Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
In the run-up to Wednesday’s cricket match between India and Pakistan, passions are running high on both sides of the border and in the diaspora which is following their teams’ progress in the game’s biggest tournament.
How to demolish Pakistan was the title of a programme aired by an Indian television network where former players and experts discussed ways to win the high-voltage game that will be played in the northern Indian town of Mohali, within, in a manner of speaking, of earshot distance of the heavily militarised border with Pakistan.
Pakistan television in similarly wall-to-wall coverage ran a programme where one of the guests advised the team to recite a particular passage from the Koran before stepping out to play that day. There is even a story doing the rounds in Pakistan that an enraged Indian crowd put a parrot fortune teller to death for predicting a Pakistani victory, according to this report.
All fair in sport, you would argue, and especially for two countries that take their cricket very seriously. But this contest has an edgy undertone of antagonism that flows from the tension in ties since the Mumbai attacks of 2008 carried out by Pakistan based militants and for which New Delhi seeks greater redress from Pakistani authorities.
The charged atmosphere - and this has very little to do with the players themselves – recalls the fervour and aggression of the 1990s when the people of the two countries treated cricket as essential conflict. Each game was seen as a test of national honour in much the way the border guards of the two countries strut their stuff in a bitter-sweet ceremony at the Wagah crossing each day at sunset. The winner of the cricket game was feted while the loser slinked away in disgrace.
In the end, Pakistan wasn’t the unspoken elephant in the room when U.S. President Barack Obama sat down for talks with Indian leaders. Far from tip-toeing around India’s Pakistan problem which complicates America’s own troubled war there and in Afghanistan, Obama spoke clearly and squarely.
Safe havens for militants in Pakistan wouldn’t be tolerated, he said, in what was music to Indian ears. But he also left nobody in doubt Washington wanted India to improve ties with Pakistan, saying New Delhi had the greatest stake in the troubled neighbour’s stability.
One of my Kabul press corps colleagues once described covering President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western diplomats who are supposed to be supporting it as a lot like being friends with a couple while they go through a savage divorce. We reporters hop back and forth, from cocktail party to quiet lunch to private briefing, listening to charming Afghans and Westerners -– many of whom we personally like very much — say outrageously nasty things about each other. Usually, the invective is whispered “off the record” by both sides, so you, dear reader, miss out on the opportunity to learn just how dysfunctional one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships has become.
Over the past few weeks, the secret got out. Karzai — in a speech that was described as an outburst but which palace insiders say was carefully planned — said in public what his allies have been muttering in private for months: that Western diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw a third of his votes thrown out for fraud. The White House and State Department were apoplectic: “disturbing”, “untrue”, “preposterous” they called it. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who was the number two U.N. official in Kabul during last year’s election, went on TV and said he thought Karzai might be crazy or on drugs. Karzai’s camp’s response: Who’s being preposterous now?
Press conferences at the presidential palace in Kabul can be tedious affairs but the frustration felt by the local press corp topped a new level when U.S. President Barack Obama came to visit Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday evening. Mainly because there wasn’t one — a press conference that is.