Beyond cricket diplomacy
How Indian Culture Counters Extremism in Pakistan

It was inevitable that a high-profile sporting face-off between India and Pakistan would revive talk of "cricket diplomacy." And sure enough, last week's World Cup semifinal clash between the two yielded its share of photos of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seated woodenly beside his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani.

In theory, cricket diplomacy is meant to create sufficient bonhomie to spur peace talks that have sputtered since the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks but restarted, tentatively, in February. In practice, however, the prime ministerial (or presidential) match-watching ritual--also tried in 1987 and 2005--signifies little. Negotiations follow the logic of international realpolitik and domestic pressures on the two sides.

Despite that shortcoming, the return of cricket diplomacy raises an intriguing question: How can India use its considerable soft power--its dominance of South Asian sport, movies, music, television and publishing--to address the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan?

Pakistan's problem is dire. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, four out of five Pakistanis approve of stoning to death for adultery. The outpouring of support for the fundamentalist murderer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January, and a spate of attacks on Sufi Muslim shrines across the country, underscores that the problem cannot be solved by Predator drones and well-intentioned development programs alone. Culture, including popular culture, must be part of the mix.

For a hint of the role India can play, look beyond the recent World Cup-driven cricket mania to the sudden rise to prominence of a young Pakistani actress named Veena Malik. Until recently, Ms. Malik was famous mainly for her romance with a Pakistani cricketer and her appearance on India's version of "Big Brother," called "Big Boss 4." But she has now become a spokeswoman for moderation, catapulted to prominence by a much-watched clip of a television interview in which she dresses down a mullah for criticizing her somewhat risqué appearance last fall on the show.

In Pakistan, where questioning any aspect of orthodox Islam—including a blasphemy law routinely used to persecute Christians, Hindus and heterodox Muslims—can invite violent attack or even assassination, Ms. Malik stands out for her refusal to be cowed by clerical authority. It's not every day that you get to see a bare-headed young woman say baldly to a mullah: "There are many things in your community that need to be rectified, so please correct them."

Ms. Malik's nearly overnight transformation from B-lister to household name in much of the Subcontinent illustrates a larger point. Thanks to its sheer size and rapidly growing economy, in cultural terms India is to Pakistan what the United States is to Canada or Australia to New Zealand: the big stage to which local talent aspires.

It's only natural that over time more actors from Rawalpindi and crooners from Lahore will aim for careers in Bollywood or Indian TV, and cricketers from the backstreets of Karachi or the badlands of Pakistan's northwest frontier will dream of making their fortune in the Indian Premier League.

The first signs of this are already visible. The singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan works regularly in Bollywood, and the rock band Junoon boasts a considerable Indian following. Nonfiction writer Fatima Bhutto and fiction writer Daniyal Mueenuddin flog their books in Mumbai and Delhi. At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, Pakistani novelist H.M. Naqvi won the inaugural $50,000 DSC Literature Prize sponsored by an Indian construction firm.

Like other democracies, India does not expect visiting artists to become crude propagandists for its government or people. But at the same time, as a multireligious and increasingly wealthy country, India automatically gives Pakistanis a luxury they lack at home: a giant soapbox from which to challenge the weight of intolerance within their own society. As Pakistan's own cultural space shrinks under the Islamist onslaught, the importance of India as a lifeline for the country's beleaguered liberals will only grow.

Nobody expects Pakistan's problems with fundamentalism to abate any time soon. But by opening its doors to Pakistani actors, singers, sportsmen and writers, India can enrich its own culture while denting the Islamist onslaught. Let a hundred Veena Maliks bloom.


Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

Arun Reginald/Wikimedia Commons


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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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