OVER the past week or so, the subcontinent has teetered on the edge of war. The stand-off began with the attack on Indian soldiers in Pulwama by a native of India-held Kashmir on Feb 14. Since then, both countries have exchanged hostilities.
Yet, almost from the moment the chain of events began, one of the first intangible casualties was cricket. More specifically, there were calls on the Indian side to end cricketing ties with Pakistan, culminating in the demand that Pakistan be kicked out of the impending World Cup this summer.
In one sense, this wasn’t surprising.
Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, much of the diplomatic impasse between the two neighbours has been played out on ‘soft’ power issues like cricket and the arts. Pakistani artists, actors, musicians and athletes have repeatedly been banned or ostracised in India as a consequence of actions India blames on the Pakistani state.
There are two complementary reasons for these moves. Firstly, the threat of nuclear war has meant that the Indian state has been reluctant to engage in battlefield hostilities. Secondly, the Indian market for cricket and the arts is so huge that it can impose unilateral costs on Pakistani compatriots in those fields. India’s de facto control of the cricket world means that it can often bully its way on and off the field.
Cricket had previously served as the basis for imagining peace, and now as a means of punishment.
This time, however, the call to ban Pakistan proved a bridge too far. The lack of any laws pertaining to such an issue as well as the lack of precedent both meant that the Indian demand hit a brick wall. Some pointed to the example of the sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era. However, that boycott was part of a much larger political movement, with considerable support across the globe. Such a situation doesn’t exist vis-à-vis Pakistan right now. Others recalled the US and USSR boycotting each other’s Olympics in the 1980s, but those were moves in which the aggrieved parties withdrew themselves rather than removing the other. Consequently, the call for a ban on Pakistan in the World Cup didn’t go any further.
However, India’s continued refusal to have bilateral cricketing relations appears set to continue. This decade-long stance, which saw just one exception in a short Pakistani tour in 2014, began with the Mumbai attacks, and extends to Pakistani exclusion from the world’s biggest franchise league, the Indian Premier League.
This current stand of suspending cricketing ties due to strained relations is, in a sense, a reversal of the previous status quo. Ever since India’s first tour in Pakistan in 1954-55, every subsequent full tour it had in the country took place when Pakistan was under military rule. Cricket was used as a way of softening the political impasse and a significant public relations move for the military rulers. The Zia era saw four visits by India, while the Musharraf regime hosted them twice. In between and since, during spells of democratic rule, there has never been a full Indian tour. Since 2008, however, the Indian state has used suspending cricket as a moral imperative due to its issues with Pakistan.
Both these policies show how powerful the impact of cricketing ties between the two nations can be. Cricket had previously served as the basis for imagining peace, and now as a means of punishment. For the Pakistani establishment, those tours had served to bolster local morale as well as portray a positive image abroad. Those who experienced the 2004 tour by India and the attendant friendship and camaraderie between rival fans can attest to the profound impact of such tours. For the Indian government now, ending cricket serves as one of the more potent punishments in the face of their possible options.
Given that the alternative is war, banning cricketing ties doesn’t seem like the worst thing. Indeed, it is highly preferable to the events of these past few days. However, at the same time, one can’t help but feel that cricket — one of the most authentic cultural forces of the region — has been reduced to a pawn.
While it can be argued quite convincingly that the Indian bans have had a negative impact on Pakistani cricket, it is absolutely certain that such moves have had zero impact on militancy. Given that India’s main aim is to prevent what it alleges is Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, such a ban doesn’t cause any impact whatsoever.
However, perhaps the reason cricket and such soft power phenomena are banned is because they allow us to see the other side — and appreciate how similar we are. Take your mind back to the Champions Trophy final in 2017, where after the match Indian captain Virat Kohli was seen sharing jokes with Shoaib Malik from Pakistan. It was a microcosm of the larger relationship between the two people, where despite all our differences it’s often easier to bond over what we have in common.
For many of the politicians and political actors involved, especially now, there is a lot to gain from insisting that the two nations are fundamentally different and eternal enemies. There is a lot to gain from spreading narratives of hate and contempt. But cricket has a way of rapidly undermining those efforts, as it showcases not just how we are similar but also how we share a passionate love for the game.
For populations to be whipped up to a state of frenzy, to the point of them demanding death and destruction, one needs to make the enemy as hateful as possible. But cricket has a tendency of dispelling those feelings, and reminding us of our commonalities. Perhaps this is why those who want war can’t afford to let cricket get in their way.
The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.
Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2019