(Shub Atpug investigates on what promises cricket diplomacy holds for peace in the future, and why the salt of political will is needed to supplement it, to be able to see silver, not just the silver-lining)
In 1982, Argentina called war, capturing the Islands. The British retaliated by carrying out both naval and air strikes. Even as the conflict, which lasted 74 days, had claimed hundreds of military lives and few Islanders’ lives, it ended with Argentina’s surrender. Leopold Galtieri, the last military dictator of Argentina, had to bite dust and resign, amidst nation-wide protests against military rule and elections were held in 1983. For the people of Falkland Islands, the British gave them full citizenship (prior to the war, they were citizens of the British Dependant Territory). However, one of the most apparent yet convincing fallout of this war was the tremendous rivalry between Argentina and England in the game of football that was to follow. The 1986 World Cup Football could feel the heat of the war on the ground where 11 players of each side were carrying their respective country’s war-ego on their shoulders, minds and hearts. The “Hand of God” goal by Maradona was testimony to the acute pressure on the ground where both the barrel and the bullet was football. You had to win. You could not afford to lose.
It was football, but it wasn’t surprising, because, in the game of cricket too, countries that once used to be British colonies, have imbibed the very spirit of an antagonism against UK, or amongst each other, whichever predominates. In today’s unipolar world, there are just geographical North and South Poles that fifth-graders are taught. The Cold War is a talk of the past, something that once existed, this day that year. Instead, it’s that time of the year when Arab Spring holds a place in our history. And for all that a cold war could produce, there are cricketing nations like India and Pakistan, England and Australia, Kenya and South Africa, whose duels on the ground have enthralled many. It could be icy, it could get to the nerves, and it could mind-wreck the peace of respective nation-lovers. Wars lost at the battlefield would be fought on the cricket ground. The ball was the bullet, while the batsman’s only ammunition for self-defence was the bat. The fielders were all soldiers fighting the battle. The other teams’ members at the pavilion were no different either. When a team would win, a Cup would be lifted and lofted like a cherished battle-trophy while the conquered team would meekly herd in to a subdued squeak – a demeanour that visits the vanquished.
It was in the 18th century that cricket had reached India, and Indians had begun to rival Englishmen in their skill and technique before the Victorian era was over. India played its first Test match in 1932. India was partitioned in 1947 and Pakistan was formed, and subsequent events moved very fast and often violently to eke out facts on the ground. The Imperial Cricket Conference, meeting at Lord's, awarded Test match status to Pakistan cricket team in 1952. Ten years later English counties began to play limited-over cricket with a result guaranteed inside the stretch of a day, and international cricket adopted the form for its world cup in 1975. When you fast-forward to Mohali of 2011 and nine world cups later, India met Pakistan in a semi-final match which the prime ministers of both countries attended (yes, attended, not just came to watch), while a billion people remained glued to their television sets. This, outside the opening of the Beijing Olympics, must be a sporting event's largest-ever TV audience. In what has now come to known as ‘cricket diplomacy’, it was fathomed by experts and sports-lovers, that a game could also be played within the veins of the people across borders in an effort to bring a thaw in the otherwise complex rigmarole of political vendetta, which each side accuses of. Over the years, it has become a generally held opinion that cricket can be used to speak peace. It could be a catalyst that’s embarked on a medium meant towards an end, which itself, however, is ever so hazy. India and Pakistan - probably one of those very few bipolar scars on the face of the earth are now attuned, or resigned to the possibilities of what cricket can do for them, that political or public diplomacy couldn’t.
Not so long ago I remember the day I was a sixth-grader, and one day, the Times of India newspaper had an article on the Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq’s coming to Jaipur, India, to savour a match of cricket in the company of Rajiv Gandhi. It was a Test Match. If you would recall those times, all this had to do with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an ostensible enterprise based on the belief that sports can be a great leveler of peace. There’s a caveat though, and it comes as a question. Is it the initiative that’s important, or is it that only good spirit that can see it through? And what happens when there’s none, and instead, an impending stalemate?
