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Getting Past The Subcontinent's Sticky Wicket

Pakistani cricket captain Shahid Afridi (left) with Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a press conference at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali on March 29

Pakistani cricket captain Shahid Afridi (left) with Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a press conference at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali on March 29

"Cricket diplomacy" is once again proving handy to open the way for high-level India-Pakistan talks for the first time since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai.

While the Indian and Pakistani teams will be struggling hard to knock each other out in the World Cricket Cup semifinal, the leaders of the two countries are seeking to create a win-win situation on the political front, with the ultimate goal of ending the lingering disputes that devour vast resources and push thousands in the region below the poverty line year after year.

The guessing game about whether Pakistan would accept an invitation for the India-Pakistan cricket match ended when Pakistan announced that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani would attend the high-voltage match in India on March 30. Earlier, the Pakistani Foreign Office welcomed the invitation from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Gilani and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mohali -- the 18th district of the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, known for unpredictable rainfall and great variations in temperature -- will be hosting both the cricket match and the geopolitical posturing under tight security.

Recent overtures between the two countries are reminiscent of moves by former Pakistani military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the architect of the country's jihadist policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In 1987, Zia went uninvited with a delegation of 68 government officials and sportsmen to watch a Pakistan-India cricket match in the Indian city of Jaipur. Though Zia was a great fan of cricket, the real purpose of his Indian visit was to ease border tensions between the two countries.

Zia And Musharraf

In fact, the roots of cricket diplomacy date back to 1977, when the Indian cricket team visited Pakistan in a bid to cool the emotions simmering in the aftermath of the 1971 war that resulted in the bifurcation of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state.

When relations were at a standstill in the aftermath of the 1999 Pakistan-India skirmishes in Kargil, the Indian cricket team visited Pakistan in 2004 and the contests were dubbed "the Friendship Series." In an unprecedented move, hundreds of Indian cricket fans were issued visas to watch the matches thus strengthening the people-to-people contacts in relations that had been virtually taken hostage by hawks in security establishments of the two countries.

Following Zia's path, General Pervez Musharraf also turned to cricket to ease tensions between the two neighbors in 2005. In a desperate move to revitalize contacts, Musharraf managed to get an invitation from the Indian leadership for a match in New Delhi on April 17, 2005.

Cricket diplomacy has mostly been used by the Pakistani side, particularly by past military rulers. Now, however, for the first time, an invitation came spontaneously from India's leadership. And unlike in the past, an elected leader instead of a dictator will be going to India from Pakistan to "watch the match" this time.

Useful Tool

Diplomacy aside, cricket has also been used by Pakistani dictators to quell public sentiments or divert their attention from particular incidents that otherwise could create problems for the government. Zia once announced a public holiday upon the victory of a Pakistani team to divert attention away from sectarian killings and police brutality against political activists.

Thanks to the recent Cricket World Cup matches, Pakistanis turned a deaf ear to strike calls by religious parties over the case of a CIA contractor in Lahore who killed two Pakistani citizens, as well as ongoing drone strikes. The parties hoped to use these issues to rebuild their shattered image among the public.

Cricket is so popular in South Asian countries -- India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh -- that many say it is equal to religion. Threats from some Hindu groups aside, the vast majority of Indians extended a warm welcome to the Pakistani team upon its arrival on March 26.

The majority of Pakistani analysts who stress the need for negotiated settlement of all disputes between India and Pakistan more than they did in the past are of the view that Singh's invitation and Gilani's acceptance can prove an icebreaker.

Humayun Khan, an analyst who was Pakistan's ambassador to India in 1987 (the year Zia visited India for a cricket match), welcomed the invitation and added that the move could open a new chapter in ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors. "Pakistan's leadership must avail itself of the opportunity, as it could win peace for the people of the region," Khan told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

While fans expect and deserve a hard-fought contest on the cricket oval, the political leaders of the two countries have the chance to use the pretext created by this 17th-century, English game to make a breakthrough on the decades-old disputes -- particularly, Kashmir -- that are tearing the region apart and blocking its development. It is time to finish the unfinished agenda of British rule on the subcontinent.

Daud Khattak is acting director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL