Lahore and the PSL final

Published February 27, 2017

IN the wake of a renewed militant assault, the thought of holding the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final in Lahore appears superfluous to many. Perhaps with good reason too: why fret and expend energy over a cricket match when the country is bleeding from every corner?

While this sentiment can be justified at multiple levels, the question of bringing the final to Lahore lies beyond the narrow critique of playing a flute or fiddle while the city burns. It is now increasingly a question of what constitutes an appropriate response to terrorism.

Those in charge see a successful final as a fitting rebuttal to the actual purpose of terrorism. Militants don’t win mass appeal by bombing marketplaces. They carry out such acts to spread chaos, induce paralysis, and create internal discord. In the minds of many (and not just those in charge), not holding a sporting event grants success in service of these goals. A celebration safely held, on the other hand, suggests bravery in the face of adversity, and — that tiresome word — ‘resilience’ in the face of distress.

####Will people feel safer because Lahore was secured for one evening?

The thought of signalling resolve through a cricket match is steeped in earnestness. Some may think otherwise, but I would rather not assume that those responsible for organising the match, and those in charge of securing it, are doing it primarily for personal gain. It is more likely they genuinely feel this is an appropriate response to the chaos witnessed over this past month.

Yet it is also easy to see why this response is misplaced. This is not a critique of PSL, which remains a fantastic addition to the country’s cultural scene, or of the general idea of entertainment as an antidote in troubled times. Instead, it is about three things: the physical security of those attending; the diversion of significant resources and the message that diversion sends out to vulnerable areas across the rest of the country; and the patently manufactured sense of calm that could follow a successful hosting.

Firstly, there is no guarantee that the state’s arrangements will remain fool-proof. There will be upwards of 20,000 people in attendance, and much of the incoming crowd will be on foot. People walking towards the venue will remain vulnerable till they reach whatever security perimeter is set up. The Pakistani state cannot guarantee the safety of everyone in attendance. It is lying if it says otherwise. While the intention of those in charge of securing the event may be clear, their track record of competence raises more than just a few questions.

In a context marked by pervasive risk, the match itself will be carried out in an entirely contrived manner. Many foreign players have refused to travel to Lahore, and no one can fault them for the decision. Hosting the PSL final will not do anything for cricket in Pakistan. International teams will not flock back after one successfully hosted match, just like they didn’t when the PCB hosted Zimbabwe in 2015. In fact, if God forbid something goes wrong, it would be much more deflating and damaging than not hosting it in the first place. From a purely sporting point of view, it is an unnecessary political imposition on an otherwise well-organised tournament; one that provides valuable entertainment in an entertainment-starved country.

Secondly, securing an event of this magnitude requires the diversion of considerable financial and human resources. Hundreds, if not thousands of policemen (and if some reports are correct, army personnel) will be asked to leave their existing duties for at least a couple of days. A lot of money will be spent in catering for the transportation and security needs of the players, the management, and the VIPs in attendance.

The question of money or policemen is not just a financial trade-off. It is also, inadvertently, a political act. There are places in this country that have only known violence and distress for the last decade. There are communities where nearly every family has lost loved ones to militant violence. What message does the diversion of scarce resources to a cricket match send to those merely asking for the most basic kind of security? As citizens of the same state, they’ve deserved far better protection than what has historically been offered. It is entirely plausible to suggest that the optics of Lahore hosting a cricket match, as an armoured fortress, will induce resentment that could otherwise be avoided.

Finally, to what end will the government bear all this risk? What happens after the PSL final concludes successfully? Can we actually afford the congratulatory uplift that would follow the event?

Everyone agrees that normalcy is a fitting response to terrorism. But the definition of what is normal needs to be laid out. People, especially those residing in perpetually unsafe areas, who step out to go to school, work, or to buy groceries are passively resisting the spread of chaos. They are trying their best to live normal lives by carrying out mundane acts in an entirely abnormal context. Securing these mundane practices should be the start and end goal of the state’s fight against terrorism.

The question then that we need to ask is will people feel safer because Lahore was secured for one evening? Or will it just prove to be a distraction, or worse, a catalyst for complacency for those in charge? These are difficult questions that deserve to be answered with clarity of thought. Most importantly, the framework of those answers needs to go beyond a one-off show of security or a manufactured demonstration of resilience.

The PSL’s initial success shows it will (hopefully) be around for many years. Let the final come to Lahore in a safer one.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2017


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