The Lahore Atrocity: Cricket under Siege

Michael Roberts

This essay was reproduced in Himal South Asian and also in the Island under a different sub-title: “The Lahore Atrocity: Our Cricketing Ambassadors.”

Till recently Chaminda Vaas would have had fond recollections of the Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore. He was in the squad that faced up to Aussie power during the World Cup Finals on 17 March 1996 and prevailed so magnificently. But on Tuesday 3rd March he was among the Sri Lankan cricketers who underwent a different type of ordeal and survived with fortitude and a good measure of luck.

Ajantha Mendis at airport bearing minor injuries, presumably shrapnel,  from attack.

Mahela and his wife console each other as he arrives at Bandaranaike airport amidst intense media interest — All pictures courtesy of Rex Clementine and the Island.

Cricketers and officials had been promised presidential level security. Instead they were provided with the services of ordinary policemen in inadequate number. The number was reduced that fatal Tuesday because, as happens so often in Asia, some Pakistani players were late and the protective squad was halved. The convoy was ambushed at an intersection near the stadium. Though the tyres of the coach had been shot up, the driver, Meyer Mohammed Khalil, urged on by those inside, sped away to safety. With their driver dead, the officials and umpires in the mini-bus went through an experience that was even more harrowing.

The criticisms directed at the Pakistani authorities by Chris Broad and others are wholly justified; and the strident counter-criticism essayed by Ijaz Butt and Javed Miandad reveal what idiots they are. The failure of the Pakistani establishment was a monstrous one. It was a miracle that only six policemen and one driver died; and that the cricketing component in the convoy survived with only 2 or 3 serious injuries.

Many issues surround the analysis of this criminal act. Two can only generate speculative answers, but provide insights nevertheless. Question One: would the assailants have gone through with their attack if the Pakistani team coach was part of the convoy? Question Two: given that the mini-bus was stranded and there were no walking policemen in sight, why didn’t the militant squad advance and finish the officials off? The latter ‘failure’ suggests either a degree of amateurishness or a conscious decision to retire unhurriedly because they had made their point.

These are issues for intelligent Pakistanis to pursue as part of a wider investigation seeking the perpetrators and uncovering their motives. As I write, preliminary readings in Pakistan suggest that the immediate hands behind the atrocity are drawn from either the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) or the Lashka-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) jihadi groups.

Rather than deep conspiracy theories reaching beyond Pakistan, the most sensible focus seems to be one that reviews the expansion of Taliban ideologies in the heart of Pakistan. As one Pakistan analysis put it: “There is no shortage of highly-competent well-armed and trained groups within our own borders capable of such an operation. They have no need of foreign assistance or foreign money – there are plenty of people here happy to finance them and offer logistical support. No shortage either of groups wishing to undermine the government and capable of exploiting a perceived weakness caused by the confusion rife in the Punjab police force; a product of the political [transfer] of senior officers in the wake of the imposition of governor rule” ( asp?id=165515).

The ideological imperatives driving these extremists are seen in the position pressed in Zarb-e-Taiba, a Lashkar-e-Taiba magazine, in April 2004: “We should throw the bat and seize the sword and instead of hitting six or four, cut the throats of the Hindus and the Jews”

The cricket convoy, you will say, had only one Hindu and no Jews. Yes. But take note of their following lines: “the sports of a mujahid are archery, horse-riding and swimming. Apart from these sports, every hobby is un-Islamic. The above are not just sports but exercises for jihad. Cricket is an evil and sinful sport” (Praveen Swami in The Hindu, 5 March 2009).

The preliminary indications, therefore, suggest that the motives are informed by Taliban-style jihadist thinking that saw the attack as a means of undermining the Pakistani governments at both regional and federal levels, while yet earning plaudits within a particular jihadist constituency.

*          *          *          *          *

Whatever the goals of the militants, we can applaud both the Sri Lankan squad and the umpire/official cluster for the fortitude with which they met this severe trial. As the Pakistani authoress, Kamila Shamsie, told me in an email note, the “Sri Lankan players have been extraordinary in all this.” Elsewhere David Hopps has praised their “composure” and the fact that “there have been no recriminations, no histrionics, just a team grateful to have survived.” Indeed, he notes that even though the team was aware beforehand that the security arrangements were minimal, they had “presum[ed] themselves too small to be noticed [and] just got on with it” (Guardian, 4 March 2009).

Mahela Jayawardene consoles his wife at Katunayake Airport on his return from Lahore.

No more will such complacency prevail, said Hopps. The world of international cricket is now confronting a different ball park. As erudite as intelligent, Kumar Sangakkara underlined the changed circumstances. Let me quote him selectively in logical order:

  • “We had always felt pretty safe in Pakistan …. It shows how naïve we were. …With hindsight, we probably underestimated the security threat.”
  • “We realise now that sports people and cricketers are not above being attacked. All the talk that “no one would target cricketers” seems so hollow now. Far from being untouchable, we are now prize targets for extremists. That’s an uncomfortable reality we have to come to terms with.”

Along one dimension Sangakkara’s remarks provide a corrective to the self-serving commentary of Australian media outlets that interpreted the event as a justification for Australia’s past, weak-kneed policy of refusing to tour Pakistan. This widespread Australian viewpoint was, firstly, self-justification of a-historical cast, one that failed to note the several tours undertaken by numerous teams in the last five years. Secondly, such an viewpoint does not attend to the changes in the Pakistan political scene in the recent past, notably the collapse of Musharraf’s authoritarian regime, the development of a power vacuum and the recent intervention of the federal government to effect an overturn in the Punjab provincial government (including its police) responsible for the Lahore region.

Along another dimension, two facets of Sangakkara’s summary deserve highlighting: “in hindsight” and “now.” Together they provide a corrective to those media comments that focus on Pakistan alone, a pointer to the grim realities facing cricket in its grand forms everywhere. Cricketing authorities have immediately taken the cue and are already looking ahead towards beefing up security at their principal grounds.

Where Dhoni has had to hire security guards to keep Indian women at bay, now, such precautions seem like lace finery in comparison with the steel grilles that may envelope our cricketing heroes in the near-future.

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