Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on March 3, 2009
This morning, the Sri Lankan cricket team touring Pakistan was attacked by gunmen as the team was alighting the bus to enter Qaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Six of the Sri Lankan players were injured, but later declared not critical. In a few hours, the Sri Lankans had boarded an aircraft and left Pakistan for Dubai. The Pakistani sports minister was quick to apologise to Sri Lanka. The governor of Punjab, the state of which Lahore is the capital, declared that the same terrorists who attacked Bombay on November 26 last year, were responsible for the attack on the Sri Lankan team.
This is a major blow for Pakistan, which for a decade now has been struggling with a home-grown and army-encouraged insurgency of extremists who use religion and dispossessed youth against the Pakistani state as well as international targets, notably Afghanistan, the United States and India. In the turmoil, cricket has been the great face saver, something Pakistanis have been proud of and which gives the country a legitimate position in world sports. Pakistan has an excellent, respected cricket team, well matched against rivals like India and Australia. Just two months ago, Imran Khan, a former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and aspiring politician in Pakistan, said that cricketers would never be targeted by terrorists.
Now however, international cricket on Pakistani grounds will certainly come to an end. Ironically, the Sri Lankan team had stepped into the space vacated by the Indian team, which cancelled its planned tour of Pakistan this year after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on Nov 26, 2008. The Sri Lankan team did not heed warnings about security issues in Pakistan.
What will also, unfortunately, come to an end, is the use of cricket as a confidence-building measure particularly between Pakistan and India. When political negotiation between the two countries fails, cricket often saves the day. Reinstating cricket tours in either of the two countries is symbolic, usually the first step to ease the strain.
The Indian broadcast airwaves are choked with the news. Nothing is more important for Indians than cricket and Bollywood. Seeing cricket under terrorist attack has unnerved the hundreds of millions of cricket fans in the country. India has been feeling insecure since February, when Pakistan’s civil administration in Islamabad agreed to give in to the extremists’ demands of establishing strict Islamic Sharia law in the northern district of Swat. For India, the worry is proximity: first Swat, then Islamabad, then Lahore - can Delhi be far behind?
So the attack in Lahore - and against cricket - confirmed New Delhi’s fears. Lahore is Pakistan’s most liberal city, the centre of a romantic Mughal heritage, poetry, films and music - the very things the Taliban despises. It is also one of the country’s safer centres, and it almost hugs the border with India. With Lahore under seige - 12 gunmen armed with sophisticated weaponry including rocket-launchers participated in the attack – the Indians are a worried lot.
Lalit Mansingh, the former Indian ambassador to Washington and London and one of India’s most respected diplomats, said on television this morning that the attack on a cricket team is the best way to destroy the confidence not just between India and Pakistan, but all of South Asia. The Lahore attacks are “an indication of how rapidly Pakistan is rolling down the precipice – these are the signals of the creeping Talibanization of Pakistan,” said Mansingh. The strategy of the Obama administration which relies on political settlement with Taliban is not working, and needs to be reviewed, he added. “You can’t have a compromise with the Taliban.” As for India’s reaction, ties between New Delhi and Islamabad “won’t be snapped but this is a recognition that Pakistan is the epicenter of global terrorism,” he said.
The Pakistanis are also anxiety-stricken. Post the Lahore attack, popular Pakistani websites and blogs (www.pkpolitics.com) are abuzz with comments on the attacks. Some blame the CIA, Moussad and Indian intelligence agency RAW, but a large part of the reactions carry shame, anxiety, anger at their own government and helplessness - and a dismal realization that no international cricket will be played in Pakistan for a long, long time. Not being able to watch, live, the best international players on their own soil is surely disappointing to Pakistani fans of the game. But more disturbing is the fact that the terrorists have taken control of something that has rarely been dragged into the circle of terrorism or religion this way before - cricket. According to former ambassador Mansingh, “it’s a signal to the rest of the world saying, keep your hands off Pakistan, we [the terrorists]are in control, we can do anything at any time.”