How Cricket Is Easing India-Pakistan Tensions
Pakistani cricketers arrive in India for the first time in seven years—but they almost didn’t make it.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The Pakistani cricket team visits India in a rare bilateral achievement, a terrorist attack in Baluchistan with troubling implications, a pro-China candidate wins the Maldives election, and more.
Cricket Comity Offers a Respite From India-Pakistan Tensions
Last Wednesday, Pakistan’s national cricket team arrived in India for the 2023 Cricket World Cup, which is hosted by India this year and runs from Thursday through Nov. 19. The Pakistanis received a warm welcome, with a cheering crowd massing outside the Hyderabad airport. It’s the first time in seven years that Pakistani cricketers have set foot on Indian soil. They play India on Oct. 14 in Ahmedabad.
These developments are quite remarkable, given how tense relations are between India and Pakistan—and given that the Pakistani team nearly didn’t make it to India.
Visas were issued to the Pakistanis just hours before they traveled to India. Neither the International Cricket Council, to which the Pakistan Cricket Board appealed for assistance, nor Indian officials gave explanations for the delay. It was likely intense screening: Three Indian ministries had to approve the visas. Incidentally, there were also cricket tensions in September: India’s cricket team declined to visit Pakistan last month for the Asia Cup tournament, even though Pakistan was host. An arrangement was worked out for India to play in Sri Lanka instead.
India-Pakistan relations, fragile even in the best of times, have been especially strained since 2019. That year, in February, Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terror group, attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy in India-administered Kashmir, killing 44 security personnel and prompting retaliatory Indian airstrikes in Pakistan. Then, that August, New Delhi revoked the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir, a move bitterly rejected by Islamabad.
A 2021 cease-fire along the Line of Control reduced cross-border violence and eased tensions a bit. Today, with both sides badly wanting to focus on other matters—in Pakistan’s case, a worsening economy, and in India’s case, an increasing challenge from China along its northern border—neither has an interest in fresh escalations. In March 2022, an Indian missile flew 77 miles into Pakistan—a technical malfunction from routine maintenance, insisted New Delhi. Tellingly, Pakistan reacted with restraint, condemning the incident but moving on. It was an indication that Islamabad had no interest in picking a new fight.
And yet, while India and Pakistan have a strategic interest in relations not getting worse, they arguably have a political interest in relations not getting better. Both countries have elections next year, and neither government has an incentive to extend an olive branch. This is especially true for New Delhi; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sailed to reelection in 2019 after using the military crisis with Pakistan earlier that year to bash Islamabad on the campaign trail.
Furthermore, each side still insists on preconditions for formal dialogue that won’t be met anytime soon. Islamabad insists New Delhi must change its policies in Kashmir, including reversing the decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy. India won’t do so. New Delhi demands Islamabad do more to crack down on India-focused terrorists on its soil. Islamabad contends there is no such threat, a claim rejected by New Delhi.
People-to-people ties have become a casualty of these tensions over the last four years. Many times in the more distant past, even when relations were tense, there was limited trade and joint civil society initiatives, including journalist exchanges. There is much less of that today. Even during the pandemic and after Pakistan’s catastrophic 2022 floods, the two sides refused to reopen border trade to ease humanitarian distress.
This is why the Pakistani cricket team’s visit to India marks a rare bilateral achievement. But its visa troubles and some Indians’ opposition to the visit underscore the difficulties of producing even modest forms of trust-building.
Meanwhile, reminders about the relationship’s fragilities are never far away. On Friday, terrorists attacked a religious procession in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, killing at least 59. Pakistan’s interim interior minister accused Indian intelligence of involvement. Islamabad often accuses India of complicity in terrorism in Pakistan, though less so in recent months, perhaps in an effort to avoid inflaming tensions. But Canada’s recent allegations of Indian involvement in the killing of a Sikh separatist may have emboldened Islamabad—which typically doesn’t get much sympathy from the West for its own allegations against India—to change course.
Islamabad’s accusation will do nothing to lower the temperature in a relationship that will remain fraught, despite some welcome cricket comity.
What We’re Following
A Pakistani terror attack with troubling implications. The attack in Baluchistan on Friday stands out in ways that go beyond its large death toll. The perpetrators targeted people participating in a procession to mark the birthdate of the Prophet Mohammed. For several decades, terrorists have targeted religious sites and activities in Pakistan. However, over the last two years, since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan brought spikes in attacks in Pakistan carried out by the Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban (TTP), most terrorist assaults in the country have targeted police and soldiers. But the Friday blast reflects a new trend of assailants targeting civilians; civilian casualties in terrorist attacks doubled between August and September.
