India: Improved Relations with Pakistan – The Role of Cricket Diplomacy


Rana Ganguly

The resumption of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan in March this year after a gap of fourteen years marks a remarkable shift in the relationship between the two neighbours – a gradual shift from hostility and suspicion towards cordiality and mutual trust. The two countries that share a common cultural heritage, music, food and a passion for cricket and hockey have fought four wars since independence and partition, and retain the potential to be the world’s worst nuclear flash point. In 1999, the two nations were in the process of drawing closer through the ‘Bus Diplomacy’ initiative taken by India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee. But the euphoria was short lived as Kashmiri militants backed by Pakistani army units stealthily infiltrated the Indian part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and captured strategic heights in the Kargil and Drass sectors. All this happened while a dialogue for peace and cooperation was in progress between the prime ministers of the two nations. This adventure was undertaken by none other than the then Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf who is now Pakistan’s President. Whether this incursion had the approval of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is still debated by many. However, as Indian army units scaled the heights and displaced the intruders, in the process paying a heavy price in terms of men and material, the dispute seemed ready to escalate into a full-scale conflict that could have led either side to press the nuclear trigger. The war was eventually averted with the intervention of President Clinton who advised Sharif to rein in the Pakistani forces or face Indian retaliation. No sooner had hostilities subsided on both sides than an attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-backed terrorists in December 2001 again brought the two nations close to war. Foreign mediation and counsel from intellectuals in both countries calmed the tensions

The aggressive rhetoric of war has always been reflected in any cricket or hockey match between the two nations. For the losing team the loss on the playing field has brought shame and ignominy akin to that of losing a war. However, in the bargain sporting and cultural exchanges between the two countries have suffered. The rebuilding of cricketing ties is but one component of the multi-pronged new peace initiative driven by Vajpayee and Musharraf. Resumption of bus and railway connections are expected soon and relaxation of visa regulations has already facilitated reciprocal visits between politicians, diplomats, businessmen, officials and people who have families on both sides of the border.

The two nations are a unique case of a former nation that was divided on the basis of religion despite common ethnic and cultural antecedents. While India has established itself as the world’s largest democracy, Pakistan has been plagued by the problems of weak and corrupt politicians and the hegemony of a military establishment that controls all the major conduits of power and is quite averse to any notion of people’s rule. The Bangladesh war in 1971 eventually proved to the people of the subcontinent that religion could not be a viable single basis for uniting (or dividing) peoples. While the majority in both India and Pakistan have wanted peaceful relations, Pakistan’s government has always successfully raised the Indian bogey to skirt more immediate development and governance issues. Ruling juntas have heavily invested in military hardware using the ‘hostile neighbour’ card to good effect, while siphoning funds into personal coffers. The Indian government has also been guilty of participating in, and perpetuating, the arms race resulting in both countries diverting valuable resources away from development to defence. However, the realisation that sustained hostilities are wasteful and that peace and amicable relations are to their mutual advantage have led both countries to make sincere and genuine efforts to improve relations.

It is heartening during the recent cricket series to note the warm reception given to Indian visitors by Pakistani officialdom and the people of that country. The behaviour of Pakistani crowds in the stadia has been consistently warm, sporting and hospitable inspiring the Indians to demonstrate an appropriate resolve for reciprocation. India has already accorded Pakistan the MFN (Most Favoured Nation) treatment in trade relations and Pakistan is expected to follow suit shortly. Reciprocal visits by intellectuals, business people, sportsmen and film industry wallahs have further helped lay the foundations of a peace that for the first time seems attainable. Notwithstanding the on-field results* of such sporting encounters, people have resolved to share in the joy of sport. Partisan behaviour has been totally absent. Recently, at the initiative of leading Indian cricketers, several Pakistani children received free treatment in top Indian hospitals for serious illnesses including heart and cancerous ailments. Media reports on such gestures in both countries have created a climate of friendship and understanding never seen before.

*India won the one-day series 3-2 and later the test series 2-1 to register its first test and series victory in Pakistan.

WATCHPOINT: Will the collective will of over a billion people in the subcontinent finally bring lasting peace and prosperity?


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