India, Pakistan and Cricket: To Play or Not to Play

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan wants to resume bilateral cricketing ties with India while India refuses to play ball. How would an alien from Mars, unaffected by nationalist biases, assess the situation?

It would be hard to dismiss the Indian position outright. Think of it this way: If you live in a community and a neighbour throws his trash over your wall you would be justified in being annoyed. You might go over once for a friendly chat but if the dumping continues you would be well within your rights to protest and break off relations. The neighbour’s invitation to a friendly game of chess will clearly smack of hypocrisy in the circumstances.

Extrapolate the analogy to India-Pakistan politics. There seems little doubt that Pakistan has been abetting incidents of terrorism in India – the 2008 attack in Mumbai was the most egregious and the most explicitly linked to Pakistan. Add to that unprovoked border incursions like the one in Kargil and one ought not to be surprised if India is riled up. In such a situation the demand to suspend sporting relations with a country exporting terrorism does carry weight.

However, extending the analogy of neighbours to countries is logically incorrect.  Neighbours are humans with agency in the sense that they can decide where and when to dump trash and whether and how to retaliate. Countries, on the other hand, are inanimate entities incapable of doing anything on their own. Rather, individuals or groups, acting in their names, carry out actions. And there is never a complete consensus on any action among the individuals or groups in a country.

The implication is that just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Pakistanis are not guilty of instigating incidents of terror in India. At the same time, it is not possible to deny that some are and openly so. Therefore, the question to ask is whether the Indian state is justified in punishing all Pakistanis for the actions of a few?

At an intellectual level the representatives of the Indian state know that some rather than all Pakistanis are involved in the incidents of terror in their country. However, their claim is that either the Pakistani state is complicit in the actions of the offending groups or, if not, is not doing enough to put a stop to their actions. Once again, on the basis of available evidence it is hard to deny that there isn’t validity to one if not both accusations. Therefore, the decision of the Indian state to suspend sporting relations continues to merit consideration.

Does this stance hurt or advance the interests of the Indian state? It would seem the latter because although it recognizes that not all Pakistanis are complicit in the acts of terror across the border, the Indian state does not discourage its media from painting all Pakistanis with the same brush, that is, to convey the impression that Pakistan is evil as an entity. This perception generates public support for a political stance which seems to be maintained for reasons other than those of pure principle.

In support of this conclusion one can cite the fact that despite the boycott, the Indian state is not opposed to contests between the two countries in multilateral competitions such as the World or Asia Cup tournaments. A principled stance that India would not play against a state promoting terror would call for a boycott of matches in such tournaments as well. There are precedents for such principled positions — many countries participated in a boycott of sporting relations with South Africa when its government practised the policies of apartheid. Similarly, Israel used to concede walkovers in global competitions if matches were scheduled on Yom Kippur.

One could be forced to conclude that there is more to the position of the Indian state than what it professes. In a period of RSS dominance, could it be too far-fetched to presume that an ideological consideration of the Indian state might actually be to punish Pakistan as much as possible while minimizing the cost of such a policy to itself?

The contradiction in the Indian position on bilateral and multilateral sporting engagements with Pakistan would seem to support the hypothesis. At the bilateral level, global sympathies are clearly on the Indian side and the finances of its sporting bodies are much stronger than those of the counterparts in Pakistan. Thus the relative economic loss from the bilateral boycott is quite asymmetric in favour of India.

The same would cease to be true if the boycott was extended to multilateral competitions. Not only would India diminish its chances of winning such tournaments by conceding walkovers against Pakistan, it would find it virtually impossible to sustain universal public support for such a position. Thus it is not surprising that Indian policymakers refer to contests at the multilateral level as ‘only a game’ while simultaneously allowing their media to paint bilateral contests in hyper-nationalist terms as an extension of war. This allows the Indian state to have its cake and eat it as well.

The Indian state can get away with this contradictory stance as long as the world believes that the Pakistani state is turning a blind eye to the promotion of acts of terrorism across the border. Given this perception the latter’s high-minded claim that sporting relations should be independent of political considerations is rightly seen as hypocritical.

Needless to say, and quite independent of anything else, the Pakistani state should be taking a much more forthright stand on restraining agents using its soil for acts of terror across its borders. However, given the mood of the moment in India, it is not clear if that would be sufficient for the Indian state to end its boycott of sporting relations at the bilateral level.

This opinion appeared in the Express-Tribune on July 22, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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