Should India and Pakistan play cricket in times of terror? Ask me this question eleven years ago, and I’d probably have replied in the negative. Indo-Pak cricket at the time was a bit like war without weapons: it didn’t seem to end the mutual hostility on and off the field. Any romanticism was misplaced. Or so I thought.
And then, I took my son to witness the historic 2004 Indo-Pak series (historic because Ganguly’s team became the first Indian side to win a series in Pakistan). At a match in Lahore, I watched in utter astonishment as a partisan crowd cheered L Balaji, the otherwise nondescript Indian fast bowler. ‘Balaji, Zara dheere chalo’, the crowd kept chanting. When Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Kaif then fashioned a brilliant win in the one day series, the bearded gent sitting next to us took his Pakistani flag and gave it to my son. “Well played, you were the better team,” he said with a grin.
That series had been the personal initiative of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a statesman politician who could always be expected to rise to the occasion. Vajpayee had been badly bitten before: his Lahore bus yatra had ended in the frozen climes of Kargil; his Agra peace gesture had also yielded little. And yet, he was still wiling to give peace a chance. He wasn’t a great cricket fan but he saw in the game an opportunity to do what the politicians had failed to achieve: restore a semblance of normalcy to an otherwise fraught relationship. He was pragmatic enough to know that cross border terror wouldn’t end with a friendly cricket series but he was idealistic enough to hope that it would open up spaces for at least some civility and shared interests: how many of us have spent long nights comparing the musical skills of a Lata and a Nurjehan or the all around abilities of an Imran and a Kapil Dev? By contrast, young India and Pakistan are in real danger of seeing each other only through the prism of hate and violence (thank god you might say for a Bajrangi Bhaijaan in these difficult times).
Vajpayee is a great lover of music: somehow I feel if he was prime minister, he would have attended a Ghulam Ali concert, not allowed a desperate ally to call the shots. He would have almost certainly ensured that Pakistan board officials weren’t treated like pariahs after being given visas for a formal meeting. He would have probably even told the infinitely more powerful Balasaheb (as compared to a mild mannered Udhav) of the need to promote cultural relations and people to people contact, and made him back off. Many years ago, Vajpayee in an entirely different context reminded Narendra Modi of his ‘raj dharma’: maybe he needs to do so again. Please treat terror with a stick Mr PM, but offer a carrot of music and sport to civil society. The ‘guftagu’ must go on.
Post script: I find it particularly bizarre that Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar have been asked to leave the country and give up their commentary duties. Six months ago, Akram was the bowling coach of the Kolkata Knightriders in the IPL, Shoaib a star commentator. Can anyone please tell me what has changed in the last six months except the fact that the Shiv Sena is feeling increasingly marginalised in Maharashtra politics and wants to now make an impact in local elections?