Wednesday, April 24, 2024

When strained India-Pakistan relations spill into cricket

India and Pakistan, the neighbour siblings born to an aged British empire through a painful labour of partition, have never really been on good terms ever since they gained political independence in 1947. In their post-colonial history, they have fought three major wars and have seemed to be on the brink of a fourth one many times. The main point of contention, amongst many others, has been the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir that both countries possess partially and claim completely.

This already tumultuous relationship took a turn for the worse on 5th August 2019 when the Indian government unilaterally changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution which accorded a special status and partial autonomy to the only Muslim-majority state in India. 

In response, the Pakistan government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan launched a campaign of scathing criticism against the Narendra Modi-led Indian government both at the domestic and international levels. In Pakistan, scores of protest marches were organised showcasing solidarity with the people of Jammu and Kashmir who were cut off from the world due to a nine-month-long communication gag following the abrogation.

Pakistan also took the stage at the international platforms to voice their concern for the condition of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and condemn the high-handedness of the Indian government.

This was particularly exhibited when Imran Khan, in his speech at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, said that Indian actions in Kashmir could possibly bring two nuclear-armed countries ‘face to face’. 

There were hopes of an upturn in the relations in 2021 when in a joint statement, the directors general of military operations of India and Pakistan agreed to “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb 2021.” The ceasefire exhibited the softening of Pakistan’s stand on the August 5, 2019, move of the Indian government and the willingness of both sides to improve the worsening relations.

Sadly, this gesture that promised so much at the time did not prove as a starting point for the two countries to engage more and find common ground. The relations between the two nations have since remained in cold storage and there does not seem to be much evidence of a change occurring any time soon. 

Throughout these periods of rivalry and enmity, there have always been some points of contact that was more or less maintained and often celebrated between India and Pakistan. Apart from cinema and music, in which people from both countries displayed an appetite for the consumption of content produced across the border, cricket was a major point of commonality which often brought people of the rival countries together. Former Pakistan Army Chief and President Parvez Musharraf saluting the crowd at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla cricket ground, standing beside Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 one of the few images that represent the possibility of a friendship between India and Pakistan in recent decades.

But such occasions became rarer and rarer as the enmity soon spilt over into the few avenues of continued exchange between the two nations. Cricket, rather than being a testament of common passions and friendly similarities between the people of the two countries, became a stage for politics by the respective governments.

Bilateral tournaments between Indian and Pakistani cricket teams were slowly phased out. The last time the two played each other in a bilateral series was in January 2013 when Pakistan visited India. The heart-warming visuals of Indian and Pakistani cricketers sharing meals, laughs and friendships have since become increasingly scarce.

The two teams from there contested only when international tournaments brought the arch-rivals face to face in highly anticipated encounters. This shrinking of the space for cultural exchange that was enabled by a sport popular and powerful enough to promote the possibility of peace is a major tragedy. Even within this restricted engagement, the last resort of friendly sporting exchange, which is the international tournaments, are also now being made victims of this political rivalry. This along with a ban on Pakistani actors and musicians working in India has made sure that the state-to-state disengagement completely engulfs any cultural people-to-people engagement between India and Pakistan.

Last year, the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Jay Shah suddenly announced that the Asia Cup, scheduled to be held in Pakistan, would be moved to a neutral venue, confirming that the Indian team will not visit Pakistan for the tournament. The Pakistan Cricket Board responded by saying that it would refuse to participate in the tournament in case it is taken out of Pakistan. Eventually, the stalemate ended when it was decided that the tournament will be held in Pakistan as scheduled but India will play its matches at a neutral venue outside Pakistan.

Similarly, the federal government of Pakistan has declined to issue a NOC to the Pakistani cricket players to visit India for the Cricket World Cup later in 2023. The NOC was declined citing security issues saying that sending Pakistani cricket players to India would be a big risk. It is likely that we will see a similar to Asia Cup compromise in this case as well where Pakistan would be able to play its matches at neutral venues while the rest of the tournament plays out in India as per schedule.

Both these tournaments should be seen as a lost opportunity for the people of India and Pakistan who despite their great similarity have very little space for intermingling and exchange. The strain in relations between governments notwithstanding, sporting events like these could help in easing tensions and have the potential to become starting points as far as healing the ailing relations between two nations are concerned.

Besides, the spirit of the game is also compromised when two major participants refuse to acknowledge the set schedules and create problems for other participants of the tournament for no real reason other than petty optics. Even if the relations between India and Pakistan continue to be strained, it does not make sense to close off all conceivable avenues of friendly exchange. Cricket remains one of the few possible enablers of friendliness in the heated Indian subcontinent.

Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a 2nd year PhD scholar from Shiv Nadar University. His doctoral research seeks to investigate various aspects of political violence in South Asia through the lens of postcolonial theory. 


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