Freedoms and sport

Gauri Lankesh's brutal murder earlier this month jolted India and its media in a way we have not seen before; probably because most Indians take their freedoms for granted. Journalists in Pakistan have seen various ups and downs when it comes to media freedom and in spite of a seemingly 'free' and outspoken media, we know very well what self-censorship means and how to exercise caution. We in Pakistan do not take our freedoms for granted because we have seen the rise of right-wing extremism and terrorism over the decades. We know our freedoms can be snatched away in one fell swoop.

I wrote a piece on Gauri's murder for an Indian publication recently. Some Indian readers asked if I even knew her for me to comment on her death. It is as if some Indian readers just did not like that a Pakistani was telling them what media freedom means and how they must fight the obscurantist forces threatening their freedoms. No, I did not know Gauri Lankesh personally but her murder somehow rang a bell. My friend and fellow journalist, Raza Rumi, survived an assassination attempt just a few years ago. It was not the first attack on a journalist in Pakistan but it was one attack that shook some of us more than any other attack, probably because we knew Raza. It hit home... it was too close... it was too real. Some Indian readers also asked if, as a Pakistani, I could comment on Islam the way Gauri did about Hinduism. Probably not. But what I can do and have done over the years is challenge the right-wing, the jihadis, the powerful military establishment and call out our State on its flawed policies.

Yes, India may be different from Pakistan in many ways yet the polarisation we see in India today is eerily similar to what we have witnessed in Pakistan over the decades. The religious Right is the same all over the world as it is in India and Pakistan. As a Pakistani who was born in the Zia years, I have seen how societies slowly and surely change once the seeds of intolerance are sown. These days there is a raging debate in our country about the radicalisation of youth, especially in our universities. This radicalisation did not happen overnight. It took years and years of indoctrination, banning of student unions, silencing dissent, change in curricula, rise of extremism and many other factors to bring us to this juncture that today we are afraid of what our next generation may end up doing and what it would mean for our country. It is a scary prospect but one that is staring us in our faces. The reversal of this societal change seems almost impossible but we have not lost hope and keep fighting the good fight. Someday, something will change. And some things do eventually change.

It is as a result of this optimism and a policy shift that cricket has finally made its way back in Pakistan; not completely, but still. The Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by terrorists in Lahore, Pakistan, in March 2009. I remember watching the news on television and I can still feel the same spine-chilling shock that went through my body that fateful day. Those of us who were sitting in front of our TV screens could only pray for the safety of the Sri Lankan cricket team. Thankfully, they all survived the attack and went back to their country but that attack changed everything for Pakistan cricket.

For years, Pakistani fans had to be content watching our team play 'home series' away from home; we cannot even imagine the emotional toll it took on our cricketers. It took years for international cricket to come back to Pakistan and that too in bits and pieces. Zimbabwe decided to play in Pakistan in 2015, the first time a Test-playing team visited since the 2009 attack. It was an emotional ride for Pakistani cricketers and fans alike. The stadium in Lahore was packed during all five matches (two T20s and three ODIs). We were happy, we were excited, we just wanted to celebrate something. With all the bad news that keeps coming our way, if something good happens to Pak cricket, we all celebrate.

Giles Clarke, head of the International Cricket Council's Pakistan Task Force, visited Pakistan in January this year to evaluate the safety measures being taken by the country and was considerably impressed. The success of the Pakistan Super League final in Lahore a few weeks later made the ICC even more confident, which finally led to the arrival of the World XI team in Pakistan earlier this week. Giles Clarke and Andy Flower (the coach of World XI and a former Zimbabwe cricket player) have been instrumental in bringing cricket back to Pakistan apart from the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Najam Sethi, and the former chairman, Shahryar Khan.

At a dinner, I asked Clarke how he convinced the ICC and the international players to finally come here, and he narrated a heart-warming story: when Andy Flower approached the players and finally formed a team, he asked the players if they had not been paid, would they still have gone for these matches to Pakistan and they all said 'yes'. The international cricketing community understands the pain of Pakistan; the players understand how it takes a toll on Pakistani cricketers who have not played international cricket on their own soil, 'at home' and that Pakistani fans deserve to see the revival of international cricket.

The first of the three matches between Pakistan and the World XI was played on Tuesday and the last match will be played tomorrow (September 15). An Indian friend asked me why I was so excited over this series, which isn't a 'proper' cricket tour, and I thought only a Pakistani cricket fan can understand what it means or how big an achievement it is to finally see an international match live in a stadium in Pakistan.

Indians take a lot of things for granted that we Pakistanis don't. We don't take democracy for granted because we have seen dictatorial regimes. We don't take our freedoms for granted because we have seen powerful forces take away those very freedoms by force. We don't take media freedom for granted because we have often faced threats, seen attacks on media houses and journalists being killed only because they have crossed some obscure 'redlines'. We don't take our religious freedom for granted because we have seen how terribly we treat our religious minorities and how if someone challenges the mullahs, he or she is silenced one way or the other. Heck, we don't even take the game of cricket for granted because we have seen terrorists take that one thing we loved so much away from our country.

It is because of all these challenges and more that we have also learnt that remaining silent is not an option. Silence only helps the oppressive forces. In order to bring change, we must speak up for what is right in spite of the threats or the backlash. The State will also act once there is collective noise. Do not let anyone take away your freedoms for once they start slipping away, it is very difficult to reclaim them.

(Originally published in The Telegraph)


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