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Bonding with cricket

Rahul Singh (Perspective) / 22 July 2012

ONE OF the greatest tragedies of the modern era was the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Such was its magnitude that it is still simply called “The Partition”.

Endless debates have taken place – and will continue to take place endlessly – as to whether it could have been avoided and who was to blame. The British, meaning Lord Mountbatten? Jawaharlal Nehru? Or Mohammed Ali Jinnah? Mahatma Gandhi was bitterly opposed to it and even suggested Jinnah be made leader of a united country, to prevent it. So, he does not figure in the blame-game.

What a mighty power a united India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would have been! But it was not to be.

Instead, one of the greatest transfers of people, from east to west Punjab, east to west Bengal, and vice versa – some 10 million were displaced – in recorded history took place, amidst terrible communal bloodshed. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who had lived fairly amicably for centuries, slaughtered each other in a maniacal frenzy.

Nobody knows the exact number killed, but estimates range from one million to two million. It left a legacy of bitter hatred between the two countries, which has been partly responsible for the three wars they have fought since then.

However, a new generation has now come up in India and Pakistan with only vague and distant memories of those bad days. I believe this generation is better disposed to each other. And I also feel that if Indians and Pakistanis are to live in peace and happiness, they need to build on what they share and have in common.

Those common bonds are huge and extensive, perhaps closer than between any other two major countries in the world: Language – despite Islamabad’s attempts to Arabise Urdu and New Delhi’s to Sanskritise Hindi – music, dance, food.

Understandably, the similarities are more between Pakistan and north India, rather than southern India. But there is one passion that is shared throughout, even in Bangladesh. I am, of course, referring to cricket, probably the biggest unifying factor of them all.

Eight years ago I was in Pakistan, only my second visit to that country, though I had been brought up there as a child. I was part of a veterans’ tennis team, playing with our Pakistani counterparts in friendly matches in Lahore and Islamabad. That was the period of a number of cultural and sporting exchanges between the two countries and the visa regime was more relaxed.

It was also when cricketing ties had been resumed after several years and five one-day matches were being played in different venues across Pakistan. They turned out to be complete sell-outs and closely contested, India eventually winning 3-2.

I happened to be in Lahore for the fourth match and somehow managed to get a ticket. The atmosphere in the packed Gaddafi Stadium was electric, with several thousand Indian fans also present.

But what surprised and touched me most was the reaction of the Pakistani audience. They cheered the Indian players and waved Indian flags. Some of them even had the Indian tri-colour painted on their faces. When India’s fast bowler, Balaji, ran up to bowl, they chanted, “Balaji, zara dheeray sey chalo!” (Balaji, go a little slower!).

It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I was witnessing a new generation of Pakistanis, one without the sad baggage of Partition, one that wanted to reach out to us Indians in friendship.

Then, came the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and the assault in Pakistan on the Sri Lankan cricket team. Cricketing ties between India and Pakistan were frozen. They could only play against each other on neutral grounds, which attracted few fans. Pakistan was in the doghouse, in virtual quarantine, and its cricket board starved of funds.

But a breakthrough has been made with the recent announcement by the cash-rich Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) of a resumption of cricketing ties between the two countries. The Pakistan Cricket Board has welcomed the news, as have leading players from both nations, such as Imran Khan and Bishan Singh Bedi. The only major dissent has been from legendary Sunil Gavaskar. Though I may disagree with him, his stand is understandable. He is, after all, from Mumbai and under pressure from the Pakistan-baiting Shiv Sena. Another Indian great, Sachin Tendulkar, also a Mumbaikar, has however been silent. Good for him.

The dividing line between politics and sports is usually blurred. Both often interact with each other. But if cricket can bring India and Pakistan closer – as I am convinced it can – then, let the games begin!

Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times

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