Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education (CeRSSE), JAIN (Deemed-to-be University) in collaboration with the Ekam Sat Trust – VR1, hosted an international panel discussion on ‘Sports Promoting ‘Unity in Diversity’ in India: Challenges and Possibilities’.

Sports, like any other cultural component, is a cohesive force in community building. At the international level, athletes are tasked with the responsibility of portraying the ‘national team spirit’ of their respective countries. Consequently, the medal count at any event, for instance, the Olympics, becomes as much a projection of the country’s “soft power” as also a reflection of the hierarchy among countries vying for medals.

Dr. A Ravindra, former Chief Secretary of Karnataka and current Chairperson of the Ekam Sat Trust – VR1, stressed the need for incorporating sports instruction into school curriculum while also leveraging the immense potential of sports to serve as a unifying force. While acknowledging the power that athletics can instill in individuals, Leslie Xavier, the sports desk manager at the news portal Newsclick.in, addressed the structural disparities that exist within the sporting realm, including concerns like gender and caste-based discrimination. The former JAIN student and Karnataka cricketer Kaunian Abbas, who is currently residing in Dubai, spoke about sports as a way of life rather than a mere pastime.

Unity in Diversity is an important element that upholds the ideals of democracy. India is praised globally for upholding this virtue despite divisive forces operating within and outside the country. At the centre of the debate during the panel discussion, was the question of how fare the sporting ecosystem and community is nourishing the notion of ‘unity’ in modern India. While sport is also about winning and doing the country proud it is also about the spirit of sportsmanship that can uphold unity in diversity. In his address, Dr. Ravindra quoted the Olympic slogan and principles, emphasising how sport can be a catalyst for social development and upliftment and how sportsmen can play a crucial role in connecting with students in schools and universities and motivating them to not only participate in sports but also support greater causes outside their own endeavours — whether in the workplace or on the play field. Specific to sports in India, the socio-economic background of the players, the semi-divine status of Indian male cricketers, the involvement of the market, the valuing of certain sports above others, and inadequacies in the infrastructure are all aspects of the country’s sporting ‘spirit.’ This ‘spirit’ may be characterised as a mirror of one’s own attitudes as well as an unseen animating force that is propelled by emotions.

Abbas stated that, in addition to the apparent benefits of exercise and a healthy lifestyle, sports instils a variety of values. It equips one to deal with adversity as well as success with equal ease, while also laying the groundwork for a fruitful path through life. Sport, he asserted, has the ability to circumvent all inherent societal issues and mould sound individuals who, in turn, will build a sound society. He drew on his own journey and experience with the various cricket teams he has played for to reach this conclusion.

Having said that, it is the same ‘spirit’, often bearing contrasting connotations. For example, while the 2021 Olympics Gold Medalist Neeraj Chopra is lauded for his ‘win’, Indian women’s hockey team member Vandana Katariya’s family endured casteist slurs for their ‘loss’. Though the Indian Cricket team is seen as a unified force against the Pakistan Cricket team and the boys are cheered, when on the losing end Mohammed Shami is targeted for his religious affiliation.

Sportspersons, according to Xavier, are unable to reach their full potential in our culture because of the reality on the ground. He talked at length about the structural flaws in the system that undermine the notion of diversity in Indian sport. Furthermore, he noted how gender imbalance as well as regional, political and religious prejudices may turn a lively sporting landscape into a gloomy and dreary one. In conclusion, he stated that, “Sport has the capacity to change, but sport is only a component of a greater problem that requires quick remedy.” In general, the webinar alluded to the reciprocal link that exists between sports and society. More than a hundred people from all over the nation and from overseas attended the event, which was chaired by Dr. Priyanca Mathur, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education (CeRSSE), Jain (Deemed-to-be University.