In India-Pakistan relations, what diplomats have long failed to achieve, cricketers may finally deliver: the much-awaited peace between the two South Asian rivals, even if an unstable one in the beginning. Who is a winner or a loser may certainly have been an issue for emotive populations of the two countries watching their respective cricket team play the world cup semi-final at Mohali in India, in which Pakistan was defeated. However, the real significance of by far the most important match of ICC World Cup 2011, held on March 30, lies in its potential of becoming the occasion to start a meaningful dialogue for peace between India and Pakistan.
Back in early 1987, as India’s Brass-tacks military exercises brought the two countries close to war, former Pakistani President General Zia flew to Delhi to watch an Indo-Pak cricket match, labelling his visit as ‘cricket for peace’ initiative, which did help ease tension on the border. Likewise, six years ago, President Musharraf visited Jaipur to watch an Indo-Pak cricket match in an attempt to gear up the peace process between the two countries that began in January 2004 but has stalled several times since then.
This time around, the initiative to use a sport that is so much loved by people of the two countries as a means for normalizing bilateral relations came from Indian Prime Minister Minister ManMohan Singh. As soon as it became clear that India and Pakistan were to face each other in the world cub semi-final, he invited both Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to visit India to watch the match.
Prime Minister Gilani accepted the invitation, came to India, and sat alongside his Indian counterpart, enjoying the thrilling contest. Once the match was over, he was seen gracefully congratulating Mr Singh, just as Pakistani captain Shahid Afridi did. The two ministers then got together at a dinner to informally discuss the prospects of normal and peaceful ties between their two nations.
At least twice during the three years of the current civilian government in Pakistan, once at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2009 and then at Thimphu in March last year, the two prime ministers agreed to break the ice. However, neither of the two political attempts could succeed in kick-starting the peace process. That the two previous instances of what is generally termed as ‘cricket diplomacy’ did not generate the expected political momentum for peace was largely because the political environment was not conducive for such outcome. However, the current situation seems to be different.
On the eve of the match—which has as usual galvanised nationalistic feelings among the two populations and created a lot of media hype—promising developments have also occurred on political and diplomatic fronts. First, Pakistani President pardoned an Indian prisoner serving life imprisonment since 1984, while entertaining a request for his release by the Indian Supreme Court.
Second, and more important, the two-day parleys between the interior/home secretaries of the two countries in New Delhi produced a joint statement just a day before the match, with each side agreeing to take specific steps to address the other’s demand for investigating respective terror suspects. It was this very issue that had stalled the peace process since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Under the agreement, an Indian investigative team will be heading to Pakistan within a few weeks to interview the suspects of Mumbai terrorism. And Pakistan will be sending its own investigative team to clarify its own concerns regarding terrorist instances in India, including the Mumbai attacks as well as the 2007 terrorist bombing of Samjhota Express. A hot line has also been established between the two countries’ interior/home secretaries, enabling them to share terrorism-related information instantly.
So, unlike previous instances of cricket diplomacy, the possibilities for peace are not being realised by merely a symbolic cricketing event but also by practical political steps reflective of the resumption of normal relations between the two countries. The massive public euphoria that this match has created in India and Pakistan, like all other similar events in the past, proves the existence of inherent sense of connectivity between the two nations at moral and human levels, which often becomes a victim of recurrent tensions between them in political and diplomatic spheres.
That the syndrome of partition continues to haunt India and Pakistan is a sad subcontinent reality. Equally sad is the inability of the two countries to understand that the forces of extremism and terrorism threatening their stability as well as of the region represent a common challenge and pose a common threat that needs to be tackled jointly.
For the purpose, the important steps that interior/home secretaries of India and Pakistan have agreed to take in the immediate future constitute a healthy start, which must be built upon by moving fast forward in institutionalizing the Joint Counter-Terrorism Mechanism as well as resolving all of the unresolved disputes between the two countries, including Kashmir.
Those who treat Indo-Pak cricket contests as an extension, or a reflection, of the historically-rooted political rivalry between the two countries must be proven wrong. From what the captain of each team stressed prior to the game, or what is clear from the media reportage of the sentiments of spectators in stadium or watching the match at TV screens, the contest this time was never about winning or losing. Generally speaking, one’s victory was never perceived to be another’s gain.
