Time to revive ‘cricket diplomacy’ between India, Pakistan


Time to revive ‘cricket diplomacy’ between India, Pakistan

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Although India and Pakistan are out of the T20 World Cup in the UAE, the iconic hug of the respective cricket team captains after India’s defeat in its match with Pakistan highlighted an important point: The persistence of a deep public yearning for peace, despite three-quarters of a century of wars and tension.
Following up on this random expression of mutual affection could heal old wounds between the two subcontinent nations.
Cricket is the sport their citizens love most. Deep animosity does sometimes find jingoistic expressions whenever either side faces a defeat – as it did this time in India, with instances of violence against Kashmiris celebrating Pakistan’s victory. But there are examples in recent history when so-called ‘cricket diplomacy’ helped normalize bilateral relations.
The credit for initiating cricket diplomacy between the two nuclear archrivals goes to former Pakistani military ruler Gen. Muhammad Zia, who visited India in 1987 to watch the India-Pakistan match in Jaipur at a time when the two countries were close to the brink, having amassed their armies close to the borders. A war was averted. Since then, cricket diplomacy has often come into play to reduce mutual tensions.
In the late 1990s, then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee instructed the players to “win not just matches but hearts” during their Pakistan tour. In 2005, another military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, watched an India-Pakistan cricket match in New Delhi on the invitation of the Indian premier, which spurred Kashmir talks. And in 2016, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister and cricket legend, was present at the T20 World Cup in Kolkata as a goodwill gesture.
This was the last time Indo-Pak cricket teams played in each other’s countries. Since then, with the Hindu nationalist rule in India and the subsequent military backed regime in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship has suffered a serious downturn. The 2019 military skirmish across the Line of Control in Kashmir further sparked hostility, putting an end to the cease-fire agreement signed in 2003.

The Gulf allies could be ideal peace brokers, for having viable economic interests in India as well as close relations with Pakistan, but the success of their mediation depends upon the willingness of the nations in conflict.

Ishtiaq Ahmad


A glimmer of hope emerged earlier this year, when the UAE used its good offices to restore the cease-fire along the Kashmir frontier. In September, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, while visiting India, offered to mediate on Kashmir and ease Indo-Pak tensions. The Gulf allies could be ideal peace brokers, for having viable economic interests in India as well as close relations with Pakistan, but the success of their mediation depends upon the willingness of the nations in conflict.
This is where the spirit of camaraderie shown in the recent T20 World Cup game by the Pakistani and Indian team captains Babar Azam and Virat Kohli, respectively, can gain political currency. It meant that for a people with a shared history spanning centuries it did not matter who won or lost. But such spirit of the game can replicate itself in the politics of peace if the wielders of power are also willing to walk an extra mile to mend fences.
The key driver of Indo-Pak conflict is the security issue, rooted in their zero-sum approaches toward bilateral disputes such as Kashmir and regional quagmires in countries like Afghanistan. The cost of conflict is enormous.
Take, for instance, trade. Its current volume, conducted through third countries such as the UAE, is worth $2 billion. If normalized, it has been estimated it would instantly increase tenfold. India would benefit from relatively cheaper textile products from Pakistan, which in turn could gain from India’s edge in pharmaceutical and software technology.
Also, imagine the consequent scale of tourism in a region where the historic divide of 1947 has left the Muslims of Pakistan craving for the relics of the Mughal era, and the Hindus and Sikhs of India aloof from the roots of their respective religions.
The price of this perpetual security-centric issue is starkly visible in their growing scale of poverty, disease, and hunger, currently accentuated by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Perhaps its most embarrassing outcome lies in the emergence of Bangladesh as the richest country in South Asia, despite being much smaller than India and born out of Pakistan in 1971.
Though structural barriers such as power asymmetries and rigid discourses of ideology have frequently undermined progress in the normalization process, the two countries have also been willing to prevent the conflict from getting out of control.
For instance, nuclear confidence-building measures have been in place for well over three decades. The current Kashmir cease-fire was also made possible by secret talks between their security interlocuters in the UAE. Since February, their chiefs of military operations in the disputed corridor have once again been in regular contact through hotline.
Moreover, while resolving conflicts such as Kashmir may take a long time, opportunities of regional integration such as the 2010 Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline agreement can be instantly explored to overcome zero-sum competition in post-America Afghanistan.
However, the revival of the Indo-Pak peace process, the so-called composite dialogue, requires a trigger, which again seems to be emanating from the cricketing circles.
Indian cricket board president, Sourav Ganguly, recently invited his Pakistani counterpart to the Indian Premier League final. The IPL is such an expensive sporting event that Ramiz Raja, Pakistani cricket broad chairman, has subsequently termed it ‘bankrolling’ Pakistani cricket. Part of the money that the International Cricket Council earns from the IPL eventually ends up promoting Pakistani cricket.
In the cricket world, an India-Pakistan match represents the most exciting event, given the amount of emotion and passion involved among the spectators glued to live streams or watching inside the stadium. If the sport is played in either country, it is altogether a different ball game.
Interestingly, the revival of this fascinating tradition currently suits Indian cricketers who wish to recover from recent international losses and Pakistani cricketers who are deeply disappointed with Britain and New Zealand for canceling Pakistani tours – even more so, their respective cricket fans.
For pragmatic reasons, the embattled regimes of Indian and Pakistani premiers, Narendra Modi and Khan, respectively, may also find political respite in the comeback of the cricket season, both Test and T20 matches, in their home grounds. All it takes is the announcement by their respective cricket boards to resume the all-favorite India-Pakistan cricket series. This single step may once again pave the way for meaningful progress on the other pragmatic end of socio-economic connectivity, and also the resumption of dialogue on resolving rather cumbersome security matters.

- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view