This is a guest post by Azm Aftab who is an aspiring writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.
Body-line bowling, a tactic the English cricket team devised to counter the batting prowess of the Australian batsman Sir Don Bradman, gave rise to the first act of cricket diplomacy. The Australians were less than impressed with the new English tactic and called it ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’. The latter didn’t take the Aussie assessment too kindly and threatened to withdraw from the remaining tests unless they retracted their statement. The standoff was settled only when Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons met with members of the Australian Cricket Board and informed them of the severe ramifications an English boycott of Australian goods could have on their economy. Subsequently, the Board withdrew their objection two days before the fourth Test, thus saving the tour. In 1987, cricket was again used to bring together two arch-rivals who were also hostile neighbours, when General Zia-ul-Haq went to Jaipur, India to watch a match. That trend continued with ups and downs between Pakistan and India throughout the ’90s and ‘2000s. It saw incidents like Shiv Sena, a radical Hindu group, dig up the pitch at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, forcing the entire series between the two nations to be cancelled, to an extension in President Musharraf’s rule in 2005 to look for a solution to the Kashmir issue.
However, after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, cricket took another hit. Pakistani players were humiliated in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction with not even a single franchise lodging bids for them despite the fact they were recent T20 World Champions. Ever since, India has refused to play Pakistan at home or at any neutral venue and BCCI has enforced a de-facto ban on the participation of Pakistani cricketers. The ice seemed to have melted when Pakistan toured India for a T20 and an ODI series. Afterwards, Pakistan backed BCCI’s hostile takeover of the ICC along with England and Australian boards. Iy was thought that resumption of cricketing ties was a matter of time but as the Indian tour to Pakistan drew near, once again BCCI has acted defiantly. Citing ‘border tensions’ between armed forces of the two countries, BCCI Secretary Anurag Thakur has made peace on the border a precondition to resuming any sort of promised gameplay. He even went as far as to tweet “Dawood in Karachi. National Security Agency (NSA) wants to meet separatists here. Are you really serious about peace and you expect we’ll play cricket with you?” This came after a tabloid in India played a recording of who it claimed is the wife of most wanted man Dawood Ibrahim.
Many believed that this posturing was only limited to cricket due to its religious-like fervent following in the two countries. People speculated that since the ruling BJP had come to power through promises of taking a tougher stance against Pakistan, cricket is being used for point-scoring until the Indian Hockey League demands an apology from Pakistani players for a haughty celebration in a Champions Trophy 2014 semi-final after they outscored Indians 4-3. This has become a precondition to any participation from Pakistani players in its league.
This may be the end of sports diplomacy as we know it. Pakistan’s hockey coach has suggested that Pakistan should move on from India. The behaviour of Indian sports bodies is another bothering issue because all of them report to the Government of India. It has also given rise to the perception here in Pakistan that the common denominator in both Congress and BJP governments is the policy of hurting Pakistan at every possible opportunity. Make no mistake, India is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country, majority of whom want good relations with Pakistan but unfortunately that just doesn’t seem to reflect in the policies adopted by their successive governments. They have hardly spared any chance in shaming Pakistan and have used forums like SAARC, UN and lately SCO for a posturing of peaceful intentions, later going back to business as usual as soon as the limelight went off.
The view from this end seems to be that irrespective of who is in power in India, they don’t want good relations with Pakistan, not just on a political level but now also on a people-to-people level.
Optimists would point to the tragedies like 16/12 and 26/11 and how the two nations came together in sharing grief but such events usually bring human beings together. Maybe our relationship has degenerated to such an extent that only mass casualties bring out the humanity in us? I’m not sure if that is comforting and worthy of being an assurance that there may still be hope for improved relations among us. For once, I’d like for us to detach from India-centric policies and figure out a way to first survive and only then sustain a global emergence independent of variables in India.