Politics & sports in the Indo-Pak. context

SHOULD India resume sporting contacts with Pakistan? Ever since Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali brought up the subject in his April 28 telephonic talk with our Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the contentious, but worn-out topic has been brought back into focus all over again.

K. P. MOHAN

The Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. — Pic. AFP-

SHOULD India resume sporting contacts with Pakistan? Ever since Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali brought up the subject in his April 28 telephonic talk with our Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the contentious, but worn-out topic has been brought back into focus all over again.

Cricket, of course, will hold the centre-stage in the weeks ahead as politicians and foreign policy-makers keep playing this intriguing game of diplomatic chess.

In the now-on, now-off relationships between the two countries, especially during the past decade and more, sports has been used as a convenient tool by the politicians to gain leverage. Like it or not, it has become part of the political strategy in both the countries.

Can sports be separated from politics, as demanded by many experts, intellectuals, politicians, sports administrators, mediapersons and others, down the years, especially when it comes to Indo-Pak. relations? Or is the sports boycott of Pakistan only a natural expression of a country's disgust and anger at innocents being killed in Kashmir or hundreds of jawans being martyred when a Kargil occurs?

Obviously, we can't ignore gore on the streets of Srinagar and say, "let's enjoy a game of cricket.'' Till Kargil (even now they do), many an armchair critic might have ventured the staid, clich�d statement, "but why mix sports with politics?'' Kargil brought out a hitherto underplayed sentiment of the player. For the man who happened to be talking about `no cricket when the soldiers are dying' was none other than Kapil Dev, the greatest all-rounder India has ever had. He had been to a base hospital in Srinagar, with Ajay Jadeja, and met the wounded jawans and heard their pleas. Kapil was moved.

Quickly, there was support from all around including from Sachin Tendulkar. From then on, not many came up with the simplistic, rather hollow, refrain, `sports and politics should not mix'.

India played Pakistan in the World Cup in England when the guns were still booming in Kargil. But then, that was a multilateral, international commitment that had to be met. The Union Government was not averse to that, has never been against such contests. And that position has remained to-date. There was no hitch with regard to India's participation in the last World Cup cricket tournament in South Africa nor was there a question about the Indian hockey team being allowed to play two recent tournaments in Australia, both involving Pakistan, to mention just two examples among many such competitions.

It was under Ms Uma Bharti that the Union Sports Ministry adopted a clear-cut distinction between multilateral competitions involving Pakistan and bilateral contests with our neighbour. `Multilateral' was okay, `bilateral' was taboo. Somehow the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seemed to toe the same line and to-date, the policy has been maintained.

Ms. Bharti also put her foot down on Indo-Pak. cricket at `irregular' centres, especially in the light of match-fixing scandals. More often than not, cricket administrators cleverly brought in a `third' country into a purely Indo-Pak. money-spinner for the sake of giving the `multilateral' touch to the proposal. They continue to do so and it is for the Government to see through their game.

Time and again, the Government has used the `security' angle to deny permission to Indian teams. Much of the time there might have been genuine concern about the security of the players but on other occasions this might have been a convenient excuse to keep a team away from a contest with the neighbour. Pakistan, too, has used the `security concerns' to good effect in cancelling cricket tours to this country. In fact it `scores' over India in respect of cancellations on security concerns, but the last time in 1999 the team did come to India despite the threat posed by the Shiv Sena whose activists dug up the Ferozeshah Kotla pitch in Delhi.

In this rather touchy, sensitive business of Indo-Pak. sporting relations, if the sports administrators have looked more concerned about brokering peace between the two countries than the world leaders or the rulers in New Delhi and Islamabad, it is only because of their own misplaced sense of importance and their eagerness to boost their image within the Asian sports structure. Neither cricket nor hockey or any other sport has helped the cause of peace in the sub-continent over the years. Critics do mistake simple civil behaviour among players as a sign of improving relations between the two countries and point out, "didn't you see the warmth with which the players shook hands?''

The Board President, Jagmohan Dalmiya, and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President, Suresh Kalmadi, should get special mention here. Both have, in recent times, relentlessly pursued resumption of Indo-Pak. sports relations. Such a line of thinking in itself might not have been jarring, considering their positions in the Asian sports hierarchy, but both brought in extraneous considerations in buttressing their claims.

Dalmiya argued that in case India failed to tour Pakistan (last April) for a Test series under the World championship format, the country might get isolated within the International Cricket Council (ICC) and could even be thrown out. He mentioned a fine of around five million dollars that was likely to be slapped on the Board in case the tour failed to come off.

``When it comes to the nation's interests, money is of no relevance,'' said an MEA spokesman.

