The only place India has been able to hurt Pakistan is cricket. But the end result is an entire generation missing out on the sport's most captivating spectacle: India vs Pakistan.
This week, another edition of the Indian Premier League drew to a successful close. The global Covid-19 pandemic meant that there was much different about this year’s IPL: played behind closed doors, for instance, and that too not in India, but the UAE.
However, one aspect of the IPL has maintained a humdrum continuity: the forced exclusion of Pakistanis. This “sad and strange exile,” as the Guardian calls it, has now lasted thirteen years.
As an International Relations professor, especially one that studies nationalism, I can understand the ban on Pakistanis. As a cricket fan, I find it abhorrent.
To understand India’s ban, we have to go back to 2008. At the time, Pakistani players did indeed feature in the IPL. But then Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based in Pakistan, laid siege to a glamorous Mumbai hotel, one that took several days to neutralise and that claimed almost 200 lives.
This attack, quite naturally, raised the spectre of retribution. Indeed, it would not be the first (nor last) time that India found itself in a position of trying to get revenge for a terrorist attack originating in Pakistan. Historically, New Delhi has sought to punish Pakistan for its support and tolerance of terrorist groups that attack Indian soil.
However, many of the tools of punishment common in international politics are either not available or not useful for India when it comes to Pakistan.
Diplomatically, India is hamstrung by the fact that Pakistan has always had one, and sometimes two, permanent members of the UN Security Council in its corner. China has been a steadfast friend of Islamabad’s for half a century, while the US has closely partnered when its national security goals call for it, most obviously during the 1980s and 2000s.
As such, despite carrying more clout than Pakistan in global capitals, India has not been able to make this difference felt. And as long as China is on the UNSC and India isn’t, this state of affairs is likely to continue.
Economically, a country of India’s size would usually punish one like Pakistan with sanctions. The problem is that – precisely because the Indo-Pak relationship has always been in the doldrums – direct sanctions would have no virtual effect on the Pakistani economy. It would be one thing were, say, Bangladesh the target of Indian sanctions: trade between the two stands at $10 billion a year, and India is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner. But even at the best of times, Indo-Pak trade is one-tenth that figure – and these are not the best of times.
The prospect of wider, regional sanctions is similarly fanciful. Because South Asian economies are so badly connected to each other’s, multilateral sanctions are a non-credible threat. And that is before we even get to the lack of any institutionalised regional architecture – no, the decrepit SAARC does not count – where the prospect of such sanctions could be addressed in the first place.
It is in the military realm where India’s efforts to punish Pakistan have been most clearly frustrated. Because Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state, there is only so much India can do, only so far it can climb the so-called “escalatory ladder,” before risking its own survival.
To be sure, India has endeavoured, somewhat successfully, to increase its manoeuvrability underneath these red lines. It has gone from merely threatening military action (in crises in 2002 and 2008) to launching limited “surgical strikes” (in 2016) in Pakistan, to flying jets into, and bombing targets within, Pakistani territory (2019).
But the strategic value of such brinksmanship is unclear at best: in 2019, for instance, Pakistani jets responded to Indian incursions by themselves launching airstrikes in Indian territory, and in the ensuing dogfight, captured an Indian pilot. If India’s objectives were to strike fear in the hearts of Pakistan’s collective leadership, those goals were plainly unmet.
And this is where cricket comes in. Calling it the biggest sport in South Asia is an understatement; it is more accurately described as the only sport in South Asia. And it is the one area where India’s punishment of Pakistan has proved enormously successful and worked even better than the architects of the policy could have ever imagined.
After Mumbai, there was a cessation of bilateral cricket tours, which had previously taken place in each of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. India has played more than 125 test matches since December 2007 but zero against Pakistan. India only begrudgingly plays one-day and T20 cricket against Pakistan in neutral venues in multiteam competitions, such as the World Cup or Champions Trophy.
Essentially, India has sent the message that it will countenance its cricketers being on the same field as Pakistanis only when it absolutely has to.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the ban on Pakistani players in the Indian Premier League. The IPL is the world’s premier and foremost T20 league. It is also, by some distance, the most lucrative for players, with the possibility of earning millions of dollars.
Other leagues promise their players a fraction of those sums, even those in advanced economies, such as Australia or the UK. But Pakistani cricketers are denied the possibility of earning wages for the same labour that New Zealanders or Sri Lankans provide.
It is not that Pakistani players would not be good enough for the IPL. The likes of Babar Azam, Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim, or Shaheen Shah Afridi would be natural fits in the league. Even before the ascendance of this crop of stars, Pakistan had been the world’s best T20 side for long periods during India’s cricketing boycott of Pakistan. But no matter: Pakistanis are shut out.
Though Pakistan has, at long last, fulfilled India’s most vociferous demand regarding the Mumbai attacks – that it convicts and imprisons the leaders of organisations responsible, such as Hafiz Saeed – the ban continues. As an IR scholar, especially one that focuses on nationalism, it is easy to see why.
First, the boycott hurts Pakistan and Pakistanis which, at the end of the day, is precisely the point of punishment strategies. India is the economic centre of world cricket. By being denied cricket against India, Pakistani cricketers, and Pakistan cricket overall, has suffered immense financial losses. Indian authorities are most assuredly aware of and pleased by the costs they are imposing on their neighbour.
Second, the ban makes nationalist Indians, including those in power as well as their supporters, feel good. In many ways, the agglomeration of these millions of tiny dopamine hits is now the most important reason for the continuation of the boycott.
As an ideology, nationalism is mainly about the superiority of some in-group relative to the “other”. New Delhi knows well that Pakistan cricket needs Indian cricket more than vice versa, and it revels in this asymmetry. The opportunity to humiliate, afforded only rarely to New Delhi when it comes to Pakistan, is central to India’s policy of cricket coercion.
As a cricket fan, however, there is no escaping the sadness of the ban. South Asians of my age fondly remember the days of Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar bowling to Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, of Friday matches in Sharjah, of a capacity Indian crowd in Chennai giving the victorious Pakistani team a standing ovation, of a rivalry that put to shame any others in the sport. That an entire generation of fans have not seen the cricketing world’s two most populous countries face each other is an abomination.
The oft-repeated idea that “sport should be separate from politics” is patently absurd given the deeply political nature of national and international sports. But it is one thing for the likes of Lebron James to support the Black Lives Matter movement, quite another for a national government to use athletes as tools and targets in a game of vengeful statecraft.
Pakistanis are aware that no one, least of them, can change the Indian government’s mind on this score. But we continue to hope, if not expect, that Indians and Pakistanis on a cricket field will soon be a normal, regular sight.
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