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Indo-Pak relations and Cricket diplomacy

By Dr Khalil-ur-Rahman

Foreign policy channels have changed from traditional to non-traditional. However, the former still has a central place. The latter includes twitter, Facebook, and other means of social media and even sports etc. Cricket diplomacy became famous in Indo-Pak relations in the 1980s.

Before the 1960s, sports was mostly a non-political field, even though some political incidents did take place. A great example is South Africa’s absence and boycott of the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, as well as the International Olympic Committee’s expulsion of the National Olympic Committee of South Africa in 1970, which was later readmitted in 1991, after the end of their racial discrimination policy. Another example is that of the 1970 Munich Olympic Games in Germany, where Israeli Athletes were taken hostage, and later killed by Palestinian guerrillas.

On the global front, the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, prompted the U.S. and many of their allied countries to boycott the 1980 Olympics Games that were held in Moscow.

Around the same time, in 1984, tensions between India and Pakistan had been rising due to the Siachen Glacier issue. The Indian Brass Tacks Operation in 1987 further worsened relations, as dialogue had already been suspended between the two countries. Pakistan President General Zia-ul-Haq then decided to use sports as a tool to improve relations, and accepted the Board of Cricket Control of India’s invitation to see the Jaipur test match being played between Pakistan and India in 1987. This visit was the first time a head of nation had visited another on the pretext of watching a sports game, while both nations were on the verge of war. Regardless, the tactic worked, and a major crisis was averted.

Back in 1992, Pakistan won the cricket world cup under the captainship of Imran Khan, who is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He invited his cricket team fellows, who won the world cup with him, to attend his oath taking ceremony on August 18, 2018. He also invited his cricket friends from India, including Sunil Gavasakar and Kapel Dev, who could not attend the ceremony due to personal reasons, as well as Navjot Sindh Sindhu, who did manage to attend the ceremony.

This was a gesture of goodwill from the new Prime Minister to India, and this was his way of telling them there were other options available to solve the issues facing both countries. During the ceremony, Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, General Asif Bajwa greeted Indian guest Sidhu and appreciated his presence. Sidhu’s various meetings also led to the possibility that a match could be held between the winners of the Pakistan Super League and the Indian Super League, which was another positive development. He went on to say that he did not want to see a red sea [full of blood of people of Pakistan and India] but a blue sea instead.

This was an opportunity for the Indian people to start the process of improving relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, Indian extremism has been a huge deterrent to this policy. Indian cricketer, Kapel Dev appreciated Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan. The premier of Pakistan, Imran Khan also defended Sidhu and tweeted on August 21, 2018 “I want to thank Sidhu for coming to Pakistan for my oath taking. He was an ambassador of peace and was given amazing love and affection by people of Pakistan. Those in India who targeted him are doing a get disservice to peace in the subcontinent — without peace, our ppl cannot progress.”

He invited India for talks and said, “To move forward Pakistan and India must dialogue and resolve their conflicts including Kashmir: The best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading.”

Extremism in India is strong. Bhartia Janta Party is considered as an extremist party. Its leader and former Indian premier came to Pakistan and both the countries signed the Lahore Declaration on February 21, 1999. But current extremist government does not seem inclined to follow in their footsteps.

However, the opportunity is still available to both countries to use non-traditional channels of diplomacy for resolving their outstanding issues.