Journalist | Writer | Analyst
Decision prompted by security and political concerns following Mumbai terrorist attacks…
19 December 2008
In canceling cricket tour, a mix of objectives
New Delhi: The Government decision to advise the BCCI to cancel next January’s Indian cricket tour of Pakistan was prompted as much by concerns about the security of the team as by a wider set of political concerns following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month.
Coming in the wake of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement about the peace process being in “pause” mode and Islamabad’s continuing denials about the Pakistani origin of the Mumbai attackers, the freeze in cricketing contact was in some sense inevitable. The only question is whether it will trigger a fresh round of recrimination between the two countries, or mark an upper limit to the current escalation before the bilateral relationship slips into a holding pattern pending the takeover by Barack Obama as the President of the United States next month.
In the absence of a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on the cancellation, the December 12 statement by Union Sports Minister M.S. Gill can be taken as a reasonably good proxy for the official thinking behind the decision. “Is it possible for one team to arrive in Mumbai and indulge in mass murder, and have another team go and play cricket in the winter afternoon sun at Lahore, immediately after,” he asked reporters last week.
The choice of words — including the unfortunate use of the word “team” to describe the 10 terrorists who killed nearly 180 people in the city — were obviously Mr. Gill’s own. But his sentiments clearly reflected the political assessment within the ruling Congress of the way the public mood in the country had turned.
In bowing to supposed public sentiment, however, officials here concede that India runs the risk of helping hardline elements within the Pakistani military and establishment generate a siege mentality within their country.
Helped in part by Indian media accounts of Mumbai which transformed official claims about the responsibility of “elements from Pakistan” into outright accusations against “Pakistan,” the Pakistani military has successfully rallied an otherwise sceptical public around itself. Scare stories about threatening phone calls, Indian troop mobilisation and air space violations have all been used to generate the feeling inside Pakistan that an Indian air strike or some form of military action is inevitable. And against this backdrop, the cancellation of the cricket tour is likely to be interpreted as Indian punitive action against the whole of Pakistani society for a crime committed by so-called ‘non-state actors.’
Broadly speaking, the Indian policy dilemma is the following: How to tell the Pakistani establishment there can be no “business as usual” so long as the activities of terrorist organisations continue, without at the same time undermining the influence of the small liberal constituencies which have come up within Pakistan thanks to greater people-to-people contact.
Indian officials say they are aware of the need to give the civilian government in Pakistan greater political space and to not allow the Pakistani military to present itself as the natural leader of a nation under siege. They also concede that public statements like that made by Mr. Gill are grist to the hardline mill across the border. “But there is simply no appetite in India — and I suspect even in Pakistan — for cricket to be played at this time,” said an official.
Officials also said the security element was not to be taken lightly. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai conducted by “elements from Pakistan,” it was entirely possible that the Indian team could be targeted while on tour. Even in the absence of Mumbai, the vulnerability of foreigners in high-profile, well-protected locations was underlined by the devastating terrorist strike on the Marriot hotel in Islamabad earlier this year.