Falling out of love

Gleanings from a weekend spent reading corruption-related content on various newsmagazines and sites:

A beleaguered people seethed at the betrayal, at the battering of their hope, at their realisation that cricket, as every sport, can at best only be a metaphor for the nation playing it. Pakistan, today, is cricket’s graveyard, its players the hangmen of the game. But they have acquired such disrepute, such infamy, only because so many of Pakistan’s cherished values lie crushed, because its politics has become pathological.

People understood this instinctively and, for a change, reacted spontaneously, refusing to spin conspiracy theories. In Lahore, an angry mob pelted rotten tomatoes on donkeys named Asif, Aamer, Kamran (Akmal) and Salman. One of them said, “We are already facing so many problems…they took away our one source of joy.” One Wajahat commented on Facebook, “In 1999 you (the Pakistani cricket team) broke my heart. But I was 16, and I learnt to love you again. I fear I am too old to love you again.” A sarcastic SMS doing the rounds reads, “We, the flood-stricken people of Pakistan, salute the worthy members of our national cricket team for their daring move to collect huge donations for the flood victims, even through match-fixing.” Newspapers howled, TV channels bristled and commentators said cricket’s hangmen must be made to pay.

Outlook’s story underlines the essential tragedy of the latest developments: that the greed of the few irreparably harms the many. ‘I fear I am too old to love you again’ ranks, on the poignance scale, with ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’

The magazine also features Dawn correspondent Kamran Shafi on the need to root out the present administration and reformat the running of Pakistan cricket; what he says serves as a cautionary tale for an IPL, and an administration, obsessed with la dolce vita [And while on cautionary tales, here's Rohit Mahajan, also in Outlook, on why India is not inoculated against this evil]:

There is only one way for Pakistan cricket to go, and that is to dismiss the whole shoot: PCB, team and all. Our players should be banned from playing any international cricket for five years during which time cricket academies should be set up at the district level which should train players and form two teams each. These teams should then play each other with the winners playing the winning teams from other districts. At the national level, matches could be held between provincial teams and from this pool of talent, a national side chosen.

The PCB’s secretariat (yes, they have a plush secretariat too, including executive dining and living facilities and accommodations that would shame a seven-star hotel) ought to be cut down to half its huge size and proper accounting procedures instituted. The royal style—fat salaries, first-class travel, five-star hotels, daily allowances that would put even a prince’s privy purse to shame—that the PCB bosses arrogate to themselves should be controlled and the money, thus wasted, spent on the cricket academies.

Within the fraternity of journalists covering cricket, a talking point for quite some time is the increasing power and pervasive influence of the agent, who in recent times has been known to go outside of the stated brief of managing the player-client’s finances, and intervene in cricketing aspects up to and including selection of players. Mahajan’s piece elaborates on that theme:

Insiders say that agents chasing players, and trying to build relationships with officials, is a serious problem. “This is rampant in domestic cricket,” says a source. “In Delhi, for instance, some officials are long-time betters and have links with bookies. In some states, selectors receive a cut from agents for selecting their players.” The source says that at the national level, agents have become less important due to a BCCI decision—paid selectors. “Earlier, agents used to be seen taking selectors to dinner etc, and it was believed they influenced selection,” he says. “Now at least in public they don’t hang out together.”

Agents and the access they have to the players, or the access they facilitate for others, could also cause problems. The ICC suggests no or limited access to players during matches, but agents and their friends are always with players. During the Asia Cup earlier this year, the Sri Lankan chief of security wrote to the acu that a woman had gained access to an Indian player’s room. “The situation was managed, but it’s a potentially hazardous, in which a woman could be used to lure a player towards wrongdoing,” says a source.

A senior BCCI official says it’s time there was some regulation of the agents: “There are some good ones, but one or two are known to be of dubious integrity, misleading players about deals, attempting to influence selection. It might be a good idea to register agents, like in football and nba, so that there could be a thorough check of their antecedents.”

And in his piece, Mike Marqusee tangentially underlines the reason behind the growing power of the agent:

One of the sad but striking parts of the News of the World recording shows the way the agent-cum-fixer Mazhar Majeed treats the young cricketers—as inferior social beings dependent on his largesse. And they seem to accept him as such. After all, he has the money and the connections, just like all the others they have been told to obey and admire.

India Today has a story that hits the right spots with its toxic mix of corrupt cricketers, the fix, and the underworld — but speaking for myself, I am not entirely convinced by this one. For something on this scale to have happened — and remember, the Rs 50 crore cited here is not the sum total of the bets, merely the extent of losses suffered — I have to believe that such astronomical sums were wagered on the possibility of only two no-balls being bowled in course of an innings. Stretches credulity, that — fix or no, there is no bowling side in the world that can guarantee to bowl only a specific number of no balls in course of an innings; the no-ball [the non-fixed ones, that is] is an involuntary, heat of the moment act, mostly caused by a temporary blip in the bowler’s circuitry. You can as a bowler/bowling team guarantee to bowl one on demand; the converse, that you can guarantee not to bowl one, is a bridge too far for me to contemplate crossing.

