India, Pakistan Engage In 'Cricket Diplomacy'

Teams from India and Pakistan face each other Wednesday in the semifinal Cricket World Cup match. Social historian Mukul Kesavan talks to Steve Inskeep about whether the game is the right time to conduct diplomacy between the two arch-rivals.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The old maxim says that war is politics by other means. In the Indian subcontinent today, cricket is politics by other means. India is playing its bitter rival, Pakistan, in a sport that captivates both countries. The prime ministers of the two countries have vowed to watch the game together.

Now, this kind of cricket match happens every so often and often generates hopeful news stories, but social historian Mukul Kesavan is not so hopeful. He's on the line from New Delhi.

Welcome to the program.

Professor MUKUL KESAVAN (Social History, Jamia Milia Islamia University): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention for people who didn't see it that in the Economic Times in India, you wrote that: There is nothing good about a cricket game between India and Pakistan? Why not?

Prof. KESAVAN: What I meant by that is that cricket games between India and Pakistan tend to be so fraught with national feeling. And its national feeling that is of a strange Balkan thought, because it's not a republican nationalism. Its nationalism based upon notions of partition, and irredentism, and war, and blood and soil.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people that India and Pakistan were split in 1947 when they both gained their independence from Britain. It was one, effectively one country before that.

Prof. KESAVAN: That's right, and we've fought three wars since. So cricket matches, especially the short form of the game - though it still takes seven hours - they tend to sort of compress and magnify this rivalry within a sporting context. So I watch every ball of every match. But at the end of it I'm completely wrung out. If my team lost, I'm filled with a kind of poisonous bad feeling; and this, despite the fact that I now that I should be grown up and adult about this.

INSKEEP: So you don't get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling that Indians and Pakistanis are sharing the same field and in the same stadium, and playing a game together? You don't get any of that feeling.

Prof. KESAVAN: Warm, fuzzy feelings are generally absent. Though I can - to be fair, I can remember a couple of occasions when there was that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling of two neighbors sharing a cricket field. But both those previous occasions happened when India and Pakistan were playing that much more leisurely version of the game, where one match occurs over five days. So there's plenty of room to let passions and tensions dissipate.

INSKEEP: What has happened in the past when India and Pakistan have played this kind of cricket match?

Prof. KESAVAN: Well, I remember a time when India and Pakistan used to play annual series, not in either India or Pakistan, but on neutral ground. And the only connection that had with sport was the kind of connection that a Roman circus had with sport; it was literally war without the actual shooting.

Prof. KESAVAN: I'm actually watching the game on television. My son, however, who's managed to wrangle himself a ticket, has taken a bus to Mohali where the match is happening. And he finds himself in there watching it.

INSKEEP: Are you concerned at all for him?

Prof. KESAVAN: No, I'm not concerned at all. It's not dangerous in that sense. I mean Indians and Pakistanis - whenever they meet socially - fraternize in a perfectly friendly way. And one of the reasons I think why you have this prime minister meeting occurring in Mohali, which is in the Punjab, is that oddly enough both the prime ministers of India and Pakistan are in fact from Punjab.

INSKEEP: I just have one other question for you, Mr. Kesavan, as you understand the rules of cricket far better than I. Is it in any way possible that the two teams could end up with a tie?

Prof. KESAVAN: Yes, it's completely possible.

INSKEEP: Perhaps you could hope for that. I wonder what that would do to the poisonous, bad feeling.

Prof. KESAVAN: Well, actually given that this is a knockout round, they would have to play a kind of tiebreaker. So I hope it doesn't come to that.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Kesavan, thanks very much.

Prof. KESAVAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Mukul Kesavan is the author of "Men in White: A Book on Cricket."

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