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Remembering the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan

Remembering the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan
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Published: 22 Feb 2019 7:40 AM GMT

Imran’s speech, in which he denied Pakistan’s involvement in the Pulwama attack, has been condemned by a wide spectrum of political parties and celebrities across India. While lyricist Javed Akhtar tweeted, “Imran has thrown a no ball”, former cricket and now minister Chetan Chauhan called the Pakistan Prime Minister “an ISI puppet”.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley has accused Imran of propagating “shallow logic”. And the opposition Congress has also taken a tough stand, with Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh calling Imran an “ISI Prime Minister”.

Many others have echoed these sentiments. Imran Khan is still speaking Jaish-e-Mohammad's language,” Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala has said. Even Imran’s ex-wife Reham Khan has accused the Pakistani Prime Minister of being a puppet of the military.

Imran, in his speech, stated, “Why would Pakistan carry out this attack [in Pulwama]? If anyone is using our soil to carry out these attacks, and India has actionable intelligence on this, they should share it with us. We will then act against them.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vldnUiAZ_88&t=185s

But “non-state actors” based in Pakistan have not just carried out attacks elsewhere, but Pakistan itself has been one of the worst sufferers because of this crisis. One of the most brutal and heart-rending instances of this was the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team back in March 2009.

The Lahore Attack

On March 12, 2009, the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by 12 armed gunmen outside the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. The militants reportedly lay in ambush near the Liberty Square and started firing at the Sri Lankan team bus as soon as it arrived.

The attackers fired at the wheels and then aimed at the bus with bullets, a rocket and a grenade, which exploded later. The Sri Lankan cricketers were saved thanks to the presence of mind of the driver of the team bus, Mehar Mohammad Khalil, who despite being shot kept driving to take the players to safety.

As soon as the players reached the stadium, they were airlifted by a chopper from the ground. Six policemen and two bystanders were killed in the attack.
The players were airlifted from the ground.

A decade later, the dastardly attack remains a blot on cricketing history. Not many remember the records from the match — the fact that Thilan Samaraweera scored a remarkable double century in that match. What everyone does remember, however, is that Samaraweera was shot at in that attack and had a miraculous escape — even to this day, he has kept the “lucky bullet” that did not take his life.

Interestingly, India were supposed to tour Pakistan around that time but pulled out of the tour following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Sri Lanka vouched to fill in as a replacement and Pakistan, in turn, promised to ensure “presidential-style security” to the visitors.

In July 2011, Kumar Sangakkara in his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture recalled the attack on the team: 

“At the back of the bus, the fast bowlers were loud in their complaints. I remember Thilan Thushara being particularly vocal, complaining that his back was near breaking point. He joked that he wished a bomb would go off so we could all leave Lahore and go back home. Not thirty seconds had passed when we heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. Suddenly a shout came from the front: Get down they are shooting at the bus.

The reaction was immediate. Everyone dived for cover and took shelter on the aisle or behind the seats. With very little space, we were all lying on top of each other. Then the bullets started to hit. It was like rain on a tin roof. The bus was at a standstill, an easy target for the gunmen.

As bullets started bursting through the bus all we could do was stay still and quiet, hoping and praying to avoid death or injury. Suddenly Mahela, who sits at the back of the bus, shouts saying he thinks he has been hit in the shin. I am lying next to Tilan. He groans in pain as a bullet hits him in the back of his thigh.

Tilan is helped off the bus. In the dressing room, there is a mixture of emotions: anger, relief, joy. Players and coaching staff are being examined by paramedics. Tilan and Paranavithana are taken by ambulance to the hospital.

We all sit in the dressing room and talk. Talk about what happened. Within minutes there is laughter and the jokes have started to flow. We have for the first time been a target of violence. We had survived."

Paranavithana was taken to hospital after suffering injuries.

Imran Khan and the politics of right radicalism

The Lahore attack was reportedly carried out by the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose sister organization Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) endorsed over 70 Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) — the party led by Imran Khan — candidates in the Pakistan general elections last year.