To understand a crime, you have to understand context — and when it comes to Pakistan cricket, there are few that can explain context better than Osman Samiuddin. Two pieces of his that I read over the weekend provided context and backstory — from The Guardian and The Times of India.

Along with context, there is this: the past is always prologue, in cricket as in life. Gideon Haigh delves into the past, to provide a lesson for the present:

To cricket’s antique traditions, we must turn for a parallel crisis. Because, for much of its early history, from its rise in the Restoration to deep into the Regency, cricket and gambling were inseparable associates. The nobility and gentry who fostered the game understood about the game what the match- and spot-fixers do now – that in a gaming sense it is a target-rich environment, full of possibilities for wagers.

The oldest surviving version of cricket’s laws features extensive provision for the settling of bets.

Cricket also grew rich in potential for malpractice – to the point of almost causing its own downfall.

As one repentant player explained: ”Matches were bought and matches were sold, and gentlemen who meant honestly lost large sums of money, till the rogues beat themselves at last. They over-did it; they spoilt their own trade …”

What ended up saving cricket was that it became so obviously corrupt as to endanger its increasingly lucrative trade as a spectator sport, which was enough to scare its practitioners and impresarios straight.

That’s the view from the world at large; me, I am content — no, not content, more like resigned — to allow this drama to play itself out under the aegis of the ICC; to wait for a determination of guilt and innocence and all shades in-between. As Haigh said in his piece:

Cricket has in its hands the instruments of its own deliverance. The question is whether it has the courage to use them.

PS: I’m off, starting tomorrow, for an off-site that will take up the rest of the week. Expect blogging to be desultory to non-existent, for the duration.

The wellspring of corruption

Writing in Cricinfo this morning, Harsha Bhogle makes a point that plugs straight into something a cricketer and a friend told me last night.

Why do I play this game?

If the answer is that you want to excel at the one thing that you are good at, that you want to find the limits of your ability, that you relish the challenge of a competition, that you get goose pimples putting on your country’s colours and walking out to the expectations of your countrymen, you will pursue those goals and take whatever reward you get. Invariably it will be handsome.

If the answer is that you want to earn a good living as quickly as you can, that you want to bask in the comforts of the material pleasures that your talent delivers to you, you will take whatever financial inducement comes your way. Inevitably it will be tainted, inevitably the dessert will be laced.

It is our choices that tell us who we are.

But these choices can be influenced; sometimes, and I hope never, young players can be coerced into walking down a specific path. And so it comes down to the air they breathe when their minds are still fragile. It could be the air of excellence that drives a young man to newer heights of achievement. Or it could be the putrid air of greed that could infect him and snuff a career out before it has had time to blossom.

The point is well taken — like any other seed, corruption needs fertile ground in which to spout, to flourish. [While on that, read Tariq Ali] And the saddest part of the ongoing corruption saga is that all conversation is about rooting out the individual plant, never about clearing up the soil itself.

That is the point my cricketer friend made last night, while we were discussing the recent developments. I was arguing for ‘zero tolerance’ in practice, not merely in words. I’ll paraphrase his reply, from my notes:

Great! “Zero tolerance” — sounds wonderful. So let’s look at how you’ve applied this principle in real life, in recent times. The ‘commissioner’ of the most cash-rich cricket tournament in the world has been accused of corruption to the tune of dozens, hundreds of millions. And — nothing. Yesterday he was holidaying in the Bahamas, today he is enjoying life in London, tomorrow he will fly in a private jet bought with money earned from the sweat of cricketers to some other playground of the super rich. The second in command of the BCCI has been publicly accused of deeds ranging from manipulating his own acquiring of a franchise, to fixing auctions, to fixing umpires to favor the interests of his side. And — nothing. He denies it, throws mud at his accuser, remains in his post. The then president of the BCCI has been accused of, even proven to have, undisclosed interests in various franchises; he has been accused of actively working to manipulate the results of franchise auctions. And? He is now the head of the ICC.

This, the cricketer said, is the atmosphere in which the game is played in India today; this is the example we set the young and the upcoming: that corruption comes with benefits, but it does not carry a price tag.

He has a point. In any corporate environment, if there is an accusation of corruption, the first official act is to suspend the concerned person from his post. That is not a proclamation of guilt, but merely a routine part of the investigative process. If I am accused of finagling the books and siphoning money off from the editorial budget, say, and you leave me at my post while my guilt is being probed, I can use that time to hide all traces of my malfeasance. That is why the company’s first act will be to suspend me pending investigation. [Read Kamran Abbasi on why the suspension of Butt, Asif and Amir is right, why that does not conflict with the presumption of innocence that is the right of every human being; this is also why the ridiculous posturing of the likes of Wajid Shamsul Hasan will do more harm than good.]