Both Zia-ul-Haq and Rajiv Gandhi seemed to enjoy the match, bouncing off the cameras with exchange of photogenic smiles and willing grins. They made sure it was noticeable, and I think those times, it was just Doordarshan. This visit apparently helped partially heal the pent-up emotions between the Nations, in so much as to even, perceptibly, sanitize the belligerent rivalry between their armies. That meeting could be the band-aid to the straining ties, very ephemeral in form and design, but, in the larger context, is cricket diplomacy an option to look at issues of mutual interest that can leave its permanent footprints of an amiable solution?
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1965 and many matches of cricket. But what is the historical cause of the inherent dispute? The plain of the Indus, now the heartland of Pakistan, had once been pastoral and nomadic, irregularly irrigated by monsoon flooding. British engineers made this landscape to be perennially irrigated in the 19th century by building head-water works, weirs, barrages and canals – building that continued throughout the 20th century, so that today the land watered by the Indus and its tributaries forms the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. It is still regulated across two countries by the Northern India Canal and Drainage Act of 1873. The dispute that came to the fore was over the fair share of water – between the upstream river-bankers of Punjab and their downstream equivalents in Sind – which were exacerbated when India was partitioned and the new political boundary, based on religious identity, and the physical boundary was carved out in keeping with the geo-political ones. The rivers that feed the Indus rise mainly in India, or like the Indus itself (which starts in Tibet), flow though it before reaching Pakistan. The upper versus lower riparian conflict became an international problem, which was solved for a time when the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, backed by the World Bank, gave India and Pakistan three tributaries each. But now those populations have swollen and water is either scarcer or comes in a flood, the lower riparians of Pakistan fear that their neighbours over the border will never be impartial in their treatment. Of course there have been duels over Kashmir, and the International community today considers this piece of land as one amongst the top three most volatile regions of the world, which can anytime bare itself up as the epicenter for a Third World War.
There have been talks over the years about the need to turn the water problem into a debate for civil society and the political leadership, and wrest control from the engineers and political system in India and the military in Pakistan. Pakistan has been trying to establish its parity with India, especially in the wake of the Afghanistan-Pak strategy declared by US President Barack Obama in 2009 which de-hyphenated Pakistan from India and hyphenated Pakistan with Afghanistan. Pakistan considers it its degradation in terms of regional importance, and that resultantly the US has disturbed the strategic regional balance in favour of India. Subsequently, the US entered a nuclear- energy deal with India while, on the energy front, it offered Pakistan only renovation possibilities for the spillways of Tarbela Dam under the Kerry-Lugar Act of 2009. Pakistan has yet to find its rightful place at the regional and international levels. The safeguarding of peace is itself a challenge between the two countries. Efforts to enhance people-to-people contact to lessen mutual misunderstandings were disrupted by the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Pakistan has been trying to restrain non-state actors from the crossing border and afflicting any harm on India. India seems skeptical that the military and the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence) are not under the control of the civilian government in Islamabad. The incumbent government has tried to distance itself from anti-India obsessions.
Back in the year 2004, an overture for friendship through cricket diplomacy hit the rounds, even as the fifteen year old hiatus of Test matches between India and Pakistan were put an end to. Both the countries had their visa regulations relaxed for each other, and thousands of fans were allowed travel to watch the match. Closely following that was a cricket match in the year 2005, which witnessed Pakistan’s General Parvez Musharraf, take recourse to the concept. As can be understood, in such situations, the tension and heat brewing in the political and diplomatic circles are quickly transferred on to the circumstances on the cricket ground. When the bowler spells, and the batsman comes to terms with the flight of the ball, and fielder up in the down misses that impossible catch, and the umpire has just that panache to notice an undeserving no-ball – all these make the cricket pitch look like the mouth of the volcano, impinging itself between the two stumps at the ends, which look like a pair of eyes.
