen display in the name of sport to push sales-driven corporate
agendas? Even a cursory look at the rampant commercialization of international
sports — cricket is the prime suspect here — puts into serious question this
forced yet curiously facile linkage between sports and education today.

For another, the court put forth the rather curious conclusion that it
has not struck down the government’s policy directive, but merely put OCIs
(meaning persons of Indian origin anywhere in the world who can afford to pay
the one-time card fee of $275 or equivalent in local currency) on parity with
NRIs. This defies comprehension. By allowing a non-citizen to represent the
country in the face of a policy decision that sought to ensure “that players
who are Indian citizens only represent the country in national teams,” the
Court has all but pulled the rug from beneath the governmental authority and
riddled its directive with loopholes.

That’s not all. It cleverly sought to fine-tune the notion of Indian
citizenship and its relinquishment to suit its ends. According to the judgment,
the constitutional provision stripping Indian citizenship from someone who
voluntarily acquires the citizenship of another country does not apply to Sorab
Singh Gill, because he never “voluntarily” acquired U.S. citizenship. Reason:
he was born there — obviously an act beyond the pale of his own volition. Add
to this happy circumstance, the fact that he was brought to India by his parents
when he was a year old, and has since resided and studied in India — and you
have the argument sealed and delivered at least in the case of Sorab.

All of which opens a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. The possibility
that the Indian Government might appeal the judgment in the Supreme Court. The
possibility that future litigation on this issue might turn and twist on the
point that this is after all a High Court verdict which normally holds only
within its state borders. Also that it was expressly relevant to a single
individual, and so lacks broader application.

And the possibility that our bureaucrats might circumvent the judgment
with another cleverly crafted policy. To be fair, the government had come up
with the exclusionary directive only at the behest of an earlier judgment:
Delhi High Court, in Karm Kumar v Union of India, had asked for a uniform
policy to standardize the selection process across different sports and sports
bodies in the country.

But the possibility one dreads the most is the devastating effect such
a ping-pong skirmish between the bureaucracy and the judiciary could have on
the careers of Indian-origin sportspersons the world over. Imagine the
uncertainty of training for an international tournament with the gnawing
suspicion that another policy directive or court verdict might scramble again
one’s aspirations of playing for India.

Karm Kumar’s father, Rahul, lambasted the system for ruining his son’s
international career, which was on hold during the two-year pendency of the
Sorab Gill suit, during which squash player Karm reportedly lost his peak form.
An embittered Kumar (senior) has an interesting question for the ministry
babus: “If my son has an OCI card, but was not allowed to play for his country
because he does not have an Indian passport, what does the word ‘citizen’ in
OCI mean?”

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