Kalmadi felt that the boycott of the SAF Games (eventually cancelled after many postponements) might affect the Afro-Asian Games that India was to host. How in the world the two could be connected was beyond anyone's comprehension. Of course, Pakistan would have been free to boycott the Afro-Asian Games hockey competition. Would it have hurt?

Now, Pakistan has come forward in support of India's bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Not that the move is of any significance in terms of India getting to host the Games. But in the evolving thaw in relations, ever since Vajpayee held out his hand of friendship from Srinagar, it was a move that was bound to gain more than an ordinary attention.

"It showed their (Pakistan's) eagerness to resume sporting contacts,'' said Vijay Kumar Malhotra, MP, President, All India Council of Sports (AICS), and BJP spokesman. "But ground realities have to improve,'' Malhotra quickly added. He was in London as part of the Sports Minister-led Commonwealth Games bid delegation.

Those ground realities include Pakistan's willingness to take `credible steps' to curb cross-border terrorism and the creation of a `conducive atmosphere' for the revival of sporting contacts.

``The relations (between the two countries) are important, it's not about just cricket,'' says the Sports Minister, Vikram Verma.

``The entire world, including the US, Russia, Japan, France and Germany, is exerting pressure on Pakistan. But Pakistan says we can't do anything overnight (about terrorism), we don't have magical cures. Suppose we resume bilateral contacts, a match is on and then something happens...we don't want that kind of situation...'', says Malhotra.

Malhotra was echoing the Prime Minister's sentiments on the topic. And that is exactly what the MEA also says. A wait-and-watch policy that might lead to nowhere or perhaps end up, all on a sudden, in the revival of Indo-Pak cricket, even if Kalmadi's dream of resurrecting the SAF Games this season itself might remain unfulfilled.

Does it mean that we have moved just an inch and no more after much hope - - at least for the sports administrators and cricket fans - - was generated by Vajpayee and Jamali?

Not exactly. At least the Board does not think so. A Board source pointed out that the MEA had already given the green signal, in principle, to have a one-day match each in Pakistan and India, sometime in September, and for the resumption of the Test series in Pakistan in February next year.

``The Government will still have the veto when the final proposal is processed closer to the event. Then, if the situation has to be re-assessed, the Government can still stop the matches,'' said the source.

That the Government had reached a stage where it was willing to consider a proposal for a bilateral sporting relationship with Pakistan was thanks solely to the Vajpayee-Jamali initiative. Should it be at a neutral venue? The question did come up, but was quickly pushed aside since that would have given the impression of involving a third party. For that reason, the Board also turned down a suggestion from the ICC that it was willing to negotiate towards the resumption of cricketing relations.

Obviously, Pakistan is very keen to resume cricketing ties with India. Not just to bolster the peace initiatives but to boost the Pakistan Cricket Board's dwindling finances. Cricket with India will be big money, with sponsors and television networks queuing up.

Next to cricket will be hockey in terms of Indo-Pak. sporting contacts. From the rather infamous series in 1978 when the umpires from both countries provided the `tit for tat' to the utter shock of the fraternity, hockey had witnessed a few series on home and away basis till 1999. Since then there have been efforts to revive bilateral contests at least at a `neutral venue' and a fresh proposal is likely when the Asian hockey officials meet in Seoul on June 25.

Given the Government's latest reluctance towards `neutral' venues for India-Pak. sports contests, hockey also might see the revival of bilateral series in both the countries. Of course, the timing will be at the behest of the politicians. The concept of `neutral' or third country venues, especially in cricket, has been the most baffling aspect of Indo-Pak. sports relationship. Perhaps we might not be able to find a similar arrangement between two other countries in any sport except at times of emergency situations like war, internal disturbances and natural calamities. If you can't play a match in each other's country, why play at all?

Money has dictated the course of much of `off-shore cricket' between India and Pakistan. Mercifully, that practice has been stopped by the Government and, hopefully, it will stay like that for years to come. No one should be fooled by such pious intentions of globalising cricket and thus taking the game to Montreal and Casablanca. Globalisation need not be based on Indo-Pak. cricket alone nor should it be the prime responsibility of the Indian Board.

Perhaps, you can't keep these high-sounding ideals of `Asian solidarity' and `sport unites nations' away for ever just as you can't keep politics away from sports. People will keep recalling the British example of participating in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, against the wishes of the Government, without realising that British soldiers were not being killed at that time nor were there bomb explosions in London or Manchester.

But then, the anger and sentiments of the people are always tools with which the politicians stall or manipulate sporting relations to their liking. The moment political expediency demands that everything be forgotten and, say Indo-Pak. cricket be revived, sentiments go out of the window. The bus to Lahore is ready and waiting!