Can we play for peace?
Sporting ties between India and Pakistan have essentially mirrored the political relationship between the two. Regular tournaments between the two countries came to a halt for the first time in 1961 and once again in 1990. Barring a brief period in early 1999, normal sporting ties have remained suspended since then.With a thaw appearing on the political front, the prospect of resumption of normal sporting ties appears on the horizon.india Updated: Jan 08, 2004 12:47 IST
Long commas have punctuated Indo-Pak sporting relations. Normal contests between the two countries came to a halt for the first time in 1961. And for 17 years, teams from the two countries did not visit each other although they did play each other at the Olympics, Asian Games and other international tournaments. Sporting ties were restored in 1978 and the next 12 years witnessed five cricket test series, and innumerable hockey matches between the two countries. However, relations were once again disrupted in 1990, and barring a brief period in early 1999, normal sporting ties have remained suspended since then.
Only commas, no full stopsin sporting ties
Sporting ties between the two countries have essentially mirrored the political relationship between the two. With a thaw appearing in political relations, the prospects of resumption of normal sporting ties appear bright. Already, an under 19 Indian cricket team has visited Pakistan and a Pakistan A team has returned the compliment. And India is slated to play its first cricket test series in Pakistan after a gap of almost 15 years in February 2004.
Notwithstanding the many commas, it is important to remember that there has never been a full stop in sporting contests between the two countries. Even at the height of the Kargil conflict, India and Pakistan played each other in the 1999 cricket world cup.
Of sporting spirit and a little more
As a matter of fact, there have been enough hockey and cricket matches between the two that make it clear that there is a gladiatorial “winner takes all’’ edge to Indo-Pak contests which is missing in all other sporting rivalries in the world.
Mir Ranjan Negi is the most reviled name in the history of Indian hockey. His crime: he was the goal keeper the day India lost 7-1 to Pakistan in the 1982 hockey Asian Games final in front of a packed National Stadium in New Delhi.
Indeed, if there is anybody who believes that Indo-Pak matches are nothing more than sporting encounters, he needs to speak to just two people - Mir Ranjan Negi and Chetan Sharma.
Negi is the most reviled name in the history of Indian hockey. His crime: he was the goal keeper the day India lost 7-1 to Pakistan in the 1982 hockey Asian Games final in front of a packed National Stadium in New Delhi.
He never played for India again, unsubstantiated match fixing charges were levelled against him and 20 years on, his name is still greeted with derision and abuse.
It is said that when he got married an irate citizen cut off the electricity of the place where the ceremonies were taking place. Even if this story is incorrect, it accurately describes the hostility that this hapless young man generated among many people in India.
As for Chetan Sharma, he was India’s great fast bowling hope of the mid 1980s. However his career was doomed that evening in April 1986 when Javed Miandad hit a last ball full toss from him over the mid wicket boundary for six in the final of a tournament in Sharjah. Sharma continued to play for India and went on to take a hat trick in a one day international (the first Indian to do so). But the fans never forgave him. Probably Sharma never forgave himself. That in turn shattered his confidence and made him a lesser player.
To swing on an emotional rollercoaster ride
|With this "take no prisoner’’ attitude, can restoration of full sporting ties result in better relations between the two countries? Or will it further vitiate the atmosphere with each match being converted into a "mini-war’’?|
Pride, passion, patriotism, religion, revenge, nationalism. Just about every emotion comes bubbling on to the surface when India plays Pakistan. Nobody may get killed. It may not be war. But make no mistake: the people of the two nations want to win at any cost when they play each other; and have no patience for their players when they lose.
A victory against the other is seen as irrevocable proof of national superiority. Defeat, on the other hand, is followed by national mourning and intense breast-beating.
Chest thumpingsince noregular matches
With this "take no prisoner" attitude, can restoration of full sporting ties result in better relations between the two countries? Or will it further vitiate the atmosphere with each match being converted into a "mini-war"?
|The politicians of both countries seem amenable to the resumption of sporting ties. It is upto the people of India and Pakistan to enjoy these matches, revel in the rivalry, but remember that at the end of the day, these are just games.|
The advocates of regular sporting ties argue that all the chest-thumpinghappens because enough matches do not take place between the two, and therefore disproportionate importance is given to every contest that does take place.
Once normal contacts are established, and the frequency of matches increases, every contest will not be treated as the last war. They point out that in 2003, India and Pakistan played five to six hockey matches, and while all these games were closely contested, there was always a feeling among the players and the fans that a victory might be avenged next time.
Moreover, it is pointed out that why should genuine sports lovers in India be denied the joy of watching Shoaib Akhtar racing in to bowl at 160 km/hr or Sohail Abbas drag flicking the ball into the corner of a goal. Similarly why should fans in Pakistan not sample firsthand the talents of a Tendulkar or a Gagan Ajit Singh? As the two countries play more against each other, as the fans appreciate each other’s talent, hostility levels will come down.
Can sports compensate for politics?
These are compelling arguments. Nevertheless, it is also true that over the last 15 years there has been a rise in intolerance and aggression on both sides of the border. Both countries have fallen prey to jingoism, and watch the matches with the zeal of a fanatic.
They put unbearable pressures on their players, and want a bunch of 20 year olds to compensate for the inadequacies of their respective nations. Defeat makes them lose their balance. And what if a stray action of an irresponsible hothead sparks communal trouble in India? Or if terrorists see the visit of an Indian or a Pakistani team as an opportunity to foment trouble?
Ultimately, the answer to whether sporting relations between the two countries should be normalised or not lies with the ordinary people of both countries. The politicians of both countries seem amenable to the resumption of sporting ties. It is upto the people of India and Pakistan to enjoy these matches, revel in the rivalry, but remember that at the end of the day, these are just games. If they can do that, sports can form an important bridge between the two nations.
(The author is a Consultant with the Confederation of Indian Industry, New Delhi)
First Published: Jan 07, 2004 16:46 IST