March 5, 2009

Lessons from Lahore

The notion of cricketers being immune to attacks was a myth that should never have been put to the test

In the subcontinent, "presidential-level security" is a threat not a promise © AFP

The boys from hell are back: sneakers, backpacks, big guns; moving about unmasked in broad daylight in that frank, open way that is their signature style. The Who used to trash their guitars; these boys do people. They brought bigger props to this party: grenades and rocket launchers, apart from the mandatory Kalashnikovs. And this time they didn't hole up and fight; unlike Mumbai, there were no martyr heroics. They did their little gig and melted into the surroundings. They must have felt at home.

It's hard to believe that sane people allowed this tour to go through. Two months ago the Sri Lankan foreign minister allowed the Sri Lankan cricket team to step into the vacuum created by India's cancellation of its tour of Pakistan. "Sport is an effective means of promoting connectivity between nations," he said, "and thereby enhancing friendship and mutual goodwill between countries." His president, Mahinda Rajapakse, asked about that decision after the Lahore shooting, condemned "the cowardly attack" from Nepal, where he was visiting. The two of them had sanctioned the tour in December, immediately after Ajmal Kasab and his friends had rampaged through Mumbai. What were they thinking?

Perhaps they were returning the favour Pakistan did them in that long ago World Cup when India and Pakistan sent a joint team to play an exhibition match to show South Asian solidarity after the Australians refused to tour, citing their fear of a Tamil terrorist strike. Or it could be that having played nearly all their international cricket at home in the shadow of civil war and terrorist violence, the Sri Lankans empathised with Pakistan's predicament more than India and Australia did.

Perhaps it was the useful myth that cricket was the most powerful religion there was in the subcontinent, that cricketers were sacred beings, that never once in all the years that the Tamil Tigers had fought the Sri Lankan state had international cricket been targeted, that gave Rajapakse the courage to say yes? If it was, he should have known better: enabling myths aren't iron laws. They're not meant to be tested. The worst thing that had ever happened to an international fixture in South Asia before had been Bal Thackeray's goons digging up the pitch in Mumbai in 1999. Now that feels like a droll piece of gardening.

I thought the English tour of India in the wake of the Mumbai killings was a bad idea. When that carnage started, the English team were in Orissa for the ODI series. They had been staying at the Taj not so long ago and the shock of the thought that it could have been them trapped in the hotel was written plainly on their faces. The truth is that international cricket matches are custom-made theatres for terrorist violence. They're advertised weeks in advance, cricket grounds are often situated in the middle of uncontrollable human traffic, and for crazies like Kasab and company the prospect of live coverage for carnage is probably irresistible. When the English team returned for the Test series, I kept my fingers crossed for that entire tour. It went off safely but it should never have happened.

The Pakistan high commissioner in Britain appeared on BBC television. When he was asked to explain why the terrorists in Lahore breached the security cordon so easily, he said, sounding for all the world like a middle-school debater, that just as British intelligence and security hadn't been able to prevent the Underground bombings and the Indian intelligence services hadn't foreseen the Mumbai attack, for those same reasons the Pakistani security apparatus had been unable to forestall the Lahore strike. Without making India's security preparedness seem better than it is, it's worth pointing out that there's a difference between securing a whole city because you don't know what might be attacked and securing a cricket team's route from its hotel to the cricket ground when you know that your sole job is to protect that team.

International cricket matches are custom-made theatres for terrorist violence. They're advertised weeks in advance, cricket grounds are often situated in the middle of uncontrollable human traffic, and for crazies like Kasab and company the prospect of live coverage for carnage is probably irresistible

Why did the Pakistan government roll the dice? Given the Marriott bombing, the troubles with the Taliban in recent times, why did it entrust the team's security to the Punjab Police instead of handing it over to commandos trained in some specialised way? After Mumbai, after Pakistan's own recent history, and given how much was at stake, why did the Pakistani state risk a replay of this familiar subcontinental tableau: untrained policemen being mowed down by professionally trained terrorists?

There's something fundamentally unserious about this Pakistani dispensation. Its recent history reads like a soap opera about a banana republic: shady widower propelled to the presidency on the back of his bereavement gets pliant judges to disqualify his main political opponents. It's beyond satire. Some of this unseriousness seemed to have leaked into the security for this tour. It's as if the army has been the grown-up in Pakistani politics for so long that civilian politics has been infantilised.

Indians will soon be given an opportunity to measure the maturity of their own politicians. Immediately after the Lahore attack, India's home minister, P Chidambaram, told a television channel that the second season of the Indian Premier League should be postponed because it coincided with the national elections, and sharing security between the polls and the IPL would stretch the country's security resources.

On cue, spokespersons for the IPL turned up on television to explain how necessary it was that the league go on as planned with minor changes to accommodate election dates and how simply this could be done. We'll hear much more of the same from these worthies in the weeks to come because several television networks and newspapers have contractual links with individual IPL franchises and a stake in the second season.

If the organisers of the IPL and their business partners have any sense, they'll make no move to press the government to revise its view on the postponement. I write this as a lover of cricket. If a perceived stretching of security resources to accommodate the IPL were to lead to a terrorist breach of the peace during the elections, India would become a cricketing pariah. India is the economic engine of the global game: if it were to go the Pakistani way, international cricket as we know it would be subverted. Worse, if the corporate business of cricket is seen to put the basic processes of democracy at risk, the pure, obsessive love that Indians have for this game will be alloyed by bitterness and controversy about greed and recklessness. We've all been put on notice by the tragedy in Lahore: after such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi.