The Anand episode

Unfazed by the nationality issue, World chess champion Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand plays simultaneous chess with 40 enthusiastic mathematicians who were taking part in an international congress in Hyderabad.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The unfortunate incident involving chess master Viswanathan Anand only confirms the insensitivity that marks the treatment of a champion by a society that believes sport in India is cricket and little else, writes Vijay Lokapally.

“We don't treat our champions well.” When a super performer like Kapil Dev makes this observation it is time to sit up and take notice of the fact that champions are not accorded the status they deserve.

The difference between a celebrity and a champion is huge in India. The unfortunate episode involving chess master Viswanathan Anand only confirms the insensitivity that marks the treatment of a champion by a society that believes sport in India is cricket and little else.

Well, as champion cueist Michael Ferreira notes, “there are the cricketers and there are the rest. It is time to sift sports-loving people from cricket-loving people in this country.”

Anand is known the world over for his humility and the warmth that he exudes when meeting his fans. His opponents too are known to admire him and think he is the best advertisement for the game. But he was laid low by a tactless ‘babu' in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), who asked Anand to prove his citizenship. This inconsiderate act came after the Hyderabad University and the Maths Congress wanted to confer an honorary doctorate on Anand. An approval was needed from the HRD Ministry, but only humiliation was in store for the affable chess champion.

All because he happens to spend more time in Spain than in India!

“We got a call (from HRD Ministry) asking if we were sure Anand is an Indian and whether we could provide them with some evidence. It was embarrassing but we provided it,” said Rajat Tandon, secretary of the Maths Congress Organising Committee. The ridiculous and insensitive bureaucratic obstructions from the HRD Ministry attracted widespread criticism. The Union Minister for HRD, Kapil Sibal, slammed by the opposition in Parliament, made quick amends by apologising to Anand.

Kapil Dev... telling it as it is.-PTI

Sibal was quoted, “I rang up (Viswanathan) Anand at his hotel and told him that we are sorry for what has transpired and as far as we are concerned we wish to award him an honorary degree. He indicated to me that this may create a problem because he has got some other functions. I said then any date of your convenience, which he has very kindly accepted. So it is not an issue any more.”

Anand's response was typically gracious. “He (Sibal) called and said he was really sorry... I don't feel that I am in a country which is trying to genuinely humiliate me. When the whole thing came about it was disappointing but I think by now I understand that these are bureaucratic things which happen and you can see the funny side of it. The silver lining is that people now know that I am really an Indian completely.”

Kapil, however, was critical. “I would like to know if the sarkari babu who called Anand to confirm his citizenship is an Indian himself. Because I don't think a true Indian would want to check if Anand was an Indian. To me, he is the greatest sportsman we have seen. It was an insult and it comes from the fact that we are insensitive towards our champions. It is ironical that Indians, in spite of so few sporting heroes in the country, are indifferent and ignorant of their achievements or even presence,” said Kapil, who has been treated shabbily by the cricket authorities for his role in launching the Indian Cricket League (ICL).

Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra was also upset at the treatment meted out to Anand. “Whatever has happened is unfortunate. Care must be taken to respect our heroes who toil for the glory of India,'' Bindra said.

It is generally seen that Indians don't take pride in sporting achievements other than in cricket. Displaying our nationalist feelings is limited to the waving of flags in a few sporting events staged in the country, a one-day cricket match, a Davis Cup tie, or, in recent times, may be boxing.

The reasons are many. But Ferreira believes the media is also guilty of not being fair when reporting the events. “The media, both electronic and print, is responsible for bringing the achievements of our sportsmen in the public domain. The cricket-centric bias of the media people cannot be ignored here. Unless our sportspersons win (nothing but the title matters), we don't take note of them. Most media establishments are not consistent in giving the sportspersons their due.”

This is one reason why most Indian sportsmen/women believe in the philosophy that “you have to keep winning to remain somebody or else you would become a nobody.” It is also a case of being visible. Anand experienced it once when a fellow passenger asked, “What do you do for a living?” Anand replied “I play chess.” The gentleman quipped, “Oh. What is there in chess unless you play like Anand?” Our chess champion smiled and chose not to identify himself.

Ferreira says, “We sometimes recognise our champions, but it essentially depends on what sport you represent. Even non-performing cricketers are far more easily visible to the common man than achievers from any other discipline. I have nothing against cricket. I have many cricketers as friends but the bias is well established and is a reflection of the society we live in. Are you trying to tell me that a Mary Kom or an Arjun Atwal is any less than any big cricketer? It is sad that we as a nation are besotted with one sport. You have to treat all sporting icons the same.”

Billiards and snooker legend Michael Ferreira honours S. Dung Dung, member of the 1980 Moscow Olympics men's hockey squad at the Sahara India Sports Awards in November 2009. Ferreira has always championed the cause of all sportsmen.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Kapil was unsparing. “This happened because chess is not a popular sport. I know that apart from cricket, sportsmen don't get the attention they deserve. Would that babu have the guts to ask a Sachin Tendulkar or a Virender Sehwag to prove his citizenship? Unfortunately, in our country the sportsmen are at the mercy of the officials.

“Look at the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India)… It is obsessed with foreigners (as coaches) and has no place for some of our own great cricketers. All because we just don't respect our own sports achievers. I worked hard for my cricket and if the BCCI doesn't recognise my effort I won't lose sleep over it. But I would certainly feel let down if I was Viswanathan Anand. Being asked to prove your citizenship can be shattering.”

A former international, unwilling to be identified, was livid. “A majority of our so-called sports lovers, mostly from the urban belt, don't pay to watch sports events. Since the priority of these ‘sports-loving' people is such, what do you expect from the man on the street? The ‘babus' working in Ministries are as ignorant as the layman. Let's accept that as a nation, we don't appreciate or acknowledge the efforts put in by our sportspersons. We don't back them when they don't win. It is indeed ironical that more people read a small snippet/gossip published in the newspaper accompanying a photograph of Sania Mirza than a world-record making performance of a shooter or an archer.”

As a nation we lack sports culture and Ferreira confirms with an example: “There is this great event in Australia called the Melbourne Cup (a horse race). It is held on the first Tuesday in November and the whole of Australia comes to a stop to watch it. Everyone in Australia follows it. That is what I call sports culture. I am sorry to say we don't have one and that is why we revel in insulting our sporting heroes.”

Agrees Bindra. “In Anand's case, I think the official was very insensitive. It is not that we don't care about our champions at all, but such silly things do crop up. They prove that they are not caring when it comes to dealing with sportsmen, forget champions. It certainly comes from a lack of sporting culture.”

According to S. Ganesh, a die-hard sports lover, it is a sad reflection on the society. “In India we rarely treat our sportspersons with respect. It is more of a blind idol worship without any respect for individuals or sports. And, when it comes to cricket, we reach such a frenzy in our appreciation that it leaves many sportspersons cold. Our knowledge of sports is limited to the time spent on the couch watching sports rather than playing sports. How easily we rubbish a batsman for not hitting Brett Lee for a six without knowing that on the ground, you can hardly see the ball, let alone hit it.

“If we only were to respect our sportspersons for their achievements (the very fact that these sportspersons represent India and are chosen out of a billion should be a cause for celebration for all of us) and understand their failures, we would be more considerate. I firmly believe that India is not a sports country and we do not promote enough of it in school. All we do is to make our children get 99% through learning by rote and do not teach them about failures. Sports teaches you about failures as well as successes.''