Mar 5, 2009

Illusion and reality

By Asha’ar Rehman

This spring day, Lahore says it with flowers again. The green patch at the centre of the Liberty Roundabout is thronged with hundreds of the city’s residents who are there to pay their respects to the memory of the six policemen who laid down their lives in trying to thwart an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on Tuesday.
All these wreaths create a mosaic of colours; it is an expression of gratitude, a symbol that the sacrifice will not go waste — a symbol more of hope than belief?
The Lahoris are becoming used to offering such token gifts to their departed heroes. The scene at Liberty is sadly reminiscent of similar acts of thanksgiving after more than 20 policemen died in a suicide bomb attack at the GPO Square close to the Lahore High Court in January 2008.
The pain has been experienced all over every time there has been a terrorist strike in the city. And while not all optimists have been forced to give up, there is eeriness in the city that clings unsurely to a lifestyle perfected diligently over a long period.
It was once possible for a prime minister to slip into his whites and play some cricket at the Lahore Gymkhana. It was once possible for the Sri Lankans to take home fond memories of a Lahore that had seen them beat the mighty Australians in a World Cup final in front of a partisan crowd that cheered the underdogs on right until the final run was scored. Over time, the fundamentals of terror threaten to snatch from us the valued bits that make up our lives.
The spectators stopped going to the Gaddafi Stadium a few years ago to avoid the unwelcome sensation of being frisked by the law-enforcers. Practically nothing was allowed in since what constituted a weapon depended on the fancy of the policeman guarding the entrance to the stadium.
This sense of insecurity took the mela part out and left the experience bland. And consequently, as the crowds thinned, the organisers could think of nothing better than cajoling and coercing groups of schoolchildren into bringing some energy to the empty stands. Even this ultimate official resort was rarely successful and many a stellar performance on the field took place with only a dog and a few policemen in attendance.
Then the foreign teams refused to visit the country leading to a prolonged lull. The Sri Lankans were an exception. They decided to come largely due to the personal friendship of and mutual respect between Javed Miandad and Arjuna Ranatunga, both of whom had quit their jobs with their respective cricket boards by the time the tour materialised. The Lankans kept the promise made by Ranatunga bravely and their resolve to complete the job was only thwarted by a beastly act of terrorism on Tuesday.
The saddest part is that the dastardly act may have been facilitated by laxity on the part of the hosts. The feeling is that security was relaxed since it was presumed that, one, anyone who was willing to visit the country without much fuss must have thought that he was in no way threatened by the extremists and, two, there was this notion that cricket being so popular here, no one would ever try to disrupt the game.
The policemen who died defending the Sri Lankan cricketers sort of camouflage the real issue. Their sacrifice and the fact that, barring a few injuries, the Lankans survived intact creates a false impression as if the security in place did what it was supposed to do. Yes, lives were saved, and God be thanked for that, but the terrorists were able to do irreparable damage before they fled.
The Lankan guests had asked for a tightening of security, and newspapers have reported that the alarm had been raised much earlier. Yet, on the fateful day, a group of terrorists was allowed to collect at the Liberty Square, and allowed to run away without hindrance. The escape is as disastrous for the state of Pakistan’s future interaction with other countries as was the violence which preceded it.
It could be that the administration here didn’t apply the same standards of protection to Mahela Jayawerdene as they would have to a Ricky Ponting or a Mahindra Singh Dhoni. This was a serious lapse since much more than the future of Pakistani cricket, the very image of the country and its survival as a multicultural entity was so heavily dependent on a successful — and peaceful — series against the Sri Lankans.
There is a case for bringing a basic change in our thinking. The long-held belief that no terrorist can penetrate the ranks of the people to threaten something as universally loved as cricket died a sudden death at the Liberty Roundabout on Tuesday. The happy illusion is no more. The terrorists, who gorily compliment each other whichever group they may belong to, are out to strike not just at how we practise our politics or how we run the affairs of our country. They seek to destroy our lifestyle, our life.
Our schools have been burnt and our theatres have been bombed. Individuals showing dissent towards the narrow interpretation championed by the gun-wielders have been silenced. Cultural diversity bred by centuries of coexistence is no longer only frowned upon but quelled
with violent force. With so many vital parts of our existence under threat, it was only a matter of time before cricket also fell prey to the extremists.
Nothing holds sway over Pakistani households as does cricket. It is perfectly normal for a Pakistani man belonging to any age group to abruptly get up from his seat and start essaying a cricket shot in a room full of people. The local writers frequently use cricketing terminology to drive home a point.
When the wily politician cannot use a crowd of cricket enthusiasts inside a stadium to raise his slogans, he is likely to be found busy heading the organising committee for a local cricket tournament. Indeed, there have been invitations to settle old interstate issues with a game of cricket and cricket diplomacy has been credited with averting a war between Pakistan and India.
Pakistanis do not love cricket, they live it, and, to let a secret out, it is cricket they have been finding a refuge in whenever the news coverage of politics and war on terror has become intolerable. The mixing of the game and violence leaves them and the culture they have built so assiduously deeply scarred.

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