India's neighbours — Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives — legitimately complain that they are ignored and SAARC Summits reduced to a farce, as such gatherings turn into India-Pakistan soap operas.
They rightly claim that Indian political leaders, officials and media ignore the achievements in fostering South Asian togetherness, and behave as though all that matters is the bilateral meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of SAARC meetings.
This obsession with Pakistan was on display during the 2011 cricket World Cup. The World Cup was scheduled to be hosted in South Asia by Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Engulfed by terrorist violence, Pakistan was ruled out as a host, by the International Cricket Council. The tournament was, therefore, hosted by Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
Instead of using the occasion to foster solidarity between the three hosts, our leaders showed deplorable insensitivity in dealing with co-hosts Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The World Cup was inaugurated in Dhaka on February 19, by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. It was the largest international event Bangladesh had hosted, since its bloody war of independence 40 years ago.
Sheikh Hasina is unquestionably one of the friendliest leaders in our neighbourhood. She has extended a hand of friendship to us, proclaimed her country a secular republic, clamped down on extremist groups and handed over separatist leaders from our North-East who were hosted by her predecessor.
The World Cup inauguration was an ideal event for India to show its solidarity with Bangladesh. Our Prime Minister could have shared the dais with Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. Astonishingly, New Delhi did not even send a high-level goodwill delegation. A similar indifference and lack of imagination was shown towards Sri Lanka, where cricketing legend Muthiah Muralitharan, whose contribution to the cricketing glory of his country was personally lauded by President Rajapakse, was playing his last World Cup. If Team India fought for the coveted World Cup for Sachin Tendulkar, the Sri Lankans did so for “Murali,” as he is fondly known.
Most importantly, Murali, a Tamil, is symbol of how Tamils and Sinhalas can live together in a pluralistic Sri Lanka. An Indian Prime Minister lauding Murali in Colombo would have reinforced and driven home this message.
A Prime Minister, who is totally focused on and some would say obsessed, with Pakistan, could obviously not entertain such thoughts. It is tragic that our diplomatic establishment and politicians could not look beyond their noses, on neighbourhood diplomacy.
Many years ago, Mir Khalilur Rehman, the founder of the Jang newspaper remarked to me during the course of an India Pakistan cricket test match in Karachi: “The problem with my countrymen is that they treat the cricket field like a battlefield and a battlefield like a cricket field.”
The Mohali World Cup semi-final pitting India against Pakistan was touted as the harbinger of goodwill. But, what was the reaction across the border, when Pakistan, a remarkably talented, but mercurial side, crashed to defeat?
Much has been said about Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi's comment: “Indians will never have hearts like Muslims and Pakistanis. I do not think they have the large and clean hearts Allah has given us.” Compare this with the gracious comments of Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara: “We didn't take enough wickets and in the end the best team won. Yes we are a bit sore that we lost. It will take a while to get over that feeling. That's cricket.”
It has been argued that one should not take the comments of Shahid Afridi seriously. But anyone familiar with the media coverage in Pakistan would recognise that not merely the traditionally hostile Urdu press, but also mainstream English newspapers were severely and even irrationally critical of India. Even a normally restrained person like Air Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry, who was Director of Pakistan's Strategic (Nuclear) Command Authority, commenced his article debunking Sachin Tendulkar's batting capabilities. He averred: “And yet this God of cricket was all at sea against Saeed Ajmal. He could not read Ajmal's Doosra.” Chaudhry made the astonishing accusation that it was as a result of the tampering of the Hawkeye software by Indian IT experts that Tendulkar was not given out LBW.
The misplaced belief that “cricket diplomacy” would bring people in India and Pakistan together, goes to show that South Block has no understanding of how Pakistanis think about cricket.
No one objects to a serious dialogue, which promotes people-to- people contacts, enhances mutual confidence and ends terrorism. As a first step we should unilaterally revoke the ludicrous visa restrictions we have imposed on visits by foreign academics, students and other visitors in the aftermath of the 26/11 attack.
The invitation to Prime Minister Gilani pleased the Americans. But is pleasing the Americans the main criterion for determining our policies and priorities in our neighbourhood? The internal turmoil in Pakistan and its problems in Afghanistan call for serious diplomacy, and not gimmicks, grandiose gestures, or summits without meticulous preparatory work.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. >email@example.com )