When teams entered the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony Sunday in New Delhi, the biggest cheer of the night – after India – was reserved for Pakistan.
As sustained applause rang out across the stadium, with much of the 50,000-strong audience on their feet, at least a few spectators on both sides of the border wondered: Could this be a sign that it’s time to end the conflict that has plagued relations since the birth of both countries, for once and for all?
“It was a spontaneous cheer that no one expected, and shows that a bond exits,” says Suhasini Haidar, anchor and deputy foreign editor with India’s CNN subsidiary, CNN-IBN.
Doubling up on diplomacy
Many stumbling blocks remain in their volatile bilateral relationship, not least of all the recent admission by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Pakistani authorities trained militants to fight in India in the disputed Kashmir region. Still, athletes and sports spectators alike have recently spoken of goodwill during the Commonwealth Games as a possible step toward a new, improved relationship.
“Whenever I have come here, people have showered me with love and support. Playing here is like playing at home for me,” Pakistani tennis player Aqeel Khan told a local newsagency on Monday.
His teammate Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi is perhaps Pakistan’s strongest medal hope, after reaching the final of the US Open tennis men’s doubles this year. In an indication of just how positive cross-border ties can yield results, Mr. Qureshi’s partner at the September tournament in New York was India’s Rohan Bopanna.
“People seem to think that bad relations at a government level means bad relations across the board,” says Ms. Haidar, the news anchor. “But as someone who travels often to Pakistan and lives here, it’s not something I see translating on the ground. In fact it’s quite the opposite.”
Tensions run deep
However, Suba Chandran, the deputy director of Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, is somewhat more cynical. He points out that the same goodwill was shown a few years ago in Karachi during a cricket match between India and Pakistan, when local spectators gave the Indian team a standing ovation after its win.
Mr. Chandran insists that while Indians and Pakistanis might display warm feelings for each other during times of relative peace, everything changes in the immediate aftermath of an incident such as a terrorist attack. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the border region of Kashmir and tensions run deep, he says.
“Nothing sticks. The bonhomie or good relationship, or negative attitudes, never stay for a long time. That is why governments never get influenced by public opinion [in terms of their Indo-Pak policies].”
Musharraf confirms training militant groups
Indeed, Sunday’s applause may have been a little more muted had Pakistan’s former leader Mr. Musharraf chosen to reveal earlier that Pakistani authorities had trained militant groups to fight India. In a candid interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, published two days after the opening ceremony, Musharraf confirmed what many have long suspected.
In response to the question, “Why did you form militant underground groups to fight India in Kashmir?” he said: “They were indeed formed. The government turned a blind eye because they wanted India to discuss Kashmir.”
“It is the right of any country to promote its own interests,” he told the magazine.
Pakistan was cleaved from northwestern India in 1947 at the time of independence from the British. The state of Punjab was sliced in two, meaning Punjabis from both sides of the border share a common heritage: language, culture, customs, and food.
‘Politicians stir things up’
Artist Sheela Subarwal, 84, has lived in Delhi for 60 years but still calls Lahore home, despite being forced to flee the city as a 19-year-old newlywed.
“I’ve always wanted to return, but have never been able to,” says Subarwal, who is a Punjabi Hindu.
Subarwal would find it extremely difficult to get by in Pakistan if she attempted to visit her home city now, as Indians and Pakistanis are barred from too much cooperation. Tourist visas are rarely granted, and even then are highly regulated. Cross-border cellphone coverage, newspapers, and television news are all banned.
Nevertheless, had she been at the opening ceremony Sunday, she insists she would have been up and cheering. “It is all the politicians who are stirring things up,” she says.