The players were there just to play and win only to qualify for the world cup final. Out of sheer excitement from a sporting event, public opinion seemingly yearned for peaceful ties between the two countries. Perhaps never before an Indo-Pak cricket match has attracted as much media hype. Thousands travelled from Pakistan to watch it live at Mohali stadium. They received trmendous generosity and hospitality from the Indian hosts. 'Forever Friends,' a banner held together by the two nations' cricket fans during the match, expressed their yearning for the ideal of peace.
While there may be several things that divide Indians and Pakistanis, cricket is certainly not one of them. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that this very populist appeal for a common sport among the two populations stands a chance for becoming the most powerful trigger in breaking the ice in political relationship between the two countries. The popular passion generated by the cricketing event has the same potential of causing a major political shift in South Asia’s most hostile bilateral relationship as social media networks have in determining the democratic outcomes of Arabian revolts currently under way in the Middle East and North Africa.
Having said this, however, there is no doubt that a lot of serious work needs to be done to put this relationship on the right track. It is purely on security issues that most of Indo-Pak differences and tensions arise and thrive. Their sources and causes need to be addressed effectively and promptly. Neither Pakistan, facing an existential threat from the forces of obscurantism, can afford the continuity of hostility with India. Nor can India afford a status quo in mutual ties that enables terrorists to derail the pace and scope of Indian economic progress in the last couple of decades.
The very Taliban who kill and maim Pakistanis threatened to blow up spectators of Indo-Pak cricket match. They will oppose anything that brings the two countries together, including a cricket march. This is what Taliban were at best in doing when they ruled Afghanistan. There are equally extremist forces inside India, such as Shiv Sena, who have a track-record of sabotaging Indo-Pak cricket events. There has to be a united Indo-Pak joint political front against such forces of darkness.
Beyond playing cricket together, there are a million strong reasons explaining why South Asians must get together to find this common evil. Pakistanis grow up listening to Indian songs and watching Bollywood movies. Veena Malik participates in an Indian Reality TV show and overnight becomes a sensation among the Indians. The armies of the two countries may have fought wars, and may threaten each other still, but together they play peace-keeping roles as part of the UN peace missions in conflict zones as far away as the Congo in Africa.
If this is not enough, even in the security domain, the two countries have long institutionalised exemplary confidence-building measures—like the ones preventing accidental occurrence of nuclear war. Their directors-general of military operations speak to each other on hot line every Tuesday morning. There are similar hot lines existing between the two countries’ prime ministers and foreign secretaries. Just a few years ago, the trucks had started to trade goods between the two sides of Kashmir. Prior to Mumbai attacks, the two countries were believed to be on the verge of settling Siachen and Sir Creek disputes.
Given that, it is not that nothing has been accomplished whenever Indo-Pak peace process resumed, be it the foreign secretaries talks of the late 90s or the ones which were held as part of the Composite Dialogue beyond January 2004. There are also things accomplished by Tariq Aziz and S K Lambha in their backdoor diplomacy during the Musharraf era which we may not know yet. What is needed, therefore, at this stage is to start a multi-pronged diplomatic process to put the two countries on the path to peace, however unstable it may be in the beginning.
As also stated at the outset, this cricket world cup semi-final—in which one’s defeat was not taken as the other’s loss—has generated considerable public goodwill in both countries. This purely sporting event has brought the two prime ministers together and has, thus, already played a great supporting role in giving a symbolic go ahead to the peace process. One high level meeting of the two countries’ interior/home secretaries produced a credible outcome even before Indian and Pakistani cricketers faced each other at Mohali.
Let’s make this peace process genuinely irreversible, as it was originally agreed at the start of 2004. Once the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan hold the first round of their scheduled parleys in July, we can hope that serious work on all the eight items on the agenda of the Composite Dialogue in its full entirety will resume, including the issue of tackling the most complex problem of Kashmir in a way that satisfies the aspirations of both countries as well as, and more importantly, the Kashmiri people. Resolving lingering disputes will surely be a time consuming exercise. However, this does not mean that short-term, complementary steps--such as relaxing visas, promoting civil society interaction, expanding trade and commercial contacts, and adopting more confidence-building measures--should not be taken now.
Access this commentary at weeklypulse.org