World Cup healing?

Dr Asim Sajjad Akhtar

MUCH has been made of the uncanny similarities between Pakistan’s ongoing Cricket World Cup campaign and the ultimately successful side captained by the current prime minister in 1992. Then too, the team had a pretty dismal start and Pakistani fans had given up on it halfway through the tournament. Cue Imran Khan’s famous cornered tiger’s mantra, some inspired performances, a healthy dose of good luck, and a few wins later Pakistan were world champions. We will know in a few days whether the current vintage will repeat the dose, but it is indicative of how far professional sport, cri­cket included, has evolved in the ensuing three decades that the teams Pakistan must beat to have a chance of winning the tournament are Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The two countries weren’t even on the roster in 1992.

For most Pakistanis, it scarcely matters who we have to get past to keep the victory march alive. For me personally — and I daresay at least some others in this land of the pure — the fact that the World Cup schedule has thrown up must-win matches with Afghanistan and Bangladesh engenders a whole lot gamut of emotions that transcend just a desire for victory.

During the 1992 World Cup campaign, I was a teenager growing up as part of the Pakistani diaspora. I was discovering my anti-establishment self, but I had as yet not been exposed to revisionist narratives of Pak­istan’s political economy and history. Today, I am a profoundly different being, unable to return to the ignorance of teen-hood, and feel a deep connection with Afghans, Bangla­deshis, Pakistanis and anyone else who has a commitment to speaking truth to power.

The imperative of truth and reconciliation cannot be denied.

That Afghanistan is playing a Cricket World Cup is itself a remarkable feat. Large parts of the country remain in the throes of violence, more than four decades of virtually uninterrupted war having decimated an imitable culture. Pakistan is of course home to arguably the biggest Afghan refugee population in the world, the status of which continues to engender substantial controversy in the Pakistani polity. Most significantly, the establishment has long coveted so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghan­istan. Many believe that our strategic planners have now abandoned the hare-brained desire to simulate a sovereign country as a fifth province. Yet for as long as this policy has remained intact, it has caused incredible pain and suffering to Afghans, and, as the PTM has demonstrated, to generations of Pakhtuns on our own side of the Durand Line.

Sadly, recent events suggest that intelligent and independent-minded young people who seek to move on from the history of endless war and indoctrination are still considered a threat to Pakistan’s ‘security’ in the highest echelons of power. The fact that social and corporate media alike are awash with conspiracy theories about foreign intelligence agencies — Afghan and otherwise — confirms that much has yet to change.

When Pakistan plays Afghanistan in the World Cup, perhaps such propaganda will subside for a few hours, and we can be reminded that healing is the only way for societies to move on from the realpolitiking of states. Those who call for truth and reconciliation are right to reject a never-ending spiral of hate and suspicion. It is another matter altogether whether the moral force being exerted by brave and principled voices of peace in both Afghanistan and Pakistan will compel those who wield power to truly move on from the past.

And then there is Bangladesh. It is remarkable that almost 50 years after the fact, the majority of Pakistanis — who were of course born long after the secession of the eastern wing — are virtually clueless about the shared histories of Pakis­tan and Bangla­desh, and particularly what drove Bengali-majority East Pakistan to move on from the project of Pakistani nationhood.

This too is a story full of pain and suffering, and successive generations of Bangladeshis have certainly imbibed their fair share of pain given that their country’s official historiography emphasises bloody national liberation. Yet ordinary Bangladeshis and Pakistan can find much common cause, and at an individual level, many have done so.

But scaling up, the imperative of truth and reconciliation cannot be denied — our history books still require rewriting and there must be a serious reckoning with the exclusionary nature of official nationalism and Pakistan’s political economy more generally (both causes of the eastern wing’s secession). Meanwhile, Bangladeshi society too remains mired in a seemingly unending battle about the legacy of national liberation and the attribution of responsibility on ‘collaborators’.

In the days after the World Cup is over, we Pakistanis will not recall the games with Afghanistan and Bangladesh more than any other. We will celebrate a win, and lament a loss. One hopes that whatever happens, these two games kick-start a long process of healing that all players desperately need. The opinion piece was first published in Dawn, June 28th, 2019