Geopolitics

Indo-Pak Cricket Diplomacy: Tracing Its Origin and Growth
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 10 Mar , 2017

India and Pakistan are two cricket crazy nations and whenever these two teams clash with each other, it creates a very ‘unique aura’ around it both inside and outside the stadium where the match is being played. There is a reason behind the uniqueness to this competition between the two countries which is very political and diplomatic in nature.

The partition led to horrific incidents of mass killings, rapes, genocide, rioting in different parts of India as well as Pakistan. This left some very cruel memories which remained imprinted in the minds of people from both sides.

This rivalry between these two south-asian neighbours dates back to 1947, when Pakistan was carved out from India on religious lines by the British who were till then the colonial masters of the Indian sub-continent. The partition led to horrific incidents of mass killings, rapes, genocide, rioting in different parts of India as well as Pakistan. This left some very cruel memories which remained imprinted in the minds of people from both sides.

The first Indo-Pak cricket series was played in 1954 when Pakistani team toured India. Since then, there has been a feeling in the cricket lovers of both the countries that losing to the other side in a match is unforgivable. This was shown in the angry reactions of the crowds when either of the two teams lost at their home soil. Thousands of Indian fans were granted visas to go Lahore when Indian team for the first time went to Pakistan to play a test series and Pakistani government did the same when their team toured India in 1961.

But still the concept of ‘Cricket Diplomacy’ was not born yet because at that time ‘Hockey’ was a much popular sport in both countries when compared to cricket since the undivided India was an Olympic champion in Hockey. Since these two countries were not fighting in the field after 1947 till 1965 and only 3 test series were played in these 18 years, there was a very little window left for using Cricket as a tool to maintain good-will between India and Pakistan.

Initial Phase: 1965-1990

India and Pakistan in the early decades after their Independence moved in very different directions. While India was strengthening its democratic ideals and was moving forward towards nation building, Pakistan remained very unstable with its military dictatorships, even its constitution was completed in 1971, much late after India. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricketing ties between the two nations.

Media started playing an important role in setting the agenda for a public debate on statements like these which gave on opportunity to hardliners, extremists and right wing forces to speak venomously for the other side.

After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between the two countries in 1978. The resuming of cricketing ties was a result of the governments in power in both the countries which were not in power during the 1971 war. In India, it was Janta Party’s government led by Morarji Desai while Pakistan was headed by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. This cricket series brought together the two states with Desai’s orders to stop the spying activities of R&AW in Pakistan. This made him immensely popular in Pakistan and as a result he was conferred Nishan-e-Pakistan in 1990, which is the highest civilian award of Pakistan.

Though, the relations seemed peaceful, but on the ground the case was not so. When Pakistan won the 1978 test series due to very bad and biased umpiring against India, it displayed the feeling of Pakistani’s who wanted to defeat India on any front, either hook or by crook. The ‘public opinion’ was very much against India which showed divisions on religious lines because the then Pakistani cricket captain Mushtaq Mohammad after defeating India in the test series said, “It’s the victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus”.

Media started playing an important role in setting the agenda for a public debate on statements like these which gave on opportunity to hardliners, extremists and right wing forces to speak venomously for the other side. The peace keepers and cricket fans were very happy though, when the two sides continued to play each other in next few years.

Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a chequered history. Sometimes it has come as an icebreaker; at other times; it has merely marked a deceptive lull before another storm. Former Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq started it all when he came to India to watch a Test match between the two sides in February 1987 as part of his “cricket for peace initiative” because India had launched a huge military exercise on its border during the winter, and a rattled Pakistan had bolstered troops on its borders in response.

The tension grew after India’s tour to Pakistan in 1989 for a full-fledged one-day and test series. The reason behind it was ‘Kashmir’.

According to BBC reports, during the match, President Zia apparently whispered to Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan had the nuclear bomb. Later, using pointed metaphors, he reportedly asked Indian reporters: “Why do you ignore my sixers to Indian bouncers?” To follow up on the Rajiv-Zia talks, the then finance minister V P Singh went to Pakistan. He had a productive dialogue with his counterpart, the pragmatic economist Mahbub –ul- Haque.

Romesh Bhandari, India’s former foreign secretary in an article on reddiff.com writes “There was no euphoria when Rajiv and Zia met because people didn’t trust Pakistan. They had heard so often that peace would arrive, but it always remained far away. There was a feeling in India that many within the Pakistan armed forces wanted to take revenge for Bangladesh. So there was no hype. The talk took place in the Yellow Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zia stayed over that night at Rashtrapati Bhavan.”

Cricket continued to be played on neutral venues like Sharjah, while only one bilateral series was played between the two countries till nearly the end of the millennium. The tension grew after India’s tour to Pakistan in 1989 for a full-fledged one-day and test series. The reason behind it was ‘Kashmir’.

Kashmir Insurgency & the 90s Era

Indo-Pak cricket matches during this period became the center of attraction for entire population on both sides. Even those, who didn’t like cricket got glued to their television sets because of the political conflict which was at its height was going on in the background. The game has been very popular among the soldiers of both Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers. The politicians and diplomats also liked this game on both sides of the border.

Kashmir, due to the prevailing anti-India sentiments in the insurgency era, saw itself aligned towards Pakistan because of their support for insurgents who were seen as ‘freedom fighters’ of Kashmir.

This is what made ‘Cricket Diplomacy’ between these two countries very special because the people who were directly or indirectly involved in Indo-Pak foreign policy had one common thing among them i.e. their passion for cricket. Though people on both sides were very much against each other but still the fans from both the sides went in the stadiums and sat together for the whole day to enjoy the match.

The peacekeepers saw this game as a tool which binds people together which was displayed by the emotions of people from both sides, for e.g. though Pakistani public always wanted their team to crush India in a match but they also wanted Sachin Tendulkar to hit sixes and in the same manner Indian public wanted their team to demolish Pakistan but they wanted Wasim Akaram or Imran Khan to deliver a magic spell of ‘reverse swing’.

That is why cricketers gradually became the ambassadors of their countries whenever they crossed the borders to play on the neighbouring soil. But cricket also brought some horrific incidents in Kashmir during this period. This is ironic to see how sports which binds people together, can lead to destruction of lives.

Kashmir, due to the prevailing anti-India sentiments in the insurgency era, saw itself aligned towards Pakistan because of their support for insurgents who were seen as ‘freedom fighters’ of Kashmir. This led Kashmiris to support Pakistani team whenever a cricket match happened. Media reports in Greater Kashmir and other Kashmir dailies reported that people distributed sweets and burned crackers whenever India lost and they prayed for Pakistan to win.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Martand Jha

Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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