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Cricket and the Peace Constituency

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By Beena Sarwar

Will he, won’t he, will he, won’t he…?” Yes, he will, confirmed the Indian Prime Minister’s Office on March 15, ending the speculation by announcing that General Pervez Musharraf would visit India for a one-day match in Delhi on April 17. Musharraf had made it clear that he would make the visit if invited — and everyone was waiting to see whether the invitation would be

However, Musharraf’s mother Zarin and son Bilal needed no invitation, and they have already landed in India. Begum Musharraf is on a nostalgia trip, joyful and tearful, visiting her girlhood and student haunts in Lucknow and
Aligarh. In Delhi, she turned up at Neharwali Haveli, her home as a bride, where Pervez was born — unintentionally gatecrashing family celebrations at the Jain household that lives there. The ‘first mother’ ended up cutting their nine-year-old daughter’s birthday cake.

Besieged by the media, she expressed her desire for India and Pakistan to resolve all issues peacefully. ‘The mother of all cbms,’ a Pakistani columnist termed her visit. Another speculated that as a representative of the pre-Partition generation, her lack of bitterness maybe a step towards healing the wounds of Partition.

This unofficial, spontaneous initiative can positively impact relations between South Asia’s nuclear-armed neighbours. On a mass level, the people of Pakistan and India have already clearly spoken. The 15,000 or so Indians who visited Pakistan for the cricket series last August were bowled over by the affection they received.
Shopkeepers and cabbies refused to accept money, strangers showered them with hospitality and gifts. A visiting Indian anxiously told journalist MJ Akbar that Pakistanis should not misunderstand if they didn’t get the same
treatment in India. “Indians are hospitable too, but he could not imagine a shopkeeper not taking payment in India!” He was wrong. Pakistanis visiting India for the ongoing series have received as much hospitality — and more as many Indians offered to put up visiting strangers.

Until mass visas were granted to allow Indians to attend the cricket series in Pakistan, there was no large-scale contact between the citizens of either country. Contact was restricted largely to government officials and non-government organisations. The joint conventions of the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (pipfpd), since this people-to-people initiative began in 1994, allowed larger numbers to come together. But the biggest pipfpd meeting until the cricket series was December 2003, when 235 Indians were allowed to visit Karachi for a joint convention: a minuscule number compared to the thousands who crossed the border for cricket.

Over the years, ongoing tensions, jingoistic nationalism and visa restrictions did not give ordinary people the space and opportunity to express themselves. In the last few years alone, consider the tensions between India and Pakistan. The nuclear tests of 1998, then Kargil and its aftermath in 1999. Two years later, the events of
September 11, 2001, provided Washington a chance to establish American hegemony. And world leaders
got the cue that it was okay to engage in military heavy-handedness rather than political dialogue — and that all ‘terrorists’ were Muslims. New Delhi’s knee-jerk reaction to the December 13, 2001 attack on its Parliament for
which it blamed Pakistan, kicked off a new phase in bilateral relations — probably the worst we have undergone apart from times of outright war. India barred Pakistan from over-flying its territory; Pakistan responded in kind. Each side crowed over the economic losses the other was suffering, using the most puerile reasoning: “It’s hurting them more than it’s hurting us!” Diplomatic relations remained tense, marked by accusations, expulsions, withdrawals of consular staff, including at the ambassadorial level. With consular strength slashed, and road and rail links snapped along with air links, most divided families suffered. By May 2002 a nerve-racking war situation had built up, with armies eyeball to eyeball at the borders. Fears of a nuclear war loomed large. And then, a two-year-old baby with a hole in her heart provided a way out of the impasse. Doctors in Pakistan referred Noor Fatima to a cardiac hospital in India as her parents could not afford to take her to a Western country. But India, though near, was yet so far, because of the snapping of all links.

Hearing of Noor’s plight, in July 2003, Atal Behari Vajpayee offered to restore transportation links to allow her to be treated in India. Noor and her parents were on the first bus from Lahore to Delhi in August when the link was restored. Noor’s surgery provided Indians the opportunity to show their goodwill towards Pakistan; her parents were overwhelmed by the media attention, love and gifts they received. Interestingly, both governments grant visas to select Pakistanis and Indians even during times of extreme tension – as a way out of the corners they have painted themselves into, believes Dr Mubashir Hasan of pipfpd, a former finance minister of Pakistan.
Says prominent Pakistani lawyer and peace activist, Asma Jehangir, “If the restrictive visa regime is removed, there is likely to be a flood of people crossing on either side.” Perhaps the process has already begun.

The writer is OpEd/Features Editor, The News
International, Karachi

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