Thinking Deva

Without cricket, India-Pakistan lose ties

A clever government uses culture as a tool to improve frayed relations.

 |  Thinking Deva  |  7-minute read |   10-12-2015
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For cricket crazy fans in India and Pakistan, there was a lot riding on Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Islamabad this week and the talks she was to have with the Pakistani leadership. Would the visit open the doors for the resumption of cricket ties between the bitter rivals? That was the million dollar question.

Swaraj's visit generally, was expected to give a firm push to the relationship between the two countries separated by a troubled line of control (LoC). After the cancellation of the NSA-level talks between the neighbours earlier this year, there have been efforts by the top leadership of the two countries to mend ties. Thus when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif got together at a pull aside meeting in Paris, they looked like estranged brothers after a patch up, overcome with emotion.

The Indian external affairs minister's Pakistan visit did indeed yield positive results, at least on paper. After she met Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his adviser Sartaj Aziz, it was decided that the two countries would resume the comprehensive dialogue process, and talks would be held on all outstanding issues, including terrorism and Kashmir. However, no announcement was made on cricket.

It was a stab through the heart of every cricket lover in the two countries when the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief Shahryar Khan declared on Wednesday that hopes of an India-Pakistan cricket series was "dying".

Also read: No point having India-Pakistan series if Sri Lanka has to host it

"We were hopeful that Sushma Swaraj's visit will make things better but it did not happen," Khan was quoted as saying by Waqt News. "We wanted to play, but India did not respond positively," he added.

Sadly, the Modi government perhaps still doesn't realise the binding role cricket can play. Indeed not just cricket, culture generally, has massive importance in diplomacy.

US president Barack Obama once said, "Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy. It's part of what makes us exceptional, part of what makes us such a world power... Hundreds of millions of people may never set foot in the United States, but thanks to you they've experienced a small part of what makes our country special. They've learned something about our values."

Similarly, when we in India are enamoured by the music of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and Atif Aslam, or when people across the border go ga-ga over Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan, it is culture at work, binding people together. This bond has been highlighted in films as well. So for all the films that portray the strained relationship between the two countries, there are films like Refugee, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, Veer-Zaara and Bajrangi Bhaijaan that showcase the thickness of the ties between people on either side of the peaceless LoC, as does Keki N Daruwala's short story "Love Across the Salt Desert".

A clever government uses culture or what is called soft power as a tool to improve frayed ties, and as far as India-Pakistan ties are concerned, what could be a greater tool than cricket? It is part of the shared culture of the two countries. There is a group of people that feels that there should be no engagement between the two countries on the cricket pitch till there peace at the border. What the proponents of this argument miss is that cricket could actually be a facilitator of that elusive peace. Not talking to each other, or suspending cultural interaction is poor diplomacy. It precisely plays into the hands of the terrorists, insurgents and separatists, and provides them their fodder. Without it, these forces of discord will lose their legitimacy.

The unifying role of cricket was amply visible when the Indian team toured Pakistan in 2004. In spite of considerable misgiving, that tour was a huge hit. India visited Pakistan again in 2005. Pakistan, on the other hand, came calling in 2005 and then again in 2007 and 2012. During the course of these tours, the people of the two countries freely mingled with each other, enjoyed the food that each served the other and some of them may have also visited religious shrines in each other's lands. The governments of the two countries were gracious enough to allow people across the border to come and cheer for their team, taking people-to-people contact to a new level. When the Pakistan team was to visit India for a short series in 2012-13, the Indian government had decided to grant 3,000 visas to Pakistani fans.

In the course of these interactions, people from either side realised how culturally similar they were. The animosity started to fade away. In fact, players from either team steadily became popular among rival fans. Thus while Pakistani fans were bowled over by the genius of Sachin Tendulkar or the smile of Lakshmipathy Balaji, we in India were awe-struck by the hitting prowess of Shahid Afridi and found the burly Inzamam-ul-Haq genuinely endearing.

This feeling of togetherness was strengthened with the Pakistani players' participation in the IPL. I still remember Shoaib Akhtar bowling that devastating spell for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) against the Delhi Daredevils in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2008, cheered on by the delirious Eden Gardens crowd. Would you believe, it was the same crowd that created a mighty disturbance in a Test featuring India and Pakistan in 1999, and vilified Akhtar as he was perceived to have deliberately blocked Sachin Tendulkar, leading to his run out. Shah Rukh Khan jumping on Akhtar's lap after that IPL match in 2008, would remain one of the most endearing moments in IPL history.

The Modi government may be missing a trick by dilly dallying on the question of resumption of cricket ties, especially when Pakistan had given its go-ahead for the series, even agreeing to play its "home" series in Sri Lanka after India refused to play in UAE - Pakistan's adopted home. Does this fall in line with the "maturity" that Swaraj said the two countries should exhibit in doing business with each other?

For Modi, a prime minister who sent a strong message by inviting Nawaz Sharif and the leaders of the other SAARC nations to his swearing-in last year following a magnificent mandate, these are questions to ponder. In a sublime article in The Dawn, Areefa Johari had written about the generosity of the Pakistanis towards Indians. "All the Pakistanis I encountered love Indians, but most Indians don't return the love," Johari wrote. India's stance on the cricket issue bears out Johari's words, doesn't it?

However, if you even leave diplomacy aside for a while, from a purely cricketing perspective, how does an Indian-Pakistan series not happening affect cricket? Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar feels that the world would not lose if the series doesn't happen. He doubted the quality of the players and the excitement the contest would generate. However, an India-Pakistan rivalry is a rivalry like no other. Players, even with limited abilities, raise themselves to a different level altogether when the contest is between India and Pakistan. In any case, there are not a lot of nations that are competitive in cricket, and if the world is deprived of India-Pakistan cricket, it would be missing something big.

Thus there is an urgent need to resume cricket ties between the two neighbours, separated by a troubled border. No effort to resolve the tensions between the two countries can succeed if cricket is not a part of it. The two countries do play each other in ICC events. So what's the harm in having a full bilateral series - one that doesn't simply have a few ODIs and T20s here and there, but Tests (at least three) as well? Often a conflict is resolved not with missiles and grenades, but through the language of love. Let's give love a chance. Is the Modi government listening?

Writer

Debdutta Bhattacharjee Debdutta Bhattacharjee @debduttab10

He is a journalist with DailyO

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