Can’t have terror and cricket too
EDITS | Thursday, January 28, 2010 Shobori Ganguli
They first complain about their players being snubbed by IPL team-owners at a free-and-fair auction; they then lob rocket-propelled grenades at Indian forward posts at the border. Politics has besmirched sports, they accuse, all the while flouting every good neighbourly rule in the book. From expounding conspiracy theories to blatant violation of border ethics, Pakistan’s conduct in recent days clearly explains why its cricketers were ignored at the IPL auction. Even Shahrukh Khan, co-owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise, who said ignoring the Pakistani cricketers at the auction was “humiliating”, had to admit that, “There is an issue, let’s not deny it. Every day we blame Pakistan, every day they blame us, it is an issue.”
Indeed, we must accept the reality that, more than any other sport, cricket in the sub-continent is subject to the region’s political climate. And this climate is prone to extremes. Currently, relations between India and Pakistan are at their coldest. Coldest, because in a conventional war India at least has an identifiable enemy while diplomatic engagement has hitherto had a Government face. Today, New Delhi is unsure of its negotiating partner in Islamabad. In such an atmosphere cricket bonhomie cannot be used as a substitute for much-needed, sorely missed diplomacy and hard talk.
Admittedly, none can deny that the 11 Pakistani players put up for the IPL auction are some of the best in the game today. After all, they are the reigning champions of the Twenty20 World Cup. Two, their papers, visas, etc, were in perfect order. Three, IPL is a privately funded tournament that is not under any direct Government pressure to toe the official line. Despite these factors, if all eight team-owners ignored the Pakistani players, there is reason to believe that, as citizens of civil society — some of whom directly felt the impact of Mumbai 26/11 — they decided to send Pakistan a clear signal on its growing pariah status. That message has indeed hit home.
Within hours of the IPL “humiliation”, street rage in Pakistan led to effigies of IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi being burnt. The Government took personal affront at the “deliberate” exclusion of the players and promptly aborted a parliamentary delegation’s visit to India. Pakistan is now considering boycotting both the World Cup hockey tournament and the Commonwealth Games in India later this year. In making it an official issue, Pakistan has only confirmed why its players were left unsold. Sports and politics get inextricably linked in the sub-continent and no amount of soft diplomacy can alter this reality. Poets and singers can easily meet; writers and artists can merrily cross borders; actors and film-makers can exchange endless notes. But when it comes to the sub-continent’s great English legacy of cricket, battle-lines are clearly drawn.
Given Pakistan’s conduct in the past decade, it is evident to most that hopes of peace between India and Pakistan and dreams about a happy future flowing from a sense of ‘collective history’ and nostalgia about a ‘past of togetherness’ can at best find space in ineffectual seminar circuits, concert halls and conference rooms on either side of the border. The Government of India cannot subscribe to the policy of turning the other cheek each time Pakistan posts a stinging slap on this country, like Mumbai 26/11, or brazen border violations, like this Tuesday at Akhnoor.
It may be recalled that exactly a decade ago, following Kargil, the Vajpayee Government decided to abort an Indian cricket team’s pre-planned tour of Pakistan to send an unambiguous message that India was unwilling to pretend ‘all is well’ with Pakistan. Admittedly, India-Pakistan cricket never was, and never will be, politically neutral. In fact, even in peace times, India-Pakistan matches have been nothing short of a combat. The IPL may have brought in international glamour to the game and made it cosmopolitan and carnivalesque but few can deny that cricket evokes mass passion in the sub-continent, a passion that translates into a combative spirit in a one-on-one India-Pakistan match, the rivalry often reflecting the disturbed political relations between the two countries.
It is not as if India has never tried cricket diplomacy. In February 1999, a few months ahead of the Kargil betrayal, cricket was employed by the two Governments as a political bridge-builder. The Foreign Ministry initiative was clearly visible on the faces of the captains of the two teams, Wasim Akram and Mohammad Azharuddin, who flashed broad smiles and posed for the cameras alongside then President KR Narayanan, aware that they were the special envoys for peace in the region. The otherwise combative spirit of an India-Pakistan sports encounter was diluted beyond recognition. With 24×7 news channels on the job, there was intense focus on the feel-goodness of the event. The event underscored the view that, indeed, sports in the sub-continent cannot be divorced from politics, either negatively or positively; here was a positive instance. However, that goodwill never really translated into a meaningful political engagement, Pakistan soon betraying India’s confidence in Kargil.
Although the IPL team-owners now seem embarrassed by their decision to ignore the Pakistani players they must bear in mind that sports often helps send a political message otherwise difficult to convey or understand. Did politics not inform the decision of cricket-playing nations to boycott South Africa right through its apartheid years? It was only in 1991 when Nelson Mandela rose to lead the nation, signalling the political end of apartheid, that South Africa was finally welcomed as a legitimate member of the international cricket club. If sports were so divorced from politics, South Africa under the White regime need not have faced the isolation it did despite possessing one of the better cricket teams in the world. Similarly, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by Western nations was an unadulterated political message to the Soviet Union on the Afghanistan issue. Again, the Tibet issue nearly aborted the 2008 Beijing Olympics. If apartheid, Afghanistan, or human rights in Tibet are reasons enough to restrict sports interaction with a nation, the blood of thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers is more than reason enough for Indian IPL team-owners to boycott players hailing from an offending nation.
It’s all very well to encourage people-to-people exchanges, run cross-border buses and trains, and play host to each other’s creative artists and sportspersons. However, it would be rather venturesome to presume that these can act as substitutes for political diplomacy and engagement because that is where the Pakistanis speak a language India does not understand and vice versa.