Exactly a year ago this month, the Narendra Modi government booked certain individuals, especially students, under the anti-terror UAPA law. Their crime was to cheer for the Pakistani team in a T20 match. These people were from Srinagar, Agra and Udaipur. In Kashmir, however, this has always been the practice as the residents of the Himalayan valley mostly cheer for the green shirts.
In 1947, as the British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the sportsmen also saw a division, just like the military, police or janitors. India and Pakistan first played as independent nations in 1952 when Vinoo Mankad captained India while Abdul Hafeez Kardar was Pakistan’s captain. But interestingly, just six years prior to that, Kardar had played for India and he and Mankad were part of the same team.
Apart from Kardar, some other renowned Pakistani players like Amir Elahi and Gul Mohammed also played for India but post-1947 they played for Pakistan. A match between the two commonwealth neighbours was held in 1952-53 in India followed by matches in the newly formed Pakistan in 1954-55. The Indian team had Vinoo Mankad, Lala Amarnath, Vijay Hazare, Vijay Manjarekar and Pankaj Roy to name a few who played against Pakistan.
Politics wasn’t seen as much of an issue then, till militancy in Kashmir exploded beyond control and cross-border patronage for Sikh militancy in the name of Khalistan took center-stage in both these countries. The 80s, followed by the 90s, was bloody for the subcontinent, especially for India. Militancy took a sharp high towards the end of the eighties and the early nineties in Kashmir valley, all of which was triggered by a rigged election in 1987 engineered by the Indian National Congress and the National Conference. Still, there was a space for soft diplomacy and talks with Pakistan and cricket was played as a sport.
In February of 1987, C-130 Hercules landed in Jaipur’s Sanganer airport in response to an invitation extended by the BCCI. The guest who deplaned was Pakistan’s military general and President Zia-ul Haq. All along the year, Operation Brasstacks was on as part of the ‘Cold Start Doctrine’ at the borders of Rajasthan-Sindh by the Indian Army. The tensions were at peak and the emotions associated with cricket were equally high. Strike corps were at the gates.
The game at Jaipur went well in which Imran Khan, who, decades later, would become Pakistan’s Prime Minister, captained the Pakistan team. Other well-known players were Rameez Raja, who’s the current head of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), and Roger Binny, the current head of the BCCI. But in that whole affair, the Indian PM had a sharp conversation with Pakistan’s Zia when they talked about the probabilities of non-conventional war which was threatening toward nuclear destruction. Also, it had been noted, despite seven hijacks from 1981-1984 and the bombing of Kanishka Air India on the Atlantic by the Khalistani terrorists, that the spirit of cricket or bilateral talks hadn’t faded. A month later, Operation Brasstacks was over.
The players had high brand value. Imran Khan along with Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar in the 1980 was seen in print ads on the back page of every magazine and appeared on monstrous hoardings campaigning for Indian cola, Thums Up, everywhere from Bombay’s Marine Drive to Chowranghee in Calcutta. It was the time when America’s cola, Coke, had left India. Imran Khan appeared in another TV commercial in 1987 for Godrej’s Cinthol soap which created ripples as the commercial did well and the soap became a household name. In all the cases, cricket and its players were away from politics but were always a part of soft diplomacy.
Year 1983 was big for the Indian cricket. That summer the ‘backbenchers’ of the international cricket won the world cup, known as Prudential Cup, in England. The team that was defeated was the invincible West Indies captained by Clive Lloyd and powered by legends like Vivian Richards and Malcom Marshall.
In October that year, when Kashmir was crimson with shades of autumn, Indian cricket team arrived to showcase its potential. The team captained by Kapil Dev included Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, K Srikanth, Syed Kirmani, Dilip Vensarkar, Roger Binny and others. It faced hostilities from the Kashmiri spectators as the match against West Indies was played at Sher-e-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar. As the match was on, many chanted pro-Pak slogans and displayed a life-size picture of Imran Khan. The legendary opener reciprocated by gesturing with his thumb, reminding them of the advertisement he did together with Imran Khan for the cola beverage, Thums Up. During the lunch break that day, a dozen or so men broke the security cordon to dig the pitch. They were later arrested.
Next decade, in the nineties, cricket among the two enemy countries saw a new turn. For ten years, both the countries didn’t visit each other. Shaharyar Khan, once the foreign secretary of Pakistan, as the PCB head in 1999 took a diplomatic dive with ricket. That year, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee met at the SAARC summit in Colombo and agreed to restart the Composite Dialogue from where, months ago, Sharif had left with the then Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral. Kashmir was, of course, on the table along with cross-border terrorism. That same year, both the nations tested nuclear weapons and looked eye to eye on the LoC.
Shahariyar Khan, an astute diplomat, tried to convince both the sides for a cricket match to be held and this time in Bombay (later Mumbai). But, in India, with the rise of political Hindutva, things were getting complicated. It had all started with the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu mobs led by BJP and RSS in December 1992 followed by blasts in Bombay in 1993 orchestrated by gangster Dawood Ibrahim. It left a scar on the Indian democratic and secular fabric. Taking the opportunity, the right wing parties tried to fan anti-Pakistan sentiments around the country. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thakeray, who was the political ringmaster of Bombay, was at the forefront of not allowing Pakistani team to play in Bombay. In Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium, miscreants from Shiv Sena dug the pitch on a cold January morning. Politically dark clouds were hovering which had created such intense enmity that even the soft diplomatic options like cricket were targeted. For hardliners in India, anything associated with Pakistan was to be abhorred.
Prime Minister Vajpayee realized that things needed to move beyond cricket and the idea of Delhi-Lahore bus service was conceived. With the background of Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif shook hands and it was seen as a new beginning. Months later however, deep in the high-altitude hills and mountains of Kargil, Pakistan launched Operation Koh Paima while India fought back. Many soldiers died on both sides.
In the coming months, Pakistan’s army chief Pervaz Musharraf would overthrow Sharif. Musharraf loved cricket but he wanted business in his own way. At the Agra Summit in July 2001, Musharraf put forward his ‘four point’ solution to the Kashmir issue. The 9/11 attacks on the US followed soon and changed everything.
By 2004, Congress party was back in power in India and Musharraf wasted no time. He called Sonia Gandhi and was looking for an opportunity for talks. The new Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh, an Oxford University economist, called Musharraf at his home requesting for a bilateral meeting. Next April, Musharraf travelled to India via Ajmer Sharif shrine in Rajasthan and met PM Singh at the VIP box at Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in New Delhi. India and Pakistan were playing a match. Musharraf, in his book ‘In The Line of Fire’ writes how he as a cricket fan was tempted to see Shahid Afridi’s batting and wanted to jump out of joy. Manmohan Singh watched with his usual calm and composure.
With the complex situation now existing in India and Pakistan, cricket is the new political tool rather than a diplomatic tool.
A new development to further deteriorate Indo-Pak cricketing ties is that India’s Home Ministry would now decide whether India would participate in the Asia Cup to be held next year in Pakistan. It comes in the backdrop of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated stance that ‘talks and terror cannot go together’ with Pakistan. Anurag Thakur, India’s BJP led government’s sports minister, doesn’t see going to Pakistan as a good idea for the cricketers. PCB, on the other hand, has retorted that if India does not participate in the next year’s Asia Cup, then Pakistan would boycott the world cup that would take place in India next November.
Shome Basu is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.