MOHALI: The prime ministers of nuclear-armed foes India and Pakistan stood side by side on Wednesday at a World Cup cricket match and clapped to each other’s national anthems in a symbolic gesture aimed at rebuilding ties shattered by the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The leaders shook hands with the two teams in the northern Indian town of Mohali at a semi-final match between the South Asian neighbours that have gone to war three times since Independence in 1947.
Such is the fervour surrounding cricket in the two countries that scores of Pakistanis crossed one of the world’s most militarised borders to travel to the stadium while millions of Indians have taken the day off work to watch the game.
“Enjoy Cricket, It’s Not War!” was the front page splash of India’s Mail Today newspaper.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had invited his counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani to watch the game and discuss reviving a peace process, although “cricket diplomacy” will offer more gestures than breakthroughs in a conflict that has lasted for more than 60 years.
In a major confidence-building measure ahead of the match, Islamabad agreed on Tuesday to let Indian investigators travel to Pakistan to probe the Mumbai attacks after a meeting of the countries’ respective home secretaries.
“As far as our relations are concerned, I’m happy our talks have resumed and interior (home) secretaries’ talks were held in a positive manner,” Gilani said.
“Dr. Manmohan Singh is very good politician. His approach is very positive and he wants to do something for peace and prosperity of this region so we both are committed that the environment should improve and we could serve people.”
For Prime Minister Singh, the match may be a way of regaining the policy initiative after his government has been battered by months of corruption scandals that could dent the ruling Congress party’s chances in upcoming state elections.
Both sides will hope to ride a wave of goodwill ahead of talks between their foreign ministers in July, but some were sceptical about “cricket diplomacy “, which was tried as long ago as far back as 1987, without bringing lasting peace.
“It facilitates resolution, it doesn’t lead to resolution,” former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told the Indian news channel Times Now. “Cricket diplomacy doesn’t mean that you can resolve disputes just because you attended a match together.”
Wednesday’s game pitted India’s world-class players, including Sachin Tendulkar, against a Pakistani side that has looked in devastating form.
There was a sea of Indian fans’ blue and red turbans in Mohali and the neighbouring city of Chandigarh, which were patrolled by the local Punjab police, with some 1,500 policemen being deployed around the team hotel alone.
Police conducted surprise midnight checks on hotels near the stadium to verify the identity of guests.
Thousands who had travelled to Mohali to queue for tickets were left disappointed, but at dusk on Tuesday some die-hards decided to wait in line even after organisers had hung up the “sold out” sign. Some Indians reportedly decided to give up their tickets in a goodwill gesture to Pakistani fans.