By Amitabh Pal
A recent sporting event had two countries playing cricket with each other, a game that is incomprehensibly boring for most Americans. So why should anyone care?
Because the two countries were India and Pakistan, and the match helped improve relations between the two contentious neighbours.
The event was the semi-final of the Cricket World Cup, held once every four years. The Wall Street Journal reported, "It's hard to script a sports drama more intense than this: Two nations that are bitter rivals and have fought three wars are about to play their biggest match yet in the sport they both love more than any other on the game's biggest stage - and just as their leaders try to get peace talks off the ground."
Even though India, assisted by a generous heaping of good luck, scraped through to a narrow victory, the real winners were the people of India and Pakistan.
Relations between the two neighbours, never splendid in the best of times, had been in cold storage since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that were carried out by Pakistan-based extremist outfits. Slowly and painfully, the countries were trying to get relations back on an even keel. Then came the news that the two countries were playing each other at the penultimate stage of the most prestigious event in the world of cricket - a sport that generates excitement like no other in the Indian subcontinent. The mood changed quickly.
"Indian and Pakistani officials are to visit each other's countries to investigate the 2008 Mumbai attacks," the BBC reported just before the match. "A joint statement said officials also agreed to set up a hot line to share information about terrorist threats. The news comes a day before Pakistani PM Yousuf Raza Gilani is due in India to attend the Cricket World Cup semi-final between the two sides."
Who says that sporting events are inconsequential?
The match generated a lot of good feelings. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cited the power of "the beautiful game of cricket" in acting as a "uniting factor" to overcome the two countries' "ancient animosities." He added, "The message from Mohali [the match's venue] is that the people of India and Pakistan want to live in peace." Gilani invited his Indian counterpart to Pakistan for further discussions.
The opportunity for people-to-people contact that the match brought about was also valuable.
The Indian government issued 6,500 visas within a single day for Pakistanis to watch the event. Many Pakistanis walked across the border to the sound of welcoming Indian drummers. (In a fortuitous coincidence, the semi-final's location was just a couple of hours from Pakistan).
Residents of the city opened up their houses for their Pakistani guests. More than 10,000 joint flags were created for distribution that day. All of this was quite typical of the warmth that Indians and Pakistanis receive in each other's country. Indians who have visited Pakistan in the past, for instance, have often been pleasantly surprised when Pakistani shopkeepers have refused to accept money on learning that they were from India.
And the event fostered cross-border affection in other ways, too. Aman ki Asha (Hope for Peace), a joint India-Pakistan initiative, published an ad featuring the Indian and Pakistani cricket captains together with the flags of both countries as a backdrop. "Hating to lose is one thing.
Hating is another," the tagline reads.
Pakistani Captain Shahid Afridi won millions of Indian hearts with his gracious post-game speech.
And US-based Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad tried to make the India-Pak expatriate communities view the sporting rivalry in the best possible light by dedicating songs at a recent Harvard concert to both teams.
Alas, anyone who is even remotely familiar with South Asia knows that the path to peace in the region is a tortuous one. After returning home, Afridi initially kept up the positive momentum by reminding his compatriots of the shared culture of the two countries. But he soon muddied the waters, apparently in umbrage to comments made by Indian batsman Gautam Gambhir. Indian players reacted sharply from the other side of the border, and a tit-for-tat ensued before Afridi backtracked.
So it goes. But it'll take more than a bit of complication to erase all the goodwill that the semi-finals produced. The peace talks are on track, and the official announcements still valid. Moved by an appeal from the Indian Supreme Court, the Pakistani president ordered free an Indian who had been held in Pakistani jails for twenty-seven years. And thousands of people got to interact face-to-face with their neighbours. You can't underestimate the power of that.
Now, I don't want to make the case that one sporting event will lead to a fundamental change between two countries with such knotty disputes. They have to resolve a range of issues, from Kashmir and Siachen to Sir Creek and water-sharing. But if a cricket match can make things better even by just a bit, let us have more batsmen facing down bowlers from the other side of the border separated by just twenty-two yards.
Amitabh Pal is the Managing Editor of American political monthly The Progressive
(www.progressive.org http://www.progressive.org), and author of the recently
published book "'Islam' Means Peace".
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