It is difficult to put Bhaichung Bhutia and Steven Spielberg in one frame — except that they are entertainers in their own right. But they have found common cause in China’s disregard for human rights. In February, the globally feted film director had resigned as artistic advisor to the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing in protest against China’s refusal to severe trade links with the murderous government in Sudan. Bhutia, on his part, has refused to be part of the prestigious team that will carry the Olympic torch on its Indian leg in New Delhi next month.
It is his personal choice but a choice that he has made in the capacity as India’s best known contemporary footballer. The Sikkim-born Bhutia has stated that given his state’s proximity to the Tibetan landmass and cause and that his friends are involved in the protests against China’s moves to undermine Tibet, he had to take a stand. And he did.
Bhutia’s decision will no doubt add impetus to the raging debate on Tibet’s historical and geopolitical status. But what is gratifying is perhaps the fact that his is a rare case of an Indian sportsperson taking a stand on matters of global geopolitics. In a climate of celebrity schlock and political correctness, Bhutia’s decision acquires a halo around it. One is reminded of India’s former badminton ace Pullela Gopichand who refused to endorse a soft drink because he was not convinced that it would send the right signal.
Globally, celebrities and entertainers aligning to causes, fake or genuine, are as old as causes themselves. The cause of Aids has attracted celebrities in hordes as a fashionable raison d’être. More recently, U2’s Bono and singer George Michael have identified themselves strongly with African poverty and against George W. Bush’s warmongering.
On the other hand, in more than one occasion, the Olympics have been used as platform for showcasing strong geopolitical issues. The 1936 games in Nazi Berlin (made so visible by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Olympia), the 1970 Munich Olympics, the Black Power demonstration in Mexico City in 1968 and the Cold War talismans of Moscow 1980 and LA 1984 have seen major political issues hoisted atop the Olympic torch.
Whether Tibet will snowball into a major embarrassment for Beijing is anybody’s guess. The West’s restlessness, though, is apparent. But those feeling let down by comrade Prakash Karat’s clean chit to China can, in the meantime, take heart from Bhutia’s small but brave act.