Yet, in recent times, every single top official in the administration has been accused of corruption to varying degrees — and every single one of them remains in his post [with the exception of the 'commissioner/suspended' -- and that suspension was not so much the result of a genuine desire to probe the charges, as it was a manifestation of the internal power politics within the board].

This [my friend said] is the example you are setting for the young, impressionable players. They see a bunch of officials who have never sweated it out on the field of play, never put their skills on the line, making untold millions from the sport and getting away with it. And yet you think that they, themselves, will have the moral fibre to resist all opportunities to make a fast buck. That sounds realistic to you?

That is the “putrid air of greed” Harsha is talking about. It is the “putrid air” that Indian [and Pakistani] cricket has breathed from the early nineties on, through successive administrations, each of which has proved to be more corrupt than the last. So I agree with my friend — the real surprise is not that a few are corrupt, but that so many others are not.

There is another way of looking at this issue. Money, not talent, dictates whether we get admission to a school or college of our choice; money, not ability, dictates whether we get a job as a policeman, a jurist, a doctor, an engineer, whatever. So, if I have to bribe my way into a cop’s uniform, why is it surprising if I use that uniform to cloak my own corruption? Surely I didn’t spend all that money to get that post simply so I could uphold law and order? That bribe was an investment; now that I’ve gotten what I wanted, I need to make that investment pay dividends. [Society accepts, or at least does not actively question, this practice -- what the hell, a judge, no less, who was accused of large scale corruption was 'punished' by being made chief justice of a state high court. This bloke is going to uphold the law?!]

From that point of view, consider this: corruption in cricket begins not at the international, but at the regional, level. It is no secret that state-level selectors take money to pick players for the representative side — so if I, as a player, make that investment, what do you suppose I’m going to do once I make the cut? [A tangential point -- it is these same state selectors who in time become members of the national selection committee -- which, as far as they are concerned, widens their window of opportunity].

I’m not merely theorizing, here, that corruption exists at that level and that corruption, defying the laws of physics, then trickles up: have we forgotten this already? Some of the most senior players of the national team accused the selection committee of their home state of widespread corruption. What was the outcome? A politician who is also head of the state selection committee flat out said there was no such thing. The long-time head of that state association, arguably the most mismanaged in Indian cricket, “assured” that the “complaints would be considered” [ironically, this gent, who has been in his post for aeons,  is one of three members of the disciplinary committee that will hear charges of corruption against Lalit Modi].

Accusations surface, noise is made, nothing further is ever done — and in time, we forget. Change venue, rinse, repeat, and there you have the story of India’s dysfunctional cricket administration. Seriously — what fools are we, that we expect honesty and integrity to flourish in this soil?

Out, damned spot

Our TV channels yesterday dreamt up an interesting storyline to harp on: The PCB, so went the narrative, was back-pedalling on its initial ‘tough action’ stance, and was now paving the way for the inevitable whitewash by mooting a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘defame’ Pakistan cricket. [Did you know that it was RAW that held a gun to the heads of innocent cricketers and forced them into fixing? No, seriously].

‘Evil’ cannot exist without a corresponding ‘Good’, as any kid who knows his Ramayan will tell you — so in furtherance of this narrative, the talking heads set up the ICC president as the good guy, the one who was talking tough, asserting the body’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, facing down the Pak board.

Compelling — and so incredibly funny.

The ICC president, now blazing away in the service of all that is good, was the same guy who wrested control from the Jagmohan Dalmiya group promising much: complete transparency; a website on which the BCCI would periodically inform the public about its doings and publicize its statements of accounts; professionalism… ah heck, you know the list.

During his tenure and that of his handpicked successor, none of these promises materialized. He did, however, deliver on some line items he had not made part of his election manifesto — among them, the complete rehabilitation of a player who was deemed guilty of match fixing by the very same board, and banned for life.

Said ICC president and his personally chosen successor are so invested in a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that they agreed to allow the ICC’s anti-corruption unit to monitor the 2009 edition of the IPL. Remember how that came about?

The ICC offered the services of its unit; the BCCI sat on the request for months, taking no action whatsoever. When the news hit the media, the BCCI pushed back, saying the ICC was charging an inordinate sum for its services. It turned out that the ICC’s bill for having its inspectors present at all venues, rigorously covering the games and off-field activities, was $1.2 million — a paltry sum when contrasted with what the BCCI was earning from the IPL. When its ‘exorbitant charge’ excuse began to look threadbare, the BCCI promised to ‘study the issue’ and ‘arrive at a solution’. It finally did — on April 17, 2009, it told the ICC that the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit was welcome to monitor the IPL.

