Perhaps the first sportsperson to be elected democratically as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan also made some audacious moves, as he took guard at the crease, like inviting his cricket buddies from across the border for his swearing- in. He was also instrumental in initiating talks on the Kartarpur corridor from the border where one of Sikhism holiest shrines is situated. Immediately after that, the combative player, Javed Miandad, made an equally more sporting suggestion, asking both countries to play international cricket matches at the Wagah Border, where the spectacle of the goose-stepping of border guards as the flags are lowered every evening draws cheering crowds. A Test match would have made for even greater drama. Such out of the box suggestions come once a while, nevertheless, and these could be seized to change the course of history itself. These could, with luck, accomplish much more than what track II experts or retired diplomats and generals can with their seminars and learned articles and books.
The talks over the Kartarpur corridor have been continuing and if an agreement could be thrashed out that may point the way for further moves along the line, for greater amity and cooperation between the two countries.
It is in this context that the recent incidence of the Indian cricket team donning camouflage caps, as a mark of homage to the jawans who died in the Pulwama attack, during a one-day international against Australia in Ranchi, with the permission of the BCCI though, came in for flak from the ICC and the Pakistan board, should be viewed.
MS Dhoni, Ranchi’s own native son, had distributed the caps before toss for the third ODI as a way of paying tribute to the Indian soldiers killed in the terror attack. The International Cricket Committee (ICC) spokesperson later clarified that the Board of Control for Cricket in India(BCCI) had sought permission to wear the caps as part of a fund-raising drive and in memory of fallen soldiers, which was granted,’ while the Pakistan information minister Fawad Chaudhry heavily criticised the move and even called for the ICC to ban the Indian cricket team for mixing politics with sports. And the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Ehsan Mani said he had ‘strongly taken up the matter with the ICC. There's absolutely no misunderstanding in the ICC about our position.’ And he said in Karachi, ‘We believe cricket and sports should not be used for politics and we have said this very clearly. Their [India's] credibility in the cricketing world has gone down very badly.’
The PCB itself was forced to shift the three Pakistan Super League matches from Lahore to Karachi soon after because of the political tensions between the two countries. Lahore was ruled out obviously because its air space was temporarily closed in the aftermath of Pulwama, but the PCB was adamant to show the cricketing world that it was safe to play in Pakistan by organising eight PSL games in Karachi.
In the past, it was pointed out the ICC had reprimanded or banned international players for showing off their political sentiments during international matches. For example, the England all-rounder Moeen Ali was banned five years ago for wearing wristbands showing off slogans 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' during a Test match against India. And South Africa leg spinner ImranTahir was pulled up for showing of an image of Pakistan pop singer Junaid Jamshed, who died in a plane crash, underneath his shirt during a T20 against Sri Lanka in 2017.
‘You have two examples from the past already, where both Imran Tahir and Moeen Ali were sanctioned for something similar,’ Mani pointed out. ‘The ICC had taken strong action against them and we have sought similar action against India. The permission they took was for a different purpose but they acted differently.’
‘This is the second time that the BCCI has tried to use cricket for politics,’ Mani pointed out. ‘They took the ICC’s permission for some other purpose and used it to do something else, which is not acceptable.’ The Pakistan Foreign and Information Ministers had also taken exception to the gesture and criticised the Indian team and urged the PCB to take up the issue with ICC.
Cricket administrators and politicians and retired colonels view sports events and pilgrim tours differently, suspiciously, but it would seem that the general public have a different perspective. They invariably look upon these contacts as an exchange of ideas, skills, and common human bondage. They find common strands and linkages and are able to exchange ideas, knowledge, even trade secrets. There is always a common bond between craftspeople and artists and even practitioners of different faiths, as also sports stars. The ancient silk routes and sea lanes were used for exchange of these commodities. Before the era of conquests and the division of the world between two countries by a divine edict, seafarers and pilgrims traversed these lands and were always welcomed as harbingers of glad tidings.
Almost half a century earlier, at the height of the Cold War, there was a similar audacious move by sportsmen that made a dramatic impact globally. A group of table tennis players from the Unites States made a trip to China to play the game against its greatest exponents with the pen hold grip. That successful visit helped in reviving relations between both countries that had been snapped for more than 22 years. One year later, Richard Nixon was to travel all the way to Beijing, the first US President to visit that country and that ‘ping pong’ diplomacy helped to make a dent in the bamboo curtain. So the proposal for a cricket series along the Wagah border may not be such an outlandish proposal after all.
