Seeds of peace on cricket field

February 20, 2007|By Fauzia Salman

With the Cricket World Cup coming next month, the air is full of speculation about another Pakistan-India match. Cricket is more than a sport for Pakistanis and Indians. It is a cult followed by millions across the subcontinent with a passion inconceivable even to ardent American football and baseball fans.

Devotion to cricket is synonymous with patriotism. Political leaders, media icons and the general public all join in the hysteria. Matches between the two rival cricketing nations foster incredible emotional energy. Before any India-Pakistan match, newspapers are splattered with war cries declaring the game "Kargil of Cricket" - an allusion to the armed conflict between the two nuclear neighbors in 1999.

This sport, a legacy of British imperialism, provides an insight into the larger sociopolitical ethos of South Asia. India and Pakistan have a torturous history of hostility. Their blood-spattered birth left deep scars. Despite having lived together since prehistoric times, both chose to isolate themselves after independence.

The seeds of conflict were sown in 1947 with the still-unresolved dispute over Kashmir. Three wars followed, without any resolution. Both sides allege cross-border terrorism. Pakistan, an Islamic state, is suspicious of its Hindu neighbor, and India is well aware of its growing economic superiority in the region. Neither of these nuclear powers can be absolved of responsibility for restoring peace to the volatile region. But both have remained unyielding, until recently, to strengthen the fragile peace process.

Cricket and politics, no doubt strange bedfellows, are helping to bring the traditional enemies together. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, on a visit to India in 2005, resorted to cricket diplomacy. He spent more than an hour watching a cricket match before getting down to discuss real business with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Both sides agreed to inaugurate a bus service between Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir. This gesture of goodwill was a major breakthrough in easing the escalating tensions.

The sport has allowed fans from both countries to gain new insights about one another. Relaxed visa policies enable fans not only to enjoy cricket but also to refresh family links torn by partition. Both sides are pleasantly surprised at the warm hospitality they receive across borders during matches. Cameras zoom in on visitors cheering for the opposite team and fluttering both flags. Devotees realize the common bonds that connect them as cricket enthusiasts.

Of course, huge challenges remain. This was made horrifying clear Sunday, when two bombs exploded on a train headed from India to Pakistan, sparking a fire that killed 66 people in an attack that officials said was aimed at undermining the peace process.

Despite such setbacks, it still seems possible that India-Pakistan cricket matches will lead to exchanges of other types - cultural, social and political - and in time, each side might come to see the other as a rival, certainly, but not necessarily an enemy.

Fauzia Salman, a native of Pakistan and a Fulbright scholar, is a master's candidate in public policy at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies. Her e-mail is salman_fauzia123@yahoo.com.

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