One of the most politically courageous decisions the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government took was when, in the spring of 2004, it decided to allow the Indian cricket team to go and play in Pakistan. It couldn’t have been easy: the tour was taking place on the eve of the general elections and if anything went wrong, the government would be crucified. Ironically, the tour ended in triumph for Sourav Ganguly and his squad as they became the first Indian side to win a series in Pakistan while in the elections that followed, Vajpayee and his team faded into the sunset. When I asked the PM’s Man Friday, the late Pramod Mahajan about the decision, his response was: “It was a gamble; the last thing we wanted was our cricketers to be targeted. But we believed that our cricketers were deities whose appeal crossed national boundaries , and no one would try and attack their gods”.
As this week’s traumatic events at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore have shown, Mahajan was both right and wrong. He is right: cricketers are worshipped across the subcontinent like no one else quite is. A Shah Rukh Khan may be adored, a Sachin Tendulkar is revered. When Tendulkar goes to bat, a billion hearts say a silent prayer to wish him success. A Shah Rukh film will attract frenzied fans on its opening day, but a film doesn’t carry the badge of deep-rooted patriotism that a cricket match does. You can live with a Shah Rukh Khan film flopping, but it takes days to come to terms with the failure of Tendulkar and the Indian cricket team.
Where Mahajan was wrong is that he forgot that the overarching emotionalism that makes watching cricket almost a divine experience can also make the sport a soft target for those who seek to destroy civil society. There is little doubt that the forces who attacked the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore had the identical mindset to those who brought down the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. When a Taliban cleric once described cricket as “un-Islamic,” what he was suggesting is that the sport was opposed to his Talibanised way of life which has no place for the joys of human existence.
It is the finer values of life that have been at the heart of the sporting experience. To watch a Tendulkar hit a straight drive or a Shane Warne bowl a flipper is to celebrate the mastery of an individual over his craft. Cricket, indeed, any sport, elevates a person into another stratosphere on the basis of sheer talent, with mind and body coming together to conquer all challenges. The Olympian spirit was based on the ideal of sport conferring on mortals the status of gods based on their achievements. In this ideal world, sport is meant to be above conflict, which is why all wars would come to a halt when the ancient Olympics would take place.
Unfortunately, the 21st century is in another planet from 776 BC with sports now subservient to politics. Sporting boycotts have been used gainfully to rid South Africa of apartheid. During the Cold War, they were used to score ideological points as, first the Americans and then the Soviets boycotted each other’s Olympic Games. Only a few days ago, an Israeli tennis player was denied a visa to play in Dubai as a fallout of the war in Gaza. Not to forget the manner in which the Shiv Sena dug a cricket pitch to prevent a Pakistani team from visiting the country.
Now, there is a new, and even more ominous threat which confronts sport. For the terrorist, sport is ‘evil’, simply because it is perhaps the most potent, non-violent unifying force of our times just as terrorism is a violent and divisive weapon. For most global citizens, the idea that someone in Chennai can share the anguish and the ecstasy of someone in Chile while watching a Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer match is what heightens the appeal of sport. Where else but in sport will you, a proud Indian, shed a tear when a Swiss player is beaten by a Spaniard? Which is why it seems almost sacrilege that anyone would attempt to kill an international athlete.
Not any more. Military helicopters airlifting terrified cricketers from the match ground is a chilling reminder of the romance of sports being pitted against the harsh realities of the age of terror. For the romantics, the idea of the entire universe watching a world cup soccer final is an occasion to celebrate. For the terrorist, the globalisation of sport provides a platform from where he can have the shots from his AK-47 echo across the world in the matter of minutes. Attacking a crowded marketplace may cause maximum damage in terms of human lives, but targeting a national sports team gives instant recognition to someone who is determinedly pushing for his cause, however diabolical, to be advertised across the world.
Even before Lahore 2009, there was Munich 1972, when the Palestinian group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes. And yet, there is a crucial difference between Munich and Lahore. The Palestinian terrorists in Munich chose to attack Israeli athletes because of their direct conflict with the Israeli State. In Lahore, the terrorists attacked a Sri Lankan cricket team with whom surely they had no personal scores to settle. The Lahore message was designed not for Colombo, but for Islamabad, the White House, and indeed, the entire global community: terrorists could strike anywhere, anytime in Pakistan, and the civilian government could do little to rein them in.
Which is why it is hard to see how anyone will want to play sport in Pakistan in the near future. The English team played a test in Chennai within weeks of the Mumbai attacks not just because India funds the cricketing caravan, but also, importantly, because there was an implicit acknowledgement that the Indian State was determined in its fight against terror and its people were innocent victims of the conflict. The Pakistani government’s dubious track record in dealing with terror allows it no such benefit. Which is a great pity for sports lovers. Imran Khan bowling to Sunil Gavaskar was always an enduring image in one’s growing up years. My children’s generation may have to live without sampling the joys of similar contests.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network