It doesn’t need a psychoanalyst to get into the minds of the players. Most of the times, the apparent tension, man-induced, resulting from the presence of the heads of States who shake hands only to show how unequivocally distant they are, have a toll on the players’ nerves. It’s got to be. A game is a game. Cricket diplomacy has often, if for a moment you disregard the good effects it can have on the relation between nations, resulted in many a bad breath on the ground. A bowler can’t always get a wicket for his countrymen, nor can a batsman always hit a sixer. Also, in most cases, just as every diplomat might not be an effective general, every general might not end up being a skillful diplomat. And that, on Pervez Musharaff’s handling of affairs was evident. For what was meant to be a diplomacy through the use of a game soon became the entire content of diplomacy itself. No wonder, the “cricket-summit” failed. Kashmir was lost and found, with no corrosion inflicted albeit the pro- and anti-Kashmir intonations that each of these two Nations consider their single absolute manifesto.
Cricket diplomacy has its share of unpredictable fallouts too. In one cricket match at Karachi, a Pakistani fan ran onto the pitch to attack the Indian captain. Indian players were thrown stones at. Also in the year 2000, right-wing Hindu extremists dug up the cricket pitch in London to protest against the neighboring team’s visit for a match. There have often been strains in the Indo-Aussie relations owing to Aussie cricket team refusing to set foot on India for security reasons, or in some cases, warning its players not to venture out on their own while they are in the sub-continent, primarily sensing threats to their players’ lives, a directive not specially appreciated by the Indian government. Countries have been put under duress owing to such consulate directives, and in many cases, the respective governments had to intervene to straighten out things.
In the year 2008, due to the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the relation between India and Pakistan came to a precarious point. It was a spate of verbal and diplomatic attacks and counter-attacks from both sides. Cricket diplomacy seemed to be the only silver lining that could salvage some degree of sanity from the morass. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, met on a common podium to applaud their respective players, for the Cricket World Cup semifinal match between Pakistan and India in Mohali on March 30, 2011. Leave alone these two Titans, this ongoing diplomacy didn’t go unnoticed in the corridors of the world’s powers. The US congratulated India and Pakistan the same day for progress made in the peace talks and lauded the leadership of the two countries for initiating "cricket diplomacy". US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer later said: "India and Pakistan will take the talks forward at their own pace, ability and character. Continued dialogue, combined with cricket diplomacy, expanding people-to-people ties and enthusiasm and optimism on both sides, offers promise of a more prosperous and peaceful region.”
All said and done, the most fascinating fact about cricket diplomacy has been the participation of even countries that don’t play first-class cricket. China has also joined cricket diplomacy. Cross-Strait relations have been the impetus for doing so. During the buildup to the 2007 World Cup, Antigua received a $55 million grant to build the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, while Jamaica received $30 million for a new Trelawny stadium. St. Lucia also built both a cricket and a football stadium courtesy of China. China spent a remarkable $132 million on cricket facilities in the West Indies over the past few years, compared to the International Cricket Council's 10-year budget of $70 million to promote cricket globally. The diplomacy paid off in the end as Grenada and Dominica derecognized Taiwan as an independent country. Further, "Of the remaining 24 countries that recognize Taiwan, four are in the Caribbean and two of these play cricket." Grenada previously had a stadium built by Taiwan, but saw it flattened by a hurricane. To join the action, China quickly came in to erect another stadium. Consequently, Taiwan took Grenada to a New York City court to force the latter to return the original loan.
Taiwan also used the World Cup to shore up its position among its shrinking West Indian support base. It doled out $21 million to St. Kitts and Nevis and $12 million to the even smaller St. Vincent and the Grenadines for cricket grounds. China's aggressive ambitions have benefited the Caribbean Islands as strategic analysts say China is doling out more money than is needed to just isolate Taiwan. China, which has built large embassies in each of the islands, now has a bigger diplomatic presence in the Caribbean than the United States, the superpower next door. Diplomatic circles in China have confided that "Mainland China's long-term strategy coincides with its foreign policy.”
Whether cricket diplomacy brings peace between nations is still a matter of conjecture, but the enthusiasts opine there’s a silver lining. They cite circumstances when this form of diplomacy has helped ease out tensions between nations and bring about a thaw, and other such petty gains of a temporary nature. There have been instances, though few, where political and public diplomacy looked bleak, and cricket diplomacy could just turn around things to be able to do justice to a saner interest. Maybe, supplemented with a bit of the salt of political will, cricket diplomacy would one day soon, do wonders for nations in the future! As Albert Einstein had once remarked: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”