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Choices in black and white

By Ashwin Mahesh
February 03, 2003 11:38 IST
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More than two decades ago, Robert Mugabe came to power in a free Zimbabwe, at the head of a nation newly liberated from colonial rule. Abundant in many natural resources, the country, like others in southern Africa, could reasonably look forward to better years. Curious pleasure cruisers on the Zambezi were treated to a tremendous celebration of freedom, as the ghosts of Cecil Rhodes and other plunderers of his ilk faded into the sunset of African history. It seems a very long time ago, until one considers that Mugabe has remained in power all this time, and not always with the affection of his people.

In twenty years, the evolution of the President from leader to looter, and the scourge of AIDS that has marked the same period, has turned Zimbabwe into the unfortunate and predictable wind of post-colonial Africa. A dying, malnourished nation today faces the world with the optimistic visage of liberation long buried, and begging bowl in hand. To distract attention from his obvious failures of leadership, Mugabe has turned upon the one people most vulnerable to his style of government -- the descendants of white settlers who acquired the country's most arable lands in a different time.

There are those who would defend the land grab as a restoration of rightful ownership to the deprived. The evidence for this simply isn't to be found; most repossessed land is quickly taken over my ministers and flunkies of the government, and the much-touted return of native lands to poor black Zimbabweans remains artful obfuscation clothed in anti-colonial righteousness. Whether England should bear the cost of reparations would bear examining only if they were made fairly and lawfully to begin with; there can be little question of compensation in the face on plain rustling.

As the ex-colonial power, England is understandably drawn into the conflict. And given the history of race relations in that part of the world, the extension of that to Australia and New Zealand too may be understandable, even if unnecessary. The white man's safety in a time of repossession is a fair concern of the visiting sides. The suggestion of racism is unwarranted; personal safety should understandably triumph other considerations, especially if the matches scheduled in Zimbabwe can be played in South Africa instead far more safely.

The wrench in the works, we now see, isn't from the refusal of English or Australian sides to play in Zimbabwe, but from the parallel willingness of India and Pakistan to do just the opposite. "We have no quarrel with Zimbabwe" is the sum total of the Indian government's position on its team playing in Mugabe's territory. No doubt this hands-off approach has many in the cricket administration heaving sighs of relief; they can ill-afford a boycott from India over the existing ones that already burden them.

Nonetheless, this indifference is a disservice, both to the millions of poor black Zimbabweans in whose name the pilferage of land continues, and the far fewer white citizens who find themselves at the short end of the drive to redress the rotten legacies of the colonial years. That we have no quarrel with the government of Zimbabwe reflects poorly on our own society. The plunder of an illegitimate government should brook a quarrel among the fair-minded and decent peoples of the world; to signal apathy to these events is shameful.

Sport, we have heard repeatedly, should not be hostage to politician turns; but the Indian position to date does not permit this luxury. Our position on games against Pakistan has long been nuanced by political considerations; we cannot possibly argue now that sport must be separated from the conflicts that arrest our leaders' attention.

The honest course of action in this World Cup demands that India too refuse to play its games in Zimbabwe, or at the very least signal a willingness to play them in South Africa instead. The silence that now marks India's position on that nation's ongoing turmoil is a retreat into shame, and serves neither the character of the game nor the legitimate aspirations of ordinary Zimbabweans now stifled by the dictator Mugabe. To no little degree, such a decision will threaten the splendid careers of many in Zimbabwe, but this cost is dwarfed by the oppression that millions endure.

The rescheduling of Indian games in Zimbabwe will provide the necessary cover to Australian and English concerns too, suppressing quickly the specter of racism that now stalks each conflict in the sport. This onus falls more to India now as Pakistan, the other subcontinental side scheduled to play in Zimbabwe, lacks the moral standing to state this plainly, its own leadership being elected dubiously. The clearest sense in which post-colonial India has established herself differently from all other conquered people lies in the commitment to freedom and order that our nation has shown since liberation. This distinction demands alliances with other free societies regardless of colour, not false allegiances of race.

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