by Minhaz Merchant

As the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia approaches its climax this weekend, India and Pakistan would have played each other in, among other team sports, hockey and volleyball. Following Imran Khan’s election as Pakistan Prime Minister, a strong lobby has sprung up for resumption of bilateral cricket between India and Pakistan. The argument is simple: we play Pakistan in multilateral sports. Why not bilaterally?

The argument is disingenuous on several counts. Sport has been used successfully by democracies as a weapon against injustice in dictatorial regimes. The West boycotted South African sport to pressurise the white supremacist government to dismantle apartheid. It took over 20 years of sustained sporting and political isolation to finally liberate South Africa from a noxious white racist regime and free Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison. India forfeited the opportunity to win its first Davis Cup tennis trophy when it refused to play South Africa in the 1974 final. South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1970. FIFA, to its credit, expelled South Africa as early as 1963.

With Pakistan, the issue is far more serious. Since 1989, the Pakistani army has used terrorism against India as an instrument of state policy. Thousands of Indian soldiers and civilians have been killed over the past 29 years by Pakistani terror proxies. Why then did India not boycott bilateral cricket with Pakistan till 2012-13? The answer is that India is a soft state. It lives in the hope that diplomacy, people-to-people contacts, trade and other confidence building measures (CBMs) would change Pakistan’s violent behaviour. Through the 1990s and 2000s, leaders across the political spectrum, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Dr. Manmohan Singh, tried to build bridges with Pakistan.

But Pakistan is ruled by an Army that sees India not so much as an existentialist threat, but as a financial resource. The Pakistani Army’s bloated defence budget is nearly 4 per cent of GDP — compared to India’s defence budget of 1.6 per cent of GDP. This can only be justified by setting India up as an existential enemy. Without India, the Pakistani Army’s senior officers, who siphon off large parts of the defence budget, would be forced to consign themselves to a vastly more modest lifestyle.

India’s policy-making establishment, ranging from bureaucrats in the defence ministry and intelligence services to political leaders and elements among armed services officers, has been blind to Pakistani chicanery. Bus trips to Lahore, summits in Agra, invitations to prime ministerial oath-taking in Delhi, and impromptu stopovers in Lahore were met with terror attacks.

The penny began to drop after 2012-13, when the Manmohan Singh government allowed the last bilateral cricket series with Pakistan to take place in India despite strong criticism over Pakistan’s inaction in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. The Congress lost power soon after. Since the NDA government took office in 2014, the question of resuming bilateral matches with Pakistan has been periodically raised by leaders from both the Congress (Rajeev Shukla) and the BJP (Anurag Thakur). The Narendra Modi government has had the good sense to ignore their entreaties. It has not permitted the forthcoming cricket Asia Cup, which features games between India and Pakistan, to be held in India. The United Arab Emirates will host the multilateral contest in September. Pakistan is obsessive about resuming bilateral cricketing ties with India. Its cricket board is bankrupt. No international cricket team has played a Test match in Pakistan since the 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

Proxy terrorism with few casualties among Army regulars, serves the Pakistani army’s purpose of maintaining its centrality within the country and retaining access to financial resources. But Pakistan also craves respectability. It is widely disrespected. Neighbouring Afghanistan despises it. The United States distrusts it. Resuming official talks with India along with bilateral sporting links would afford Pakistan a patina of respectability. For Islamabad, terror and talks are mutually inclusive. The Indian lobby that believes talks will end terror falls into Pakistan’s trap by propagating Islamabad’s fraudulent narrative. The Modi government’s blow hot, blow cold policy on Pakistan has given this narrative fresh legs. By not withdrawing most favoured nation (MFN) status to Pakistan, the government has strengthened the narrative.

Emboldened, the pro-Pakistan lobby in India asks: why boycott only bilateral cricket with Pakistan? Why not ban hockey and other sports as well? In fact, bilateral hockey matches between India and Pakistan have belatedly been put on ice. In most sports, including the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia, India plays Pakistan only multilaterally. Bilateral contests are increasingly rare.

Playing bilateral cricket, hockey and other sports with Pakistan for decades did nothing to stop terror attacks on India. Why would resuming bilateral sports with Pakistan stop terror attacks now? Quite the contrary: Pakistan would gain the respectability and false equivalence with India it craves, without ending its state policy of sponsoring lethal terror attacks against India that suits the Pakistani Army’s pathological agenda.

Pro-Pakistan lobbyists repeat ad nauseam: don’t mix politics and sport. For them, here’s a lesson on the subject from the late Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world. I became president of South Africa because of the sports boycott.”

The writer is the author of The New Clash of Civilisations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century. Views are personal