Playing cricket with Pakistan is inevitably a source of controversy. There was no shortage of complaints when India resumed playing with its neighbour after the Kargil conflict. The shadow of the 26/11 terrorist attacks understandably hangs over the latest decision to invite the Pakistan national team to tour India.
The strongest argument in favour of maintaining cricket ties with Pakistan is to say that India's neighbour is a house divided - and the cricket-playing side is the version of Pakistan that India favours. Pakistan is a nation under siege. It is being sucked into a civil conflict largely of its own creation, a domestic struggle about the future nature of Pakistan. At one extreme is the Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose vision of Pakistan is violent and medieval, governed by a primitive Islamicist ideology and consumed by a hatred of India. On the other is an older Pakistani nationalism that is democratic, moderately religious and animated by desires not overly dissimilar from those evident in the Indian polity. Its exemplars are the mainstream political parties, most of whose leaders have been loud advocates for normal relations with India. Many will ask whether hitting bats with balls matters when it comes to a matter as weighty as the course of a nation's evolution. It should be evident that the manner in which India can assist Pakistan the most in choosing a less nihilistic path is to allow interaction between the two countries' civil societies. There is a formal view that India and Pakistan need only solve their territorial disputes to fall into each other's arms, but the truth is that the problem of Pakistan goes far beyond just the issue of land and water. Resolving Kashmir and the like is important, but it is crucial in large part because it is the main obstacle in the way of bilateral civil society engagement.
The Pakistani military establishment has sought to keep the two societies at arm's length. This stance has begun to soften over the past several years. Travelling between the two countries by air and land is now taken for granted. Pakistan has at last conceded most-favoured nation status, paving the way for cross-border trade and investment. The two countries are confident of putting in place a much-relaxed visa regime. With this sort of momentum behind the relationship, it would be absurd for India to suddenly become opposed to something as politically neutral as cricket matches. There is a dangerous and much more crucial game on for the soul of Pakistan. The only strategy with a chance of success is one that looks beyond individual events, however bloody and tragic, and looks towards healing the larger social disease that afflicts Pakistan.