During the World Cup hockey tournament held in Bhubaneswar in November and December last year, there was a lot of uncertainty around the participation of the Pakistan hockey team, due to visa problems and sponsorship issues but the decks were cleared miraculously at the eleventh hour for the four-time champions to participate.
As it turned out, the Pakistani team had a good time and their veterans like Hasan Sardar and Samiullah were nostalgic of the times they played together when there was no astroturf and the artistry of the Asian style of play drew appreciative crowds. Despite ordinary performances on the ground this time, Pakistan was a big hit among the passionate fans in a carnival-like atmosphere in Bhubaneswar.
The hockey fans were entertained by the Pakistan team, which visited the bustling Fan Village at the Kalinga Stadium and the Men in Green didn't hold back as they danced to Bollywood numbers and sang, amid cheers from spectators. They also shopped for the exotic handicrafts and bright saris to take back as mementoes.
Pakistani player Muhammad Irfan stole the show as fans grooved to the Bollywood number he sang. The song was 'Dil Diyan Gallan' of film Salman Khan-starrer Tiger Zinda Hai. At the other side of the sub-continent, far away from the Radcliffe Line, these players have found a different kind of people.
Almost15 years earlier, when the Lahore-Delhi bus service was introduced among the first batch of travellers was a Pakistani girl, who had come to symbolise the new thaw in ties between the two countries. The two-year-old Noor Fatima was taken to the far South, in Bangalore, where she underwent a successful heart surgery amid a national outpouring of goodwill for the baby.
Indian doctors operated to mend the holes in her heart. The six-hour operation started at 7:00 am at the privately-run Narayana Hrudayalaya hospital near Bangalore. ‘The baby had four abnormalities in her heart which included two large holes and defective valves,’ said cardiac surgeon Devi Shetty.
Her father, Nadeem Sajjad, 35, said he and his wife, Tayyeba Sajjad, 28, had been on tenterhooks during the surgery conducted by a team of surgeons and cardiologists. ‘It was a tough time for us,’ he said, adding that he was relieved when he saw the ‘doctor coming out with a smiling face.’
The Sajjad couple has been in the limelight since they came along with 32 other Pakistani passengers on board the bus from Lahore. The Sajjads said they were overwhelmed by the good wishes they had received for Fatima’s surgery.
‘We are grateful to India for the support we received,’ a visibly-emotional Sajjad said. ‘Thank God, we did not need the money that was offered. But we think the money can be used to fund a trust to treat poor children of both countries. The love and affection we received should now form the bulwark for a new India-Pakistan relationship.’
Fatima’s mother was equally euphoric. ‘The greatest news for us is that my baby has got a new life and she will now live a healthy life,’ said Tayyeba, adding that after Fatima has recovered she hoped to take her to see the Taj Mahal.
In Bangalore, children lined the streets with placards reading ‘Get Well Soon!’, and total strangers gave flowers to Fatima’s parents. ‘I am overwhelmed by the hospitality I got. We are feeling at home even though we are 4,000 km away,’ said Sajjad. ‘Throughout the day we received telephone calls from unknown Indians who told us they were praying for our kid. We have been bombarded with good wishes, greetings cards and flowers. So many Indians prayed for us and I do not know who was a Hindu or a Muslim. I will carry the message of friendship. We need to live in peace in South Asia,’ Sajjad said.
Kartarpur corridor could be a similar augury for the travel of pilgrims. If one reckons that a large number of Sikhism’s most sacred sites are in Pakistan and even in Afghanistan, such corridor could be one way of the pilgrim trail that could foster better relations between the peoples of both countries. If one reckons the pilgrims who come all the way from Siliguri in Assam for the Ajmer Sharief shrine during the Urs, traversing half the sub-continent, and stopping over at Nizamuddin Aulia’s and Baktiar Kaki’s dargahs in Delhi on the way, one can imagine what solace such pilgrim routes could provide for the faithful in the sub-continent. The Buddhist trail has also been in the making for some time and that could draw pilgrims from all over South Asia and China and as far as Japan.
After all Indian pilgrims and saints had traversed the continent, and crossed the mountain ranges. Even during the invasions from Central Asia, sufi saints had come along with them and have saved so many people and harboured them and also imparted their skills and meditation practices.