Pakistan under siege: cricket becomes a target

March 3, 2009

Everything is officially going to hell.” The verdict of a reader quoted by All Things Pakistan said perhaps better than anyone else why the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore marked a defining moment in Pakistan’s agonising descent into chaos.

Six Sri Lankan cricketers and their British assistant coach were wounded when gunmen attacked their bus as it drove under police escort to the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore.  Five policemen were killed.

The death toll was small by South Asian standards.  But what defined it — beyond the audacity and apparent sophistication of the attack – was the assault on the identity of a country where cricket, as in neighbouring India, is a national obsession.

“An ambush targeting the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this morning has literally sent waves of disbelief and shock across Pakistan,” said a post on Metroblogging Lahore. “Citizens of Lahore are specifically terrified at the extent of sophisticated weaponry used by terrorists in an incident that caused unprecedented damage to the country’s image and its cricketing future.”

“Why can’t we ever just have a slow news day … every day there’s something new,” complained another post on Twitter.

South Asia is no stranger to violence, from the days of partition onwards. But there seems to me to be something qualitatively quite different in what is going on now, in which brutality and the alienation of the local population is not so much incidental but central to the method.

It’s been there in the assault on traditional Pakistani music and culture, in the deliberately grisly videotaped beheading of a Polish geologist last month, in the targeting of girls’ schools in the Swat valley and now in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers.

Even in darkest days of the Kashmir insurgency which set Pakistan and India at each other’s throats you didn’t see anything like this — in fact one of the signs of normal life there came from boys out in the street playing cricket.  In Afghanistan, the hardline Taliban which banned most sports appear to have been less hostile to cricket, as Reuters Kabul correspondent Jon Hemming wrote in this feature about the country’s fledgling national cricket team. I’ve even seen Pakistani soldiers spontaneously playing cricket the harsh terrain of the Siachen battlefield beyond Kashmir, bowling a few balls in the drizzling snow under the lee of steep mountain walls.

Pakistani officials are already speculating about Indian involvement in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers, in revenge for last year’s assault on Mumbai.  This speculation will probably run and run — it’s echoing through comments on blogs and on Twitter. But it may obscure a more important point. When you attack a national institution like cricket, it’s an expression of brute power, an assault on culture akin to the burning of books.

According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, quoted by the Independent: ”I think this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the government at the time when there is a huge political crisis in the country. They are trying to create a vacuum of power in which eventually they can take over.”

(Reuters photo: Pakistan’s Salman Butt in match against Sri Lanka)

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