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Uniting South Asia through sports: Let there be more Rashid Khans

The unifying power of sports has been demonstrated time and again. especially. whenever there has been an adversity. But the potency of it in bringing the South Asian nations together has been less understood and less explored till a 20-year old Afghan cricketing sensation Rashid Khan captured the minds and imagination of the entire sub-continent during this year’s edition of Indian Premier League (IPL). 

Jun 2, 2018
By Lekshmi Parameswaran
 
The unifying power of sports has been demonstrated time and again. especially. whenever there has been an adversity. But the potency of it in bringing the South Asian nations together has been less understood and less explored till a 20-year old Afghan cricketing sensation Rashid Khan captured the minds and imagination of the entire sub-continent during this year’s edition of Indian Premier League (IPL). 
 
After cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar put out a tweet hailing Khan as the “best spinner in the world” in the T20 format, what was witnessed was a rare show of camaraderie between people across the borders who otherwise remain distant and indifferent. The trending hashtags on social media asking for Indian citizenship to be granted to Khan were a reminder that at times sports (and culture) can do more to bring distant countries and divided regions together than government to government engagements. 
 
Giving an impetus to the goodwill garnered over the previous week was BCCI’s decision to let all international teams touring India to play one practice match with Afghanistan to encourage the team that will play its first test match in India. The power of cultural diplomacy that gets leveraged in a step like this can have lasting impact on the people-to-people ties. It gives a sense of direction to bilateral relations and infuses the element of trust that is needed to solidify the foundation laid.
 
The precedent for using sports as a diplomatic tool in South Asia was set much before the present times. In the year 1996 when Sri Lanka was ravaged by civil war, Australia and West Indies refused to take part in the World Cup that was to take place in the country.  As a show of solidarity, a joint India-Pakistan team travelled to Sri Lanka and played a match that saw the host nation lift the World Cup and script history. It was an occasion where it was made evidently clear that sports is an emotion that thugs on the chords of patriotism as well as universal brotherhood. It can overcome any cultural barrier to spread the message of peace and hope across the world.
 
Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of Olympic Games, once pointing to the symbolic value of the Olympic torch had said, “May the Olympic torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure." It is this spirit of togetherness that the nations need to imbibe to end the racial and geographic conflicts.
 
With its inherent issues, South Asia is in need of a force that can unite its populace that have drifted apart. And there is no language that is better understood than sports. Taking a cue from what Nelson Mandela did in 1995 by bringing together the warring South African communities for a rugby match to avoid a civil war, the leaders of South Asia should set aside their differences and bring the region and its people closer.
 
(Lekshmi Parameswaran can be contacted at lekshmi.p@spsindia.in)

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