India, Pakistan re-engage through cricket diplomacy

By Sudipto Ganguly and Amlan Chakraborty

MOHALI, India (Reuters) – The prime ministers of nuclear-armed foes India and Pakistan sat side by side and clapped together as the home side won a historic World Cup cricket match packed with symbolic gestures aimed at rebuilding ties shattered by the Mumbai attacks.

As Indian players hugged each other on the pitch, the leaders applauded the two teams in the northern Indian town of Mohali after a semi-final match between the South Asian neighbors that have gone to war three times since Independence in 1947.

Such was the fervor surrounding the match that scores of Pakistanis crossed one of the world’s most militarized borders, helped by relaxed visa rules, to get to the stadium, while millions of Indians took the day off work to watch the game.

One banner in the 28,000 capacity stadium read “We have two common religions – cricket and cinema. Why then fight?”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had invited his counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, to watch the game and discuss reviving the peace process, although “cricket diplomacy” will offer more in the way of gestures than breakthroughs in the decades-old conflict.

It was the first time since the Mumbai attacks that the two teams have met on one of their home grounds.

“I think every such meeting between the leaders of the two countries generates an extremely positive momentum,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirumpama Rao told a news conference during the match.

“I would like to emphasize this is re-engagement between India and Pakistan.”

India ultimately triumphed in the match, after posting a total of 260 thanks to 85 runs from national hero Sachin Tendulkar. Pakistan’s reply fell 29 runs short, pegged back by a steady fall of wickets and a tight Indian bowling attack.

The stadium was packed with a Who’s Who of India, ranging from ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, billionaire businessmen like airline and beer tycoon Vijay Mallya and Bollywood stars such as Aamir Khan.

Sonia Gandhi, the shadowy power behind the scenes in India, punched the air after the last Pakistani wicket fell and fireworks exploded in the capital New Delhi.

Attacks in Mumbai in 2008 heightened distrust between the two countries, which have fought over disputed Kashmir for decades, a conflict heightened by a host of other issues from border skirmishes and conflicts over water.

New Delhi blames Pakistani militants in collusion with elements of the government, including Pakistan’s spy agency, for the Mumbai assault, which killed at least 166 people.

But concerned about his legacy, the 78-year-old Singh has pushed for reconciliation with Pakistan despite misgivings within his government.

In a major confidence-building measure ahead of the match, Islamabad agreed on Tuesday to let Indian investigators travel to Pakistan to probe the Mumbai attacks.

“As far as our relations are concerned, I’m happy our talks have resumed and interior (home) secretaries’ talks were held in a positive manner,” Gilani said before the match, referring to talks between senior officials this week.

“Dr. Manmohan Singh is a very good politician. His approach is very positive and he wants to do something for peace and prosperity of this region so we both are committed that the environment should improve and we could serve people.”

The leaders dined with each other during the match and watched the final overs of the match stone-faced in arm chairs.


The two cricket-crazy South Asian nations have talked of little else for the past week in a build-up that has put the spotlight on, among other topics, players’ preparedness, a row over match-fixing and public prayers for victory.

“Cricket diplomacy” is nothing new. In 2005, Pakistan’s then military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, traveled to India to watch a similar match but the trip effectively turned into a summit with Singh, with the two leaders agreeing to open up the militarized frontier dividing the disputed Kashmir region.

Indian army helicopters and anti-aircraft guns imposed a no-fly zone over the Mohali stadium, a few hours’ drive east of the Pakistani border, to prevent an attack by militants.

Across India, traffic on normally crowded streets was thin. Pubs screening the match on wide screens erupted into cheers as Indian batsmen hit fours, and fans celebrated the boundaries by downing drinks and dancing with abandon.

“I tell everybody: ‘you should not fight at the border, rather the battles should be fought on the cricket grounds.’ That’s what people from both countries love to see,” Mohammad Bashir Khan, a Pakistani supporter from Chicago, told Reuters after flying into India for the showpiece event.

Many companies in both countries had declared Wednesday a half-day for work. The Karachi stock exchange put a big screen up for traders to watch the match on. Lawmakers in India’s eastern Bihar state asked for a suspension of legislative business during the match.

“This is a more important event than any other event for Pakistan this year,” said Omar Ehtisham Anwar, a fund manager at Faysal Asset Management in Karachi who has taken the day off to watch the match.

“There is no way I would miss even a second of this match — I will try to not even blink during the game.”

India will play Sri Lanka in the final in Mumbai on Saturday.

For Singh, the match may be a way of regaining the policy initiative after his government was battered by months of corruption scandals that could dent the ruling Congress party’s chances in upcoming state elections.

Both sides will hope to ride a wave of goodwill ahead of talks between their foreign ministers in July, but some were skeptical about cricket diplomacy, which was tried as far back as 1987, without bringing lasting peace.

“It facilitates resolution, it doesn’t lead to resolution,” former Pakistani President Musharraf told the Indian news channel Times Now. “Cricket diplomacy doesn’t mean that you can resolve disputes just because you attended a match together.”

(Writing by Alistair Scrutton; additional reporting by C.J Kuncheria and Henry Foy in New Delhi; Kamran Haider in Islamabad and Sahar Ahmed and Faisal Aziz in Karachi, editing by Sugita Katyal)

India, Pakistan re-engage through cricket diplomacy