Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 04, 2020
Sport as diplomacy in India - Pakistan ties 

Is Partition over? The answer is a clear no. As much as being born in hope, Pakistan also began its existence in incandescent rage. The partition of minds between Indians and Pakistanis, and Hindus and Muslims, in both nations bakes us daily. A millennium of co- existence, fractured by disruptions of sacred geographies, has failed to resolve the subcontinent’s dilemmas. Indians and Pakistanis meet as rivals, live as strangers, and even behave, paradoxically, as long-lost brothers.

Yet, we delink sport from culture. It is time to re-consider this. Part of the problem lies in how journalists portray sport. Formulaic expressions like “off-the-ball running,” “a great rivalry,” “defensive structure,” and “goal!” thrill the unsuspecting fan. Media rituals are choreographed to satisfy the consumer. But India-Pakistan sport is also cultural carnage. Mushtaq Mohammad termed a test series win over India in 1978 a “victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus.” Shoaib Malik thanked “Muslims all over the world”  after Pakistan’s defeat to India in the 2007 T-20 World Cup. Following India’s victory in the hockey final of the 2014 Asian Games, P.R. Sreejesh said, “I get into revenge mode during a Pakistan game and my blood also boils." Pakistanis link sport to the nation’s religion-based identity, while Indians seek revenge against history.

Pakistanis glory in being “separate and superior ,” writes Stephen Cohen in his book The Idea of Pakistan. Young Indians might be shocked at past Pakistani hectoring, much like China’s continuing sermons. “You are a defeated nation,” Pakistan’s Minister of Industries, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had said to India’s Minister of Railways, Swaran Singh, in talks on Kashmir in 1963. India is paying back. The home minister, Amit Shah, termed the Indian victory in the 2019 cricket World Cup “another strike on Pakistan.”  

How do culture and politics affect sport? 

The assumption that sport is a form of reconciliation is true to a degree. “Sports diplomacy” is a loose term, but a starting point to understanding the good part. Ten thousand Pakistanis crossed over to Mohali in 1999 to watch cricket. Pakistan issued 20,000 visas to Indians for a cricket series in 2004. After Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani attended a World Cup game in Mohali in 2011, Pakistan allowed the visit of an Indian team to probe the 26/11 terrorist atrocity.

But sport can be menace and a form of denial too. During India’s Brass-tacks military exercise in 1987, President Zia Ul Haq is thought to have informed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, while watching cricket at Jaipur, that Pakistan had a nuclear weapon. If sport were just the play, why would the Home Ministry ask to vet sporting exchanges with Pakistan? Why haven’t Pakistani players been invited to the Indian Premier League and Hockey India League? Why did India decline to play alongside Pakistan at the 2017 Sultan of Johor Cup?<1> Sport is politics’ messenger.

Seeing itself as at least equal, Pakistan wins in sport—86-70 in cricket (across all formats including tests, limited overs and T- 20) and 82-62 in hockey. Here is a story. Hassan Sardar expressed bemusement that I could fault India’s play while it led Pakistan 3-0 in the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka (told to this author). I worried about India’s performance against stronger European teams. Sardar’s attitude was steeped in equivalence. Indians show an almost cosmic fascination for Pakistan. Why wouldn’t Pakistanis be happy with such honour? Indian athletes consider defeating Pakistan the ultimate prize. Coaches need to develop codes that can splinter Pakistan’s cultural DNA. Lessons in foreign relations and sports psychology could help.

India-Pakistan sporting ties embody the state of the relationship. When governments quibble, athletes and fans bare their knuckles. Pakistan’s sub-conventional war against India came after years of gaming. This war entered sport. When spectators threw stones at Indian players in the 1990 Lahore World Cup, India finished 10th of 12 teams, its worst result in the World Cup. There is also a link between state cohesion and sporting success. During its early optimism, Pakistan prevailed 47-29 in hockey between 1950-2000. With the economic gap widening (in 2019 it was 1: 12 in India’s favour), Pakistan loses 0-7 in the cricket World Cup and has a 8-19 record in hockey between 2010- 2020. 

Do athletes advance the agendas of governments? 

Athletes usually assert that sport and politics don’t mix. In a split second, a player has to make the next move. The mind darts towards winning, which is considered patriotic enough. In making the statement about his blood boiling, Sreejesh was expressing emotion but he was also grandstanding. Seeking the government’s favour is not new, for it opens doors to funding. So, athletes act nationally.

From a Pakistani perspective, sport with India is not disruptive. It is not like holding an exhibition of Buddhist or Hindu art in Pakistan, or allowing Indian classical dance performances, or introducing Hindu sacred texts to Pakistanis. "I have let it be known to the BCCI, that we are always there to play,” says Ehsan Mani, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Since cricket has indeed defused crises and brought calm, Mani likely was speaking for his government.

Sport and State behaviour 

Does putting pause on sport with Pakistan advance Indian interests? Should the government ask sports federations to develop policies that might hurt our neighbour? Is cutting sporting ties merely a case of reflexive nationalism? We don’t know if the government has done an analysis of their impact but boycotts have not altered Pakistani state behaviour.

Diplomatic boycotts target governments and the policy community, but sport reaches the wider citizenry. Sporting bans deprive millions of the joy of sport. It is doubtful that Pakistanis will re-think India just because they can’t watch their stars perform against Indian rivals. Rather, boycotts might further vitiate opinion. If “no talks with terror” can be tweaked in search of reconciliation, the same would hold for “no sport with terror.” A policy shift could be an option, even if it has only a slim chance of success.

What about athletes? Even if sentiment favours governments, expecting them to act strategically is a bridge too far. They train to do the best they can. A moment of brilliance or a misstep could decide outcomes in seconds. Should we seriously believe athletes are thinking of foreign policy during those moments? Ask an athlete, and he would likely feel bewildered.

<1> This information was provided to the author by Dato’ Haji Abd. Rahim Md. Ariff, a Malaysian hockey official, at the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah tournament at Ipoh on April 30, 2017.

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Jitendra Nath Misra

Jitendra Nath Misra

Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He is an Adjunct Professor and Distinguished Fellow in the Jindal School of International Affairs O.P. Jindal Global ...

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