When India-Pakistan play their first match in the ongoing Cricket World Cup at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, the capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat, on Saturday, October 14, everything else in both nations is expected to come to a standstill. This is the most exciting sports rivalry in the world, beating anything that football serves up anywhere, including its World Cup.
And that is because in a relationship starved of ordinary contact, the off-field tensions between the two nations that were separated at birth in 1947 have become sharper and more exaggerated. They acquire a brilliance that is edged with fear, anger, and tremulous joy.
In the mix is anguish, tears which flow from divided families unable to meet because visas are routinely denied when political motivations intervene – India has decreed that there will be little or no contact between Indians and Pakistanis until "cross-border terrorism" comes to an end – while memories of the trauma of the subcontinent’s Partition in 1947 refuses to go away. The chasm between the two countries deepens a few inches every year.
At the back of every Indian-Pakistani citizen’s mind when they meet is the knowledge that history hangs heavy. Both nations have fought three wars – soon after independence, in 1947, in 1965 and in 1971, when India helped break up Pakistan and create a new country called Bangladesh – as well as the limited border conflict in Kargil in 1999. Then Pakistan army chief General Pervez Musharraf thwarted his prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and crossed the Line of Control in an attempt to cut Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of the country.
If the politics divides the two nations, culture unites them – religion, food, customs, music and the movies
And then there were the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when ten Pakistani terrorists armed with sophisticated weapons took a dinghy from Karachi, landed in Mumbai and created mayhem intended to bring India’s financial capital to its knees.
As many as 166 people were killed in the Mumbai attacks, but in the 15 years since, Pakistan has never moved to prosecute even one person. The attack's mastermind, Hafiz Saeed, is back in jail, but it is more home than prison. Another key perpetrator of the attack, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, even fathered a child when he was behind bars.
And yet generations of Indians and Pakistanis clamour every day to get to know each other better every day. There is no other relationship that is more painful and yet more joyful – at least for each other.
The governments of India and Pakistan continue to spend much newsprint, television air time and online influence criticising each other. Each crow about the inadequacies of the other with unadulterated glee. Decisions are often taken in the name of the people, but often, they have more to do with ego rather than take into account what the people want – the denial of visas is a classic example. Both Indians and Pakistanis routinely point out that when terrorists infiltrate to cause mayhem, as they did in Mumbai and continue to do in Jammu and Kashmir, they do not need visas to do so.
Moreover, especially at this moment, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is seen to be increasingly at odds with its neighbours, not just India but also Afghanistan. Moreover, it is broke. Both, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its patrons, whether China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Saudi Arabia, have again and again come to its assistance, but every Pakistani knows the band-aid will come unstuck from the wound sooner than later.
India, on the other hand, still secular despite the battering its minorities have received at the hands of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) these past nine years, is growing at a super-healthy, if not a furious pace of seven percent, and has become quite the darling of the Western world – even if a great deal of that affection has been diverted to Delhi because of the West’s (read, the US) anger with China.
If the politics divides the two nations, culture unites them – religion, food, customs, music and the movies. Lahoris yearn to come to Amritsar to eat the local cuisine and vice-versa. When Shahrukh Khan paired with Mahira Khan in [‘Raees’], it was as if the subcontinent knew no greater joy.
And then there is cricket. The Pakistan team has travelled across the border to play against India after seven years. When the brilliant and gifted captain Babar Azam told Pakistani reporters that he was looking forward to playing here, that “most of our matches are sold out, which means Indian fans are eager to see up and support us in the stadiums,” social media went into a frenzy. The team was received warmly when they landed in Hyderabad a couple of weeks ago. Indian fans cheered Pakistan in its [warm-up] match against Australia earlier this week – Pakistan lost by 14 runs and a few balls to spare.
Nobody knows – and yet, everyone knows – why Pakistani fans have not been given visas for the ongoing World Cup tournament in India
Virat Kohli is a hero in Pakistan, much like the now-retired cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, when he starred in the last bilateral series between these two sides on Pakistani soil in 2006 – even Musharraf referred to Dhoni’s long hair during a match in Pakistan and the fact he had become a household name. Indian fans have never forgotten how Pakistani shopkeepers and ordinary people greeted them with real warmth, many refusing to accept money for the shopping they did.
An earlier tour by India of Pakistan in 2003 was, of course, made possible by none other than then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose determined peace moves -- despite the fact that he was thwarted again and again by the Kargil conflict and continuing infiltration by terrorists – resulted in a significant opening up of the borders.
That warmth has survived the generations. Last month in Sri Lanka, Pakistani cricketer Shaheen Afridi’s gift to Indian cricketer Jasprit Bumrah on becoming a father had both countries guessing – what was inside that box wrapped in red paper? But there was nothing to beat the real joy on the faces of Indian and Pakistani women cricketers in 2022 when they crowded around the Pakistani skipper Bismah Maroof's newborn baby.
It seems India is the favourite to win this 50-over match in Ahmedabad – in any case, Pakistan has never beaten India in World Cup one-day internationals, although they have played seven times – Pakistan has fared much better in other, non-World Cup one-dayers (beating India 73-56) and Test matches (12-9).
There are rumours that Narendra Modi will fly in from Delhi to watch the match. However, some have expressed concerns that communal tensions could surcharge the city if Pakistan wins the match. It is a thought that surfaces now and then – although that would undermine the reputed control that Modi and BJP's government in Gujarat has over its people. The riots of 2002, in which about a thousand people were killed, mostly Muslim, is a largely suppressed memory.
In any case, the BJP pretty much also controls cricket officialdom – the all-powerful Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI), which makes the rules for this highly lucrative sport. Jay Shah, the Board's powerful secretary-general, is the son of India’s home minister Amit Shah.
Nobody knows – and yet, everyone knows – why Pakistani fans have not been given visas for the ongoing World Cup tournament in India.
Certainly, cricket is being used as a weapon by the Narendra Modi government to drive popularity home in an election year. Commentators are calling it Modi’s “Cricket20” moment, referring to the recent G20 jamboree when leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies showed up in Delhi to applaud Modi and India. When Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese came to India a few months ago, he was taken around the Narendra Modi Stadium with Modi standing next to him on a chariot.
So what happens when you have a very strong Indian team, coupled with the overhang of historic rivalry? The ensuing, raging demand has sent airline tickets, match tickets and hotel accommodation rates through the roof in Ahmedabad – match tickets were sold out in the first hour they were put online, and resales are the price of a small holiday abroad. Fans are believed to be checking into hospitals near the stadium because hotels are either taken or too expensive. The number of private jets expected to fly into Ahmedabad to attend the match has crossed 200. Clearly, the social scene has moved out of Delhi and Mumbai this weekend.
For the next 24 hours, nothing else will matter in India or Pakistan. With 132,000 seats, the world’s largest cricket stadium, the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, will be packed to the gills. At least half a billion people are expected to watch the match online. (I will be there, so watch this space.)
This is not just cricket. The joy spilleth over.
NOTE: This article has been published in collaboration with Awaaz South Asia