Political analysts have, time and again, criticized Imran for his soft stance on Islamic fundamentalism. Since PTI came to power, Pakistan has witnessed widespread lynching and violence against minorities and those with contrarian opinions. Ahmadis are being targeted and Imran has, time and again, come out with a robust defence of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which carry a maximum punishment of death.

Starting from the time when the Oxford graduate worked his charm in the highfalutin English social circles, pandering to the stereotype of the quintessential playboy image, to the time when freely marketed his right-wing religiosity, it has been quite a journey. His critique of western imperialism — whether performative or serious — has over the years pushed him to take overtly retrograde stances.

When he was an MP in 2006, Imran opposed in Parliament the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill, a proposed legislation aimed at reversing the Hudood Ordinances required a woman to present four male witnesses when reporting a rape lest she should be accused of adultery.

While on a fundraising trail for his cancer hospital, Imran made rousing speeches attacking activists, feminists and atheists — issues which would go on to become the cornerstone of his campaign in days to come.

Some would call it political opportunism, but Imran has time and again batted for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — which is well known carrying out murders and mass killings — for resisting American occupation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWXXg-vw0k0

As an article, titled “Is Imran Khan an extremist” that the Dawn carried in August last year, states: 

“Far-right religious parties retain the ability to shut down major urban centres in pursuit of their fascistic demands. In such an environment, it is hard to overstate the necessity of Pakistan’s leadership grasping the scope and perils of religious extremism. On this score, Khan, for all his admirable qualities, is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution…his clean-shaven face and personal life helps keep accusations of religious extremism at arm’s length. Getting under the surface, however, and examining his ideas and discourse reveals a more troubling conclusion…”

India has also claimed that Imran is acting like a puppet of the Pakistan military. But this is not the first time that accusations are being labelled against Imran. Soon after his party, PTI, stormed to power last year, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) rejected the results, alleging of foul play.

The Pakistan military had supposedly fallen out with Nawaz Sharif and did not want his PML-N to return to power. Former Pakistani Army Chief and the country’s last dictator, General Pervez Musharraf had staged a coup to throw out Sharif’s government in 1999. Nawaz, when he later came back to power, tried to challenge the military’s hegemony, initiate a case of treason against Musharraf and improve diplomatic relations with India, all of which angered the Pakistani military.

Starting a legal case against Nawaz to disqualify him and eventually imprison him and his daughter, followed by a series of high-profile exits from PML-N after these candidates were reportedly intimated ahead of the polls, ensured a clear path for Imran’s ambitions.

Cricket after Pulwama

The hottest debate in cricketing circles at the moment is whether India should play Pakistan in the ICC World Cup this year. If cutting off ties means building diplomatic pressure, isolating Pakistan among the neighbouring countries and boycotting Pakistani artists, should India face off against Pakistan in the World Cup?

Former cricketers like Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh have upped the ante for boycotting the tie, even suggesting that India are strong enough to progress even if they forfeit one match. Latest reports state that the BCCI might write to ICC, asking them to ‘ban’ Pakistan from the World Cup.

However, the politics behind such a move should never be overlooked. Cricket, as it stands today, is a great example of a country’s soft power, which can be an important chink in the armoury of political diplomacy.

Cricket is not just a sport these days — more important perhaps is the ecosystem around it, with powerful politicians, bureaucrats, celebrities and businessmen who all want a piece of the pie. All of them contribute to an ecosystem that has nothing to do with the on-field sport, but feeds into a market economy that can make or break individual political or business careers as also a nation’s future.

The Lahore terror attack caused an irreparable damage to cricket in Pakistan. For years, no team agreed to tour Pakistan, making them incur heavy losses in revenue and hindering the progress of the sport in the country. But more importantly, it hurt Pakistan’s image the most at a time when it was trying to deny its involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attack and rebrand itself as a country that does not provide a safe haven to “non-state actors”. The Lahore attack struck a telling blow to such image-building efforts. The burden of that blow is something that Pakistan has to live with forever in the future.

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