India, Pakistan and Cricket Diplomacy

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There is one cricket tradition on the Subcontinent that, unlike those dapper white v-neck sweaters, has endured into the 21st century: cricket diplomacy. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to attend tomorrow’s semi-final match in the Cricket World Cup in Mohali as his guests. There’s a long tradition of reaching out over the cricket pitch: Rajiv Gandhi invited Zia ul-Haq to watch a Test match in Jaipur in 1987. Pervez Musharraf watched a one-day international with Singh in Delhi in 2005.

Gilani accepted the invitation, and over the last few days the two countries have been trading other public declarations of goodwill. Pakistan will soon release an Indian man who has been imprisoned in Pakistan for 27 years on charges of spying after straying over the border in 1984. India, meanwhile, changed its visa policies for people from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, so they can visit the Indian side for up to six months on multiple-entry visas. These public overtures of peace between India and Pakistan are powerful symbols. Relations between the two nuclear-armed countries are at their lowest point since 2001, and cricket is yet another proxy—as George Orwell described sport, “war, minus the shooting.”

The Indian media have been trumpeting this new public rapprochement, while giving the closed-door diplomacy revealed in the Wikileaks India cables a very different reception. Among the recent revelations in The Hindu: that Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi is “more comfortable working with the often high-caste and well-educated Communists” than with “rustic regional politicians”; that a leader of the opposition, Arun Jaitley, characterized its Hindu nationalist agenda as “an opportunistic issue” ; and that a pink foam-covered box found at one of the Mumbai attack sites in 2008 was crucial to proving Pakistani links but U.S. officials complained that India was not forthcoming with it. (This may be the same “six pieces of pink coloured foam with blackish stains” listed in Indian court documents and identified as the explosive RDX.)

Howard and Teresita Schaffer, both former Ambassadors in South Asia and two of the most astute analysts on the region, had an interesting take on this kind of diplomacy on their new blog, South Asia Hand. They correct the misconception that the name of the bottom of these cables indicates the writer (I’ve committed this error myself) and argue passionately that what looks like arm-twisting and indiscretion is actually diplomats doing their job — advocating for U.S. interests and sending candid assessments of the scene on the ground to their superiors in Washington.

India and Pakistan are engaging in both kinds of diplomacy this week. The two home secretaries are meeting to discuss counter-terrorism, including the ongoing investigation into the Mumbai attacks, which continues to be a huge obstacle to better relations. The Indian newsmagazine Tehelka reports that India has also opened so-called “back channel” or “track II” talks with the Pakistani military and the ISI, its intelligence agency.

“Powerful ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha has also met representatives of the Indian armed forces posted in the High Commission in Islamabad and is believed to have conveyed to them that India needs to talk directly with the Pakistan Army. Earlier, Pasha had attended an iftar party thrown by the Indian High Commissioner for the first time. The ISI had also hosted farewell parties for some Indian defence advisers who were returning after completing their tenures in Islamabad.” On its part, the Indian establishment has reciprocated by inviting the head of the National Defence University in Islamabad. India also invited the Pakistan High Commissioner to address its military officers at the National Defence Academy. Sushan Sareen, a key Pakistan expert at India’s premier strategic think-tank Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), believes only a credible engagement with Pakistan’s military will bring peace in the region.”

That’s a common view in New Delhi these days – that the generals make all the decisions, and anything else is just for show. Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan echoed that sentiment, telling NDTV that the match in Mohali “will be feel good factor. I don’t think anything concrete will come out of it.” But that’s not entirely true. Tomorrow, the leaders of India and Pakistan will sit together guarded by a security force that is surely unprecedented in the history of cricket. Their presence is a reminder that these two countries may be separated by an existential enmity but are bound by a common threat, one that doesn’t respect boundaries on or off the field.