On Aug 19 this year Afghanistan celebrated its 94th Independence Day. A few days prior to this, the Indian government announced an approval of US$ 1 million for constructing a cricket stadium in Afghanistan.
The fund granted under the Indian government’s Small Development Project Scheme will help aid the Afghans in setting up a stadium in Aino Mina, a northern suburb of Kandahar city. And sporting successes achieved by the Afghan sportsperson in recent times have been effective in creating a sense of national unity.
Eric Hobsbawm argues that sport is “uniquely effective” in constructing national identities and “inculcating national feelings”. It also infuses the population with a great “sense of belonging”. This sense of belonging amongst the ethnically divided Afghan population was most visible when people of all ages and ethnic groups poured onto the streets to celebrate the success of their football and cricket teams at international events in recent years. The achievements permeated the Afghans with a sense of pride, and succeeded in breaking the ethnic division for once.
India is a major regional partner in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development. Additionally, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in India’s interest as it holds the key to India’s engagement with Central Asian and West Asian states. For Afghanistan, which is going through huge political, security and economic transition, the need of hour, as professed by many researchers/experts on the subject, is that people denounce their ethnic differences and collectively deal with the challenges the country is facing at the moment.
Both, deliberately and unknowingly, nation states have used sport to promote their nation building agenda throughout history. Today’s China arguably has used it in the most successful manner. The prevalent situation in Afghanistan makes it another suitable nominee to be added in this long list. The Indian Embassy in Afghanistan, through the letter announcing the approval of funds, has also acknowledged this fact. The letter reads, “We have realised that sports, both cricket and football, have united the country and enthused the youth.” By granting funds for the construction of a cricket stadium, India definitely has pressed the right chord; but, is it being pressed in a way which would generate a befitting melody?
It will be worth observing whether this assistance remains a onetime donation or if it gets translated into a sustained effort to both further popularise cricket and enhance India’s reputation as a serious stakeholder in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. If this remains a onetime donation, it would serve little purpose to India’s endeavours in winning the hearts and minds of Afghan nationals.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has already gained significant lead in the context of aiding the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) in nurturing talented and promising young cricketers of Afghanistan. In March 2013, the ACB signed an ambitious two-year MoU with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for the development of cricket in the country ahead of the 2015 World Cup, the scope of which encompasses most of the aspects of cricket, if not all.
It has been agreed that PCB will provide technical knowhow over and above professional support. PCB will conduct coaching courses, analyse skills and performance of the players as well as offer basic umpiring and curator/groundsmen courses. The Lahore-based National Cricket Academy (NAC) has also been roped in to deliver lectures on doping, anti-corruption, code of conduct, and it will further assist the players in improving their mental and physical skills.
When it comes to engaging Afghanistan through cricket, there is a sharp contrast in the approach of India and Pakistan. For Pakistan, it the governing body of cricket which is constructively engaging with Afghans, while in the case of India it is the government which is showing interest in developing the sport. What is required here is that India brings the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) on board. The government might be able and willing to contribute enormous riches, but the actual expertise could only be provided by the BCCI. Further, it is the BCCI that will decide the terms, frequency and duration of on-field engagement.
India could also explore and employ experts and organizations from the field of Sports-for-Development-and-Peace (SDP). SDP programmes use sports to achieve various developmental and peace-building goals. These initiatives work at the grassroots level and have proved their effectiveness in promoting social inclusion and building social cohesion, especially in ethnically divided societies.
For India’s ‘cricket diplomacy’ to yield encouraging results for both Afghanistan and India, a concerted and sustained effort on the part of India will be required. The construction of Kandahar Cricket Stadium is only a small step towards it. India should productively engage with the ACB in making better use of the stadium. At the same time, India must also contribute to the overall capacity building and development of cricket in Afghanistan.
All this could not be achieved without involving BCCI, which so far has not been quite responsive to various requests of ACB. The success or failure of this initiative is closely associated with the way in which BCCI is engaged in the entire process.