Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Serving up a Subcontinental Bridge

When Aisam ul-Haq usually sees a line around him that causes him to wait several hours, it's to go through immigration and customs when entering the U.S. This past week, however, 15,000 fans braved lines and the wait to see the 30-year old Pakistani team up with Rohan Bopanna of India to contest the doubles crown at the US Open in Flushing Meadows. While the duo - codenamed the IndoPak Express - lost to the world's leading doubles players, the Bryan Brothers, in the finals over the weekend, their example was a message to both the people and politicians of the Subcontinent. In their final two matches, the Pakistani and Indian Ambassadors to the United Nations attended, sitting side-by-side. Ambassador Abdullah Hussein Haroon aptly stated:
"They've proven that when Indians and Pakistanis get together we can raise fire. I think on a people-to-people basis, they're setting an example that the politicians should follow."
For Haq, the match was also an opportunity for outreach, given that the incidence of positive news surrounding his native country is scarce. At the end of his final match, he declared over the microphone to the thousands in attendance and others watching in their homes:
"I want to say something on behalf of all Pakistanis. Every time I come here there is a wrong perception of about the people of Pakistan. They are very friendly, very loving people. We want peace in this world as much as you guys."
With grace, sportsmanship, and solid play, Haq is a true ambassador for his country and is already having resonance beyond the world of tennis. Just in the last month, Pakistan has been plagued by natural disasters, political assassinations, sectarian bombings, drone attacks, and the list goes on. He breaks with America's negative perception of his country. Even in the sporting world, in recent weeks, Pakistan has been bogged down in scandal as some of its most prominent cricket players have been accused of taking bribes to fix scoring. It is a difficult position to be in, but Haq is also a role model for  domestically. Another prominent sportsman, Imran Khan, continues to do good work after retirement such as building of Pakistan's largest cancer hospital. Clearly Haq will be a reference point for many in the years to come and that will come with lofty expectations.

Yet, the true potential of the IndoPak Express is in its ability to unite nations that have been divided since 1947. The three entities of the Subcontinent - Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India - are today apart in mindset, politics, and economy, even though they share much across their borders. Partition itself in August 1947 was a particularly bloody affair, with millions of casualties, as Hindus and Muslims tried to cross the borders to end up in the 'right' country. Since then, West and East Pakistan have became two nations (Pakistan and Bangladesh), precipitated by a devastating war replete with the deaths of thousands of innocents (from then East Pakistan). Today's Pakistan remains at a state of conflict with India (even coming on the brink of nuclear war just several years ago). Within Pakistan, although its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, championed the vital position of religious minorities in the state, Hindus have dwindled to below 2% of the total population, and are given scant recognition. In India, there is still systemic disparity in the welfare of the Muslim population and the majority Hindus. Thus, Bopanna - an Indian Hindu - and Haq - a Muslim Pakistani - are a powerful symbol of cooperation and equality across nations and faiths.

India and Pakistan, however, need more than examples and pithy platitudes. While Ambassador Haroon of Pakistan was right that this demonstrates the power of cooperation, it may simply fall on deaf ears. When India's star tennis player, Sania Mirza married Pakistani cricketeer Shoaib Malik earlier this year, they were mired in negative media coverage and even political protests. A senior leader of the BJP, the opposition party in India, Jaswant Singh - and a former Finance Minister - was expelled from the political world when he wrote a nuanced history of partition last year that deviated from the regular dogmatic demonization being the baseline. And let's not forget that even the King of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, was boycotted (and theatres showing his movies firebombed) when he expressed regret that Pakistani cricket players were not chosen for India's professional cricket league. In Pakistan only recently, Bollywood movies were allowed to be imported, and even then under continuing protests and censorship; in Bangladesh such films are still outlawed. Beyond this, much of the media, political world, and policymakers - in India and Pakistan in particular - see the other country in the form of a threat rather than a partner. Even in numbers, trade between the two neighbors barely amounts to much, fluctuating between $1-2 billion annually.

Haq and Bopanna have definitely put an example out there for their compatriots to follow. The debate around the Subcontinent's identity will hopefully come into sharper focus over the next few years. How can it not when the languages, religions, and ethnicities of both cut across the borders? How can it not when hundreds of years of history are shared together?

The blockbuster Bollywood film Veer Zaara about a love story across the divide, and of an Indian prisoner of war stranded for decades in Pakistan concludes with a poignant speech by the P.O.W. played by Shah Rukh Khan on these very points:

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