Cricket match was a chance to ease India-Pakistan divide

McClatchy NewspapersApril 2, 2011 

MOHALI, India — India and Pakistan are "enemy states," but you could not tell that from the crowd of cricket fans who gathered here Wednesday for a semi-final match in this year's cricket World Cup.

As the two national teams battled on the cricket pitch, Indians and Pakistanis sat side by side with nary a cross word. They danced on their seats to the same catchy Bollywood music. They sang the same songs. They teased each other in their shared raucous language.

It was easy to forget that the countries had been at war three times in the last 64 years, and been close to further conflict twice in the last decade. The partition of India in 1947, carving out Pakistan, led to a bloodbath in which up to 1 million people died.

Chandan Poojari, 34, a restaurant manager in nearby Chandigarh, had an Indian flag painted on one cheek and a Pakistani flag on the other.

"We are actually all the same people. We are just enjoying the game," Poojari said, sitting next to a group of Pakistani supporters at the Mohali stadium.

Cricket, a game brought to this region of Asia by the British former colonial rulers, has a fanatical following here. But given the political problems between India and Pakistan, meetings of their cricket teams are rare. Even rarer was a clash in a competition as important as the World Cup, building up tension and expectation to bursting point before the game.

So the event, which India won, propelling it to Saturday's final victory over Sri Lanka, became an opportunity to try to ease political tensions.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sat with his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and when Gilani came out to the middle of the stadium's playing field to shake hands with the Indian team at the start of the match, applause rang out from the Indian fans.

Relations between India and Pakistan matter to the outside world, not only because they are both nuclear-armed states, but because competition between the two nations for influence in Afghanistan is a major cause of the conflict there.

Historically, Pakistan, sandwiched between India on the east and Afghanistan on the west, has backed the Taliban as a proxy for Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun population, the same ethnic group that populates northwest Pakistan. India has supported the so-called Northern Alliance, of non-Pashtuns, who live in the northern half of Afghanistan.

Since the devastating 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai by a squad of gunmen who came from Pakistan, the fragile peace process between the two countries has been in deep freeze. So the surprise invitation to Gilani to watch the match, and the accompanying talks, suddenly raised hopes of the revival of a peace process.

The principal conflict between the two countries is over ownership of the Kashmir region, a pretty mountainous area claimed by both nations. The main part of Kashmir is held by India, following a war for control there in 1947, and the rest by Pakistan.

The rivalry between the countries means that each maintains a vast army, which eats up a massive chunk of the national budget, money that could be spent on education, health and infrastructure for the hundreds of millions of poor that subsist in India and Pakistan. (Pakistan spends 16 percent of its budget on defense, while India spends 13 percent, according to the World Bank).

While India has forged ahead economically in the last two decades, with stellar growth and an embrace of globalization, Pakistan has stagnated, economically and culturally, with waves of conservative religious sentiment sweeping the country.

Gilani, making his first official visit to India, acknowledged the penalty for the poor relations between the two countries.

"We need to focus on dealing with our common enemy — the issues of inflation, poverty, hunger, disease and unemployment for the prosperity of two countries," Gilani said after the talks Wednesday.

As it turned out the official contacts were tentative and didn't yield anything substantial, but the people-to-people contact at the match was warm and embracing.

The media in both countries had built the game as a war-like situation, but that wasn't the feeling in the streets of Mohali or in the stands during the match.

The Pakistani supporters were vastly outnumbered but several hundred of them were nestled amid the thousands of home fans, in a carnival atmosphere.

There were wild celebrations from either side when players from their team did well. The chants of "India will win" or "Pakistan will win" were vying to outdo each other. Most of all, it was a get together of Punjabis, an ethnic group that enjoys one of the most playful languages in the world.

Punjab, which was divided between the two countries in 1947, would be the front line in any future India-Pakistan war. But here, they were enjoying being Punjabis together. The two fans traded good-natured, distinctly south Asian, hand gestures and taunts.

Gurpreet Chatha, 30, who has a meat processing plant in Chandigarh, was sitting with an excitable crowd of Pakistani supporters so that he could be with his Pakistani friend, Naveed Anwar. Although they both live in Punjab, one on the Pakistani side the other in Indian Punjab, they're friends because they met in San Francisco 13 years ago.

"Rivalry will always be there but the spirit is good. There's no reason behind the negative India-Pakistan media hype. People don't really think that way," said Chatha.


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