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It is not about politics, but terrorism

By Prem Panicker
March 03, 2009 13:27 IST
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On November 18, 2008, the Board of Control for Cricket in India's newly installed president Shashank Manohar contacted his Pakistan counterpart Ijaz Butt on phone to assure him that the Indian cricket team would tour Pakistan on schedule, early in 2009.

The BCCI had at the time written to the Government of India seeking clearance for the tour -- and news reports pointed out that it stood to make $10 million at the minimum if it sent the team over.

Manohar must be a very relieved man just now. Without suggesting that Sri Lankan players being injured in a terrorist strike in Lahore today is insignificant, consider the what-if: A headline reading 'Sachin Tendulkar injured in terrorist attack in Lahore' would have had cataclysmic consequences: nationwide rioting, and on overwhelming political consensus in favour of war.

Unlike Manohar, former Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga is likely breaking a sweat. When India pulled out of the tour, Ranatunga allowed his long-standing antipathy to the BCCI dictate his response: unilaterally, without reference to the Sri Lankan government, he announced that Sri Lanka would tour Pakistan in place of India.

The Lankan government first nixed the tour and sacked Ranatunga; then bowed to pressure from various quarters to allow the tour to go ahead, while simultaneously appeasing India by breaking the Pak tour into two halves and retro-fitting a one-day excursion to India. And already, within hours of the attack, the Opposition in Sri Lanka's Parliament has seized on the opportunity to attack the government.

The attack on the Sri Lankan team has a significance over and above the act itself. If the targeting of foreign nationals in Mumbai 26/11 changed the paradigm of terrorism, the dozen or so young men who bracketed the Sri Lankan team bus this morning and opened fire as the bus slowed down at the gate of the stadium have further re-written the rules.

On an earlier occasion in the mid-2000s, a spokesman from the Jaish e Mohammad had in a self-serving statement said the 'jihadis' had no interest in targeting sportsmen; that cricketers of any nationality were safe on Pakistan soil. More recently, while making a case for foreign teams to tour India, cricketer turned politician Imran Khan gave his 'personal guarantee' that no terrorist would ever harm a cricketer.

That notional safety net has been shredded by the bullets fired today. The message in blood is clear: no one is safe anymore, anywhere in that country.

When the BCCI, under pressure from the Government of India following the 26/11 attacks, pulled out of the scheduled Pakistan tour, the 'intelligentsia' on both sides of the border had much to say. The commentariat was particularly active in the Pakistan press: the likes of Imran Khan, one-time star Shahid Afridi and others condemned India; former captain Wasim Akram in an impassioned plea asked India's cricket establishment not to "mix politics and cricket".

That statement misses a central point: it is not about 'politics', but about 'terrorism'. It has been painfully apparent for far too long that the Pakistan state, its military and the Inter Services Intelligence no longer exercised any measurable control over the terrorist groups the State had spawned as part of its philosophy of bleeding India.

That fact leads to another: Neither the State, nor the army, nor the ISI, can guarantee anyone's safety on Pakistan soil. Anarchy rules, and all the king's horses and all the king's men have no clue how to cope, what to do.

Consider this latest attack: the Pakistan security establishment reportedly had information that the Lankan team would be targeted, and the team's route to the stadium was altered as a result. Yet, despite heightened security, a dozen or so young men, in the casual attire Ajmal Kasab and his cohorts used as camouflage in Mumbai, surrounded the team bus, blazed away with AK-47s, shot dead five security personnel, and melted into the bylanes of Lahore.

The Sri Lankan tour has been called off. Pakistan's chances of co-hosting the next World Cup is effectively dead in the water. And it is a safe bet that this will spell the end of the cash-strapped Pakistan Cricket Board.

That is sad -- in its heyday, Pakistan's national team has provided that unpredictable edge, that lurking promise of magic, that made it the team to follow, irrespective of your national loyalties. In recent times, that team has slid to the bottom of the table, vying for the wooden spoon with the likes of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; the attacks today will merely accelerate that process.

The potential demise of Pakistan cricket is however a very small part of the problem: the far larger one is the accelerating implosion of the Pakistan State itself -- that is the elephant in the global living room.

Consider this statement by former captain Javed Miandad, in the wake of today's attacks: "The foreign teams were already not coming and this [incident] is going to affect Pakistan cricket in the future. This is not to say that cricket will stop. The world will have to stay united and fight terrorism. I hope they just don't say they won't tour Pakistan. If we do that we will only support the terrorists' cause."

That premise is fatally flawed. An international team touring Pakistan does not hurt the terrorist cause -- if anything, it merely provides another soft target of opportunity. It is not the business of the international cricketer to fight the battle against terrorism -- that battle has to be fought by the Pakistan State, its army, and the Inter Services Intelligence with help from the global community.

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Prem Panicker

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