Cricket Promotes Peace?

So India and Pakistan will play each other again on Indian soil, this time in the World Twenty20 cricket tournament.

Saturday's match will take place in Kolkata (Calcutta), having had to be shifted from picturesque Dharamsala because the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh state felt the families of Indian soldiers from his state would not welcome a game with the "enemy". 

The Pakistanis nearly did not come at all, out of fear for their security. 

The question of whether, amidst all the strife that besets the two countries' cricketing relations, a mere sport can bring them together, is at one level easy to answer:   No. 

Sport can sublimate many emotions, but it cannot be a substitute for geopolitics. Cricket can be an instrument for diplomacy, not an alternative to it.

After all, six decades of cricketing ties have done little to promote good relations between the two antagonists. 

If anything, the game has been a victim of politics, as proved by the 18-year gap in cricketing relations between the two countries from 1960 to 1978, the dozen-year hiatus in Pakistani Test tours of India between 1987 and 1999, and the current stalemate, brought about by the 2008 Mumbai attacks and sustained by subsequent incidents.

The basic challenge to "normal" cricketing relations lies in the nature of partition, which carved a Muslim state out of India.

In Pakistan, cricket is expected to bear a particularly heavy burden as the embodiment of national pride against the larger (and more powerful) neighbor from which it seceded. 

The instrument of cricket in the service of a militarized nationalism, especially against India, is a feature of Pakistani cricket. 

So are explicit evocations of a religious mission (as when Pakistan's then captain, Shoaib Malik, publicly thanked "Muslims all over the world" for their presumed support for his team in the 2007 World Twenty20). 

These are two countries whose soldiers have frequently shot at each other, where border tensions have erupted into war, and where the result of a cricket match can prompt a soldier to unleash a volley of celebratory or intimidating fire on the Line of Control, the de facto border. 

Above all, this is a region where the alleged fomenting of terrorism in India by Pakistan and (in Pakistani eyes) the "sufferings" of Muslims in India creates in each side a "moral obligation" to teach the perpetrators a lesson on the cricket field. 

No other cricketing rivalry in the world has to contend with such a perverse mixture of elements sharpening the keen edge of competition between them.

Against such a background, it is expecting too much for cricket matches between India and Pakistan to remain mere sporting spectacles. 

As activist and philosopher CLR James has so memorably written, "what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" 

The two sides played each other in the 1999 World Cup in England while the Pakistani-instigated war over Kargil in Kashmir was going on: on the very day of India's 47-run victory, six Pakistani soldiers and three Indian officers were killed.

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