What we heard this week, in a figurative sense, was not just the crackling of the fireworks that lit the Dubai sky to launch the Pakistan Super League carnival. There have been explosions of a different kind that would tend to distract our attention from the breathtaking spectacle of PSL cricket. As a result, we cannot be sure if this is the time for fun and games or deep concern about rising tensions in this jinxed South Asian region.
Our passion for cricket is unbounded. Imran Khan’s ascendancy in politics is an acknowledgement of what a cricketing star can achieve with his World Cup charisma. This is the only international sport that excites the imagination of our youth. And this fourth season of the PSL has generated unprecedented interest, and has the impact of a national celebration.
Hence, the suicide explosion on Thursday at Pulwama in Indian-held Kashmir is an unwelcome interference in this short period that we were hoping to enjoy the games with all their spectacular trappings. A kind of match-fixing by fate, one might say.
This does not mean, though, that there will be any actual disruption in the game and the frenzy that is building up. The opening ceremony on Thursday was extravagant. It even had the world famous Boney M, with the chartbuster of all time, ‘Daddy Cool’. There were performances of some of our top stars who, apparently, were not that great. Each of the 34 Twenty20 matches will present high drama. Eight of them, including the March 17 final, will be played in Pakistan. The tempo is bound to rise.
But the terror attack in Indian-held Kashmir, in which as many as 44 Indian security personnel were killed, is a very serious matter and will have consequences in the context of the forever problematic relations between India and Pakistan. The entire world is baffled by the hostility that exists between these two countries which are also alike in some ways. It is this bondage that also makes an India-Pakistan cricket match so exciting.
Talking of explosions, there was another this week that should also reverberate in our minds. On Wednesday, at least 27 Revolutionary Guards were killed and 20 were wounded in a suicide attack in southeastern Iran, in the province of Sistan-Baluchestan. It is a volatile area with a large Sunni Muslim ethnic Baloch community that straddles the border with Pakistan.
In this suicide attack, a car filled with explosives blew up beside a bus carrying a unit of the guards. It happened on the Khash-Zahedan Road. There had been another incident in Zahedan, the capital of the Sistan-Baluchestan province, on January 29, when three members of an Iranian bomb squad were wounded while trying to defuse a device.
Obviously, we are located in a danger zone and the focus on national security has increased at a time when a number of domestic issues remain unresolved. An important political development this week was the bail granted to the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif, by the Lahore High Court. He was facing two references filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).
Not surprisingly, the federal cabinet that met on Thursday expressed its dissatisfaction over the Lahore High Court decision and urged NAB to file an appeal against it. In his press conference, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had some harsh words about NAB’s accountability process.
“It is ironic that both Shahbaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari who had [allegedly] committed billions of rupees corruption are moving like free men while a poor person is jailed for two years for stealing a bird”, he complained.
There is some clarity on the economic front after the meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde. Pakistan is now set to enter its 13th Fund programme, and statements following the meeting suggest that Pakistan will have to accept some tough conditions in return for a bailout.
We do not know how the policies of this government in the economic and political domain will be affected if tensions between India and Pakistan escalate in the wake of the Pulwama attack. According to Indian reports, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had claimed responsibility for the vile deed. India was quick to link the incident with Pakistan and vowed retaliation.
Worryingly, while condemning the attack, the US singled out Pakistan in its statement late Thursday night even though the investigation is in its preliminary stages. “The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence and terror in the region”, agency reports said.
Islamabad had strongly rejected any insinuation that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without any evidence. “We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world”, the Foreign Office said.
In New Delhi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in a press conference on Friday that the Indian cabinet had decided to initiate steps to ensure complete diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. The jingoist campaign against Pakistan is high-pitched and venomous. Barkha Dutt, in her opinion piece in ‘The Washington Post’, has asserted that “everything will change after this”.
What will certainly change is the prospect of talks between the two South Asian neighbours, including with reference to the opening of the Kartarpur border for Sikh pilgrims. In recent weeks, international concerns regarding the situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir were seen to be rising as India continued to use force against the Kashmiri people.
In the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama explosion, a round of feverish activity began in the diplomatic arena. Pakistan’s high commissioner to India was summoned by the Indian external affairs ministry and issued a “strong demarche” in connection with the attack. Also on Friday, Indian high commissioner to Pakistan was recalled by New Delhi for consultations.
In Islamabad, the Foreign Office summoned the Indian acting deputy high commissioner to protest his country’s “baseless allegations” against Pakistan.
We are acquainted with this drill during similar confrontations in the past. Still, this new conflagration could be very unsettling. The forthcoming elections in India will likely prompt a more virulent campaign against Pakistan. Already, the ruling BJP has exploited Hindutva emotions to its electoral advantage. After Thursday’s explosion, other parties will probably be obliged to join the chorus.
In Pakistan, Imran Khan’s government is still struggling to find its feet. It has moved ahead in some directions when it comes to foreign policy. But, despite its comfortable position, the PTI leadership will be sorely tested by this crisis.
The writer is a senior journalist.