Mar 7, 2009

Let’s honour the Lankans

By Kamran Rehmat
Jayawardene was then the Sri Lankan president and the teardrop was actually the map of his island nation, which was bleeding from a debilitating insurgency.
In Lahore on Tuesday, another Jayawardene was leading the Sri Lankans. This time it was the cricket team. His performance was to be his swansong as captain and the island-nation’s team came perilously close to becoming a teardrop – albeit for Pakistan.
One has come across many people, not all of them with even a nodding acquaintance with cricket, since the events of Tuesday, who have shed tears at what happened at the Liberty roundabout in Lahore. Others who were more tuned in to the intricacies of what brought the Lankans to Pakistan looked on with disbelief as the terrorists struck, for they knew what this would portend for Pakistan – and Pakistani cricket, in particular.
There was a collective sigh of relief when the visitors returned home ‘in one piece’ as a jaded Jayawardene told reporters at the Bandaranaike International Airport upon arrival.
To begin with the ‘Pearl Island’ – as Sri Lanka is popularly known – showed great character in the face of intense pressure from India not to tour Pakistan after Islamabad reached out to Colombo following the cancellation of the Indian cricket team’s scheduled tour of Pakistan last January. According to news reports, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee tried his best to nudge Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa into declining Islamabad’s request to fill the void left by New Delhi’s refusal to send over its team.
In the heat of the Mumbai mania – not to forget the geographical disposition of India vis-à-vis Sri Lanka – it was not an easy decision to make. However, Rajapaksa managed the diplomatic tightrope walk with grace. Although India succeeded in driving a wedge in the originally drafted series of three Test matches, five ODIs and a Twenty20 in Pakistan, Colombo did not turn its back on Islamabad. There is a bit of history involved in the Sri Lankan gesture of solidarity with Pakistan.
Sri Lanka won Test status in 1982 primarily due to a support campaign spearheaded by Pakistan. The people of Sri Lanka still remember with fondness how a combined team from Pakistan and India played friendly matches on the island to show solidarity with them when some teams, led by Australia, refused to play there during the 1996 World Cup.
But most of all, they have not forgotten how Pakistanis swarmed the Gaddafi Stadium with Sri Lankan flags to support them when, as poetic justice would have it, Australia had to face Arjuna Ranatunga’s tigers in the final of that World Cup in Lahore. No prizes for guessing who won.
But Sri Lanka’s ties with Pakistan go beyond a game both nations love and consider second only to religion. Sri Lanka’s geographical ties with India which has led to the latter being accused of fomenting the secessionist campaign of the LTTE through a sea route at the tip of the island in Jaffna has always been an albatross around Colombo’s neck. Subsequent Indian involvement – a result of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send peacekeeping troops to the island under an agreement with Colombo – gave rise to bitter resentment among the Sri Lankans, who felt that the action compromised their sovereignty. The agreement unravelled in due course with Gandhi paying with his life in a suicide attack in India.
All this while, Pakistan not only lent diplomatic support to Colombo but also provided military assistance. Even though they are not geographically linked, the Sri Lankans have since embraced Pakistanis – and not the Indians – as their neighbours of choice.
It is a measure of how much the Sri Lankans value this relationship that, despite the dastardly act by militants on Tuesday, no official in Colombo, no member of Sri Lanka’s cricket board, no player in the Jayawardene-led team that returned home after a miraculous escape, no one from the intelligentsia or among ordinary fans has reacted to the horrific event with anger. After all, it would have been perfectly justifiable to do so. This amazing grace should not go unnoticed.
If the Pakistani government has a conscience – doubtful given the brazen lapses in security at its end – it should immediately move to honour the Sri Lankan team with at least the Nishan-i-Shujaat (Order of Bravery). This is the least the Government of Pakistan can do after letting the moment to offer an official apology to Sri Lanka pass.
The incident is nothing short of a national shame for us regardless of the nature of the beast that we are dealing with, especially given the fact that intelligence about the possibility, style and even the route likely to be used for such an attack was available as far back as January this year.
President Zardari can be sure that even a belated step such as awarding the Nishan-i-Shujaat to the Sri Lankan team would be much more welcomed by Pakistanis than, say, awarding the Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam to the likes of Richard Boucher for his ‘services’ in boosting ties with Islamabad.
A deadly missile attack on Pakistani soil by US forces less than 24 hours after receiving the honour with the portrait of Jinnah in the background was Mr Boucher’s chosen expression of gratitude.
We can be certain that the Sri Lankans would be more considerate and we may be able to even retain more than just a sporting contact with the islanders. So let’s hail the heroes with the award on March 23, along with our own policemen who lost their lives in the line of duty on March 3.

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