Last week, in a Twitter conversation, I had pointed out that many of us feel we should listen to Bollywood superstars when they choose to voice their concerns over ‘intolerance’, but also feel they have a right to remain silent on acts of religious terrorism like Pulwama. While celebrities should be allowed to maintain silence on volatile issues, the same needs to be applied consistently. In less than a week, this issue merits further examination as the debate over whether to play cricket with Pakistan in an international tournament has heated up.

A television channel called upon Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar to take a stand, and subsequently criticised the guarded, balanced reaction given by both retired greats of Indian cricket where they essentially said that they would abide by whatever decision the government takes. Predictably, there was a furore on social media. 

There are two issues at hand here. First, if boycotting all cricket engagements with Pakistan including — and up to — pulling out of the World Cup, or conceding the match against Pakistan, is an effective protest against Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of terrorism, as well as, if doing so is in India’s best interests. Second, of course, is this growing tendency in a part of the mainstream as well as social media of all political hues to call upon famous people to express opinions on potentially volatile issues and then, based upon their response, making it into a referendum on their character. Both require serious discussion while keeping our understandably inflamed passions in check.

On the first issue, as IOC’s recent action suggests, India may have a long fight ahead if the aim is to make Pakistan a pariah internationally. United as the world might be in its opposition to terrorism, there is no other country joining India in the boycott. Let’s remember, when 66 countries including the US had boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, India was one of the countries not to join the boycott. The only reason to bring that up is to point out that in high-prestige international sporting events, often countries not wholly unsympathetic to your cause might not join your protest. On the other hand, in 1974, when India forfeited their tie against South Africa in the Davis Cup final, it didn’t do much beyond making a statement and handing the cup to the rival team without hitting a ball. Given a similar situation, if India allows Pakistan to win through a forfeit, are we sure we are achieving anything other than making an emotional statement? The fact that India’s grievance against Pakistan is far more immediate and serious than the aforementioned examples does not mean that the efficacy of the countermeasures should not weigh on the policymaker’s minds.

In the given circumstances, discouraging individual nations from having bilateral events with Pakistan and creating conditions for individual players to be eligible for the money-spinner IPL might be a more effective tactic to isolate Pakistan over a longer period. The large following and resultant big money that playing in India automatically brings are powerful levers. However, these levers need to be used in a calibrated rather than a knee-jerk manner. Equally, any policy on this subject must cover all sports the two countries might play against each other, and not just the most popular one.

And that means Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Kapil are right when they say they will abide by what the government decides. Taking a decision about not engaging with a county requires consideration of multiple economic, diplomatic and political aspects. Clearly, such decision-making is beyond the scope of retired cricket players. At the same time, because of their outstanding achievements on the cricket field, the words of these three men count. Even today. Every great power brings great responsibility. The circumspect responses by these three gentlemen have essentially given the stakeholders, primarily the government and the BCCI, some room to manoeuvre as well as the time to make decisions. What some journalists want is to take that room and time away in exchange of TRPs for their respective channels, and enforce their writ on the government using the shoulders of cricketing greats to fire from.  

As the debate on social media keeps on getting more polarised — and as the mainstream media keeps abandoning even the pretence of being neutral — celebrities not being given the option to stay out of a debate is becoming more and more commonplace. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 elections, singing superstar Taylor Swift was accused of being an ‘envoy of Trump’s values’ just because she did not join the protesting artistes. This is the real tragedy of the post-truth social media age: those who speak about social issues selectively, in spite of being inconsistent, are likelier to get support from their partisan base, while people like Swift in 2017 (since then she has been a more vocal supporter of the Democrats, which must have assuaged the critic’s fears somewhat). Tendulkar, who chooses to remain consistently silent on issues outside his wheelhouse, gets thrown under the bus! Sadly, this conflation of silence with complicity is no longer the sole domain of the Left. 

This is problematic for many reasons. First of all, by making politics the ultimate test of purity, we are making it the fulcrum of everyone’s lives, whether they want it or not. We are essentially reducing the whole experience of one human life to a set of political beliefs. Secondly, by automatically calling all disagreements as evidence of moral rot, we are taking the nuance out of the debate, thereby opening doors for the fringe on either side as the moderates are intimidated into silence. This is the ultimate “with us or against us” era where achievers are being arm-twisted into taking a stand. 

The greatest moral problem, however, has to do with the respective positions that the journalist and the celebrity are assigned in this debate. That the journalist, a newsman whose contributions to the country range from the debatable to the non-existent, feels he is entitled to question the purity of the celebrity, a man who transcended his sports to become an icon, not just for athletic excellence, but for the very aspirational India, tells we are rapidly sliding down a slippery slope that makes no demands of the judges except their ability to build a following and whip up frenzied passions. This is the society where the social justice warriors get to sit in the moral arbiter’s chair through no virtue other than their self-proclaimed moral superiority and the achievers are subjected to random tests of purity. If there is a better way to incentivise entitlement, while punishing achievement and enterprise, let’s know about it.