“With apologies to India, Pakistan fans deserved and needed this one much more. There is a mob heading towards the national capital, there are signs indicating a civil-military rift, a ‘petrol bomb’ was recently dropped, electricity rates have gone through the roof, a gas crisis is on the horizon, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) just wouldn’t let us go, and there is trouble brewing in neighbouring Afghanistan. In the midst of all that, the win over India allows the entire country to forget the troubles of their routine life…”
Much soul-searching has taken place in the last 36 hours since India lost to Pakistan in their first match at the T20 World Cup in Dubai, but this paragraph from Kumail Zaidi on ‘5 takeaways from Pakistan’s historic humbling of India’ in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper the morning after Pakistan’s victory puts its finger right on the nub on how over 200 million people on India’s western border are feeling.
On India’s eastern periphery, in Bangladesh, meanwhile, the Narendra Modi government’s last-minute cancellation of an exhibition in New Delhi and Kolkata by renowned Bangladeshi artist, Rokeya Sultana, has put the spotlight back on New Delhi’s inability to separate party from government and stand up to extreme Right-wing pressure.
So let me try and do my own five takeaways on ‘Why did it have to come to this?’, ‘Why does a sporting India-Pakistan encounter inevitably take on the shape of war?’, and ‘Why India doesn’t step up to the plate with its best friend in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh?’
Why did it come to this
First, the India-Pakistan relationship has always been subject to all kinds of pulls and pressures. Sport, music, films — each of these communities has given way when the government of the day applied its fatwa. After the Parliament attack in 2001, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government pulled out its high commissioner from Pakistan and stopped flights between Lahore and Delhi. Music shows by Pakistani artistes were cancelled during the Manmohan Singh era.
But it is during the last seven years of the Narendra Modi government that the relationship has most shrivelled because of New Delhi’s tough no-talks-until-terrorism-comes-to-an-end posture. So between surgical strikes across the Line of Control and airstrikes on Balakot, the relationship has been thrown into a deep freeze. For two years, there have been no high commissioners; India has prevented a SAARC summit from taking place since 2014.
Cricket – and much else – has been a casualty, as teams haven’t played in each other’s countries, but only in international venues. This means that the Indian team, however brilliant, doesn’t really know the strengths and weaknesses – and the hunger to win and win global appreciation — of the Pakistani side.
Shape of war
Second, when nations stop talking to each other, they end up losing crucial sources of information. Your preferred strategist, either Machiavelli or Chanakya, have pointed out the need to “know your enemy,” or to “keep your enemy close.” That’s why Vajpayee went to Pakistan in 1999 and only two years later, invited the author of that conflict, Pervez Musharraf, for talks in Agra.
That ended in a fiasco, but Vajpayee never gave up trying; in 2002, he reached out to the Kashmiris in an attempt to heal the Delhi-Islamabad-Srinagar triangle. While the Modi government has taken a different track, by revoking Article 370 and integrating Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union, it has also tried to shut down critical reporting; as a result, the distance between New Delhi and the people of J&K has grown.
The Bangladesh fissure
Third, it’s high time New Delhi took a tough position on refusing to allow party politics to dictate foreign policy, especially in the neighbourhood. In Bangladesh’s case, no reason has been given for the cancellation of Rokeya’s exhibition (officials insist it is only “postponed”), which was going to showcase four decades of her life’s work; it was also part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence, in which India played no small part.
Official sources say they were worried that hotheads would disrupt Rokeya’s exhibition as a reaction to the communal incidents in Cumilla and elsewhere in Bangladesh, where Hindus were killed and their properties torched during the recent Durga Puja celebrations. The officials cited protests by the VHP, Hindu Jagran Manch and other Right-wing outfits in Tripura and BJP unease in Bengal and said they didn’t want to “take any chances”. The Bangladesh Film Festival scheduled to be held in Agartala has also been cancelled.
But the fact remains that the India-Bangladesh relationship is just recovering from Home Minister Amit Shah’s undiplomatic description of Bangladeshi refugees in India as termites (“deemak”). A shadow had passed across India’s outsized reputation in Bangladesh at the time. It has subsequently taken hard work from many parties in India to overcome that diplomatic fissure.
Last week, outside the Bangladesh consulate in Agartala, as the Cumilla incidents went viral, Right-wing outfits put up placards that variously said, “Hindus take up arms”, “Durga Ma’s hair is torn/Bangladesh will be red with blood”, “The weapons of Kurukshetra will roar once again”. The placards were soon pulled down, but not before Bangladeshis wondered what lay ahead.
Fourth, as India enters the 75th year of Independence – and partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan and subsequently, Bangladesh – perhaps the time has come to heal divides, not exacerbate them. If the Modi government can become a card-carrying member of two Quad coalitions, one in the Indo-Pacific and the other in the Middle East, it can surely work towards cementing ties on both sides of its periphery?
A cricket cup
Fifth, can cricket be used as an instrument to bring the region together? Five nations out of eight in South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – are eminent cricketing nations in their own right, all of whom are participating in the ongoing T20 World Cup.
Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi can do a variation of his 2014 invite to all South Asia’s leaders during his first inauguration, by organising a South Asia Cricket Cup in 2022, where the first match is played in the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad? Former Bangladesh cricket captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who spoke up feelingly against the Cumilla communalism, could be one goodwill ambassador.
We know by now – and if we didn’t, then the Kushinagar event last week to ostensibly inaugurate an airport, pray at the samadhi of Gautam Buddha and connect the backwaters of eastern Uttar Pradesh to Buddhist nations in India’s neighbourhood – that PM Modi’s ability to construct linkages between seemingly dissimilar constituencies is legion. He is bewilderingly able to marshal disparate sentiments and bring them together.
Can the PM also make sense of this tough neighbourhood through the one instrument that naturally knits it together – cricket?
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)