Indo-Pak cricket, like diplomatic relations between the two countries, suffers from schizophrenia. Rewind to January 1999 when a Chennai crowd gave a standing ovation to Wasim Akram’s men after they had just beaten India. Six months later, the two countries met again in a world cup match against the backdrop of the Kargil war and fans of both sides abused each other. In 2004, we were treated to a Pakistani crowd singing, “Balaji, zara dheere chalo” every time he ran in to bowl. Eight years earlier, I had watched a Karachi crowd hurl bottles on the field when their team lost to India in a dramatic last over. Two years ago, Sohail Tanvir was the toast of the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL). Today, Tanvir and his other Pakistani teammates find themselves unwanted by their IPL owners.
Predictably, the latest controversy over the exclusion of the Pakistani players has set us off on another emotional roller-coaster. The Pakistanis say they are “outraged” at what they perceive as a “humiliation” of their national pride. Perhaps, justifiably. If the star Pakistani players were considered good enough to be listed for an auction on January 6, what suddenly changed within a fortnight for them to be seen as a risky proposition? How can Pakistani cricketers with official visas become virtually persona non-grata?
There are equally indignant questions that we in India could ask. Where, for example, was the collective ‘outrage’ in Pakistan in the aftermath of 26/11? Why has the Pakistani establishment been reluctant to prosecute Lashkar chief, Hafiz Saeed?
Since both sides claim to have legitimate grievances, competitive rage is easy to manufacture in the Indo-Pak context. There are enough hate-mongers in both countries who thrive on conspiracy theories. Any attempt to try and ease tensions is viewed with mistrust, even hostility. Which is why any criticism of the IPL franchisees should be tempered by the reality that they are only taking their cue from the Indian state, which has been equally inconsistent in its approach to dealing with Pakistan.
Remember Sharm el-Sheikh barely six months ago? An Indo-Pak summit was held against mounting criticism of Islamabad’s failure to act against the masterminds of 26/11. In the very week, that the home minister charged Pakistan with ‘sheltering’ Saeed, the prime minister was reaching out to Islamabad and offering to ‘delink’ terror from talks. The seemingly contradictory stands taken by the government was enough for the PM to find himself being accused of having ‘capitulated’ to the Pakistanis. While the drafting of the joint statement left enough scope for anxiety, to accuse Manmohan Singh of a ‘sell-out’ is typical of the exaggerated responses that have prevented any rationality from creeping into the relationship.
Rationality would tell us that the Indo-Pak engagement cannot be a one-night stand. It requires a sustained dialogue, carefully crafted one step at a time. High-profile summits like Agra or a Sharm el-Sheikh or made-for-tv events like the Lahore bus yatra are doomed for failure because they attempt to compress years of conflict into a 30-second photo-op. What is needed is a calendar of ‘routine’ meetings at different levels of government that eventually help break the walls of suspicion on both sides.
To draw from the cricketing experience again. Perhaps, the calmest period in Indo-Pak cricket was between 2004 and 2007 when the two countries played each other in a series of one-dayers and Tests over an extended length of time. By the end, we had almost miraculously reached a stage where matches were no longer a war, where a defeat was not seen as catastrophe. Because both sides knew that there was always another match to be played. It wasn’t as if there were no terror attacks in this period — the Mumbai train blasts occurred in 2007 — but there seemed a desire to engage each other on the cricket pitch, almost as a riposte to the terrorists.
Mumbai 26/11 has, however, seen us return to an earlier era where we appear confused as to how to deal with Pakistan. Perhaps the anger that followed the terror attack has so rattled India that it doesn’t know just how far it can go in reaching out to Pakistan without attracting public criticism. Even the PM, who had shown the willingness to stay the course, appears uncertain in his approach, perhaps unnerved by the fact that even his own party refused to back him after Sharm el-Sheikh. And, of course, there remains the fear of another Mumbai-style attack.
And yet, a diplomatic vacuum is just as dangerous as a cricketing apartheid. By not choosing Pakistani players in the IPL, we have only alienated those voices across the borders who are seeking some ‘normalcy’ in an environment of daily violence and terror. At the same time, by refusing to resume any kind of dialogue with Islamabad, we run the risk of further weakening the political authority in that country, thereby making it even more difficult to ensure that tangible action is taken against Pak-based terror groups. This is not a time for ‘jhappis’, but neither is it a period for jingoism to get the better of common sense.
Post-script: the schizophrenia extends to us in the media too. While newspaper campaigns advocate ‘aman ki asha’, some news channels are calling for war with Pakistan. You can’t have it both ways.
The views expressed by the author are personal