Additionally, no one took responsibility for Friday’s blast. The two main perpetrators of terrorism in Pakistan—the TTP, which claims it doesn’t target civilians, and the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K)—typically take credit for attacks soon after they happen. The lack of a claim this time around will heighten Pakistanis’ unease about a resurging terrorist threat, and it will give more credence to those—including the Pakistani government—that maintain India was involved in the attack. Of course, the TTP could have carried it out and preferred not to take public credit for an attack on civilians. But the IS-K, which rejects religious celebrations like Friday’s, is the most likely perpetrator.
Pro-China candidate wins Maldives election. Opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu won the presidential election in the Maldives, emerging with 54 percent of the vote, according to the country’s electoral commission. The victory of Muizzu, who wants deeper ties with China, means the Maldives will continue a pattern seen over the last 15 years: successive presidents taking contrasting positions on India-China competition. Election loser and current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih strengthened ties with New Delhi, while his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, did the same with Beijing. Yameen’s predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, embraced New Delhi.
Muizzu poses a considerable challenge for New Delhi. Not only does he call for better relations with Beijing, but he has also taken a confrontational position toward New Delhi. His “India out” campaign vows to expel the Indian military presence from the Maldives. There are about 75 Indian troops in the country. Their mission, according to India, is to maintain and operate two helicopters and an airplane gifted to the Maldives.
In reality, though, Muizzu is unlikely to pursue a policy that alienates New Delhi. India is an important trade partner relative to China: The value of India’s imports from the Maldives is about 12 times the value of China’s. India has also provided Malé with $500 million in assistance for a large connectivity project now under development. New Delhi will hope that Muizzu’s “India out” policy was more a political gambit meant to get votes than a policy intention. The example of Yameen might be instructive. Yameen, a Muizzu political ally who launched the campaign last year before being jailed on corruption charges, took a less confrontational position toward New Delhi when he was president than the “India out” campaign may suggest.
Afghan Embassy shuttered in New Delhi. Last weekend, the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, which has been led by officials loyal to the Afghan government removed by the Taliban in 2021, issued a statement saying that the embassy would close effective Oct. 1 because of a lack of support from India. The embassy said the Indian government will take control of the facility in a caretaker capacity.
This incident is a window into the strikingly pragmatic position that New Delhi has taken toward the Taliban since they seized power. During the non-Taliban era, India was one of Afghanistan’s closest partners and provided large amounts of development and economic assistance to the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani administrations. It took a confrontational stance toward the Taliban, which were allied with Pakistan during the years of the U.S.-led war and maintained friendly relations with India-focused terror groups.
However, over the last two years, Indian officials have held several meetings with Taliban leaders, and in June 2022 New Delhi reopened its embassy in Kabul, though it hasn’t formally recognized the Taliban administration. Against this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that the Indian government would not go out of its way to embrace the non-Taliban Afghans running the embassy. In private conversations, Indian officials say they’re still figuring out what their policy toward Taliban-led Afghanistan will be. But it’s clear they’ve decided, at the least, to avoid open contention.
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Under the Radar
Last week, Nepal’s prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as “Prachanda,” made a weeklong visit to China. He traveled there directly from New York, where he had attended the U.N. General Assembly meetings. Prachanda met with both the Chinese premier and president, with infrastructure and connectivity key topics of discussion. Kathmandu and Beijing agreed to accelerate cooperation on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and a joint statement spoke of collaborations on projects ranging from expanded air travel to cross-border power transmission lines.
The timing of the trip is notable. It comes just weeks after Nepal formally implemented an infrastructure grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which U.S. officials have publicly described as part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Nepal’s fears of getting dragged into India-China competition were in part behind its parliament’s delay in ratification of the grant for several years. But with Kathmandu now having formally signed on, Prachanda will want to reassure Beijing that it’s not drifting too close to Washington and reassert Nepal’s nonaligned, neutral position toward India-China competition. Also, Prachanda’s eight-day stay—a long working visit abroad for a head of government—sends a strong message about Kathmandu’s commitment to its relationship with Beijing, which was designated as a strategic partnership in 2019.
A Daily Star editorial discusses a new Transparency International Bangladesh report that finds Bangladesh’s Parliament spent more time on “self-praise” than on debating and formulating laws: “It is distressing to see the widening gulf between what people expect from parliament and what our parliamentarians actually deliver.”
Former Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi laments in Dawn that Pakistan’s caretaker government, which is meant to be apolitical, is getting too caught up in politics: “Ministers should steer clear of commenting on political issues, pontificating on foreign policy and desist from seeking pointless publicity all the time.”
Researcher Pratyoush Onta writes in the Kathmandu Post on whether English should be the required language for university exams in Nepal: “Students should have the freedom to write their exams and theses in the language in which they are most proficient, especially if that language is going to be their first working language when they … seek professional jobs.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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