The catch? The BCCI had green-lighted the ACSU late afternoon of the day before the IPL actually kicked off. In other words, by sitting on the proposal for months, the BCCI had effectively ensured that the ACSU would not have the time to deploy its personnel to provide adequate safeguards [typically, the ACSU works on a series or tournament two to three months before the start deadline].

It is commonly accepted that the betting syndicate really came into its own with the proliferation of unstructured tournaments in Sharjah, Toronto and elsewhere [again, think of who authorised and pushed through those tournaments]. Such meaningless cricket encounters made it easy for players, who had little or nothing invested in the results, to succumb to succulent lures.

A similar situation has been emerging thanks to the laissez faire nature of the IPL, with its relaxed dug out rules, its after hours parties fueled by much wine, unsupervised mingling, and nubile women trucked in by those who deal in that commodity to warm cricketers’ beds. And that makes you wonder — why is the Indian board so resistant to supervision of the IPL?

It was always known that Pawar’s benevolent hand over Lalit Modi’s head was what enabled the ‘IPL Commissioner [Suspended]‘ to do what he pleased. In recent times, it has turned out that Sharad Pawar, his daughter and sundry relatives have their hands in the IPL till. Equally, it is common knowledge that Shashank Manohar has played the role of willing water-boy for Pawar [You do know that Manohar's daddy is counsel in residence for the NCP, yes? Just one in a spiderweb of interconnections -- the two only fell out when Manohar sided with Shashi Tharoor over the franchise auctions, and Pawar for his own reasons wanted the franchises to go elsewhere.], Srinivasan and others in the power elite, using the fig leaf of his authority as BCCI president to help deflect questions about their involvement.

Seriously – how do you write ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘Sharad Pawar/BCCI’ in the same sentence without busting a gut laughing?

The larger point is that current reactions to the spot-fixing controversy has mirrored what has gone before. Every single time cricket comes in the crosshairs, the official reaction has been to appease the fans’ anger by handing down ‘salutary’ punishment to a couple of players, move on, and hope that once the fans have forgotten, the same players can be brought back in, in various capacities, through the backdoor. Or, better yet, climb on the moral high horse and pretend that nothing untoward happened at all.

[Just as an example of the latter, consider this: Why was Salim Malik banned? Because Justice Qayyum, during his hearings into organized corruption, decreed that "he was 100 per cent guilty" of various offenses, including bribing Mark Waugh and Shane Warne to adversely impact on the result of the Karachi Test of the 1994-'95 series. However, the ACB has routinely maintained that Waugh and Warne never took the money. One of the two sides is clearly lying -- I mean, if the two Aussie players never took the money, how in hell can Malik be "100 per cent" guilty of giving it? What, the bundle of cash fell somewhere in between the two?]

At no point in the tangled history of cricket corruption has any official, either individually or collectively as a board, ever been questioned regarding his actions. We could look at examples from recent Pakistan cricket history, of players publicly suspected, axed, and promptly rehabilitated. On each occasion, the focus has remained on the player; never do we ask who brought him back, and what that official’s stake was in the rehabilitation.

This tendency is hardly new. Remember Mohammad Azharuddin? The man Sunny Gavaskar once said, after watching his performance in a Sharjah tournament, that he was “running as if there was no tomorrow, and if he keeps running like this there won’t be”? Then Board secretary JY Lele endorsed that view, and on record said Azhar should not be picked for national duty again, remember? And then this happened. We — present company included — questioned why the selectors had done what they did [Followers of fashion might have, at the time, noticed spiffy new Patek Phillippe watches on some selectorial wrists]; we never however questioned who the shadowy figure behind the scenes was, who over-ruled even his own number two and brought Azhar back.

Then, once the Outlook story broke, Dalmiya strenuously, repeatedly, insisted that there was no corruption in cricket. When the shit storm got too hot to handle, he got hold of a fire-extinguisher by the name of Chandrachud, a former jurist known to be inordinately fond of a flutter, and who told us, with soap opera sincerity, about his earnest desire to ‘do something for cricket‘. Boy, did he, just! In case you have forgotten just how much whitewash was then applied, here’s links to two stories I wrote at the time: one, the day before the verdict was to be announced; the other, reviewing the verdict.

Thing though is, Chandrachud was acting on instructions. We blew a raspberry at his report, but we never once questioned why the then BCCI boss was bending over backwards to try and brush all allegations under the carpet [later, when the government got involved and ordered a CBI inquiry, Dalmiya pushed back, refusing to accept the CBI's involvement in what he said was an internal affair of a private body]; why he was repeatedly involving the authority of office to bring Azhar back into the side. What did Dalmiya have to gain? Did we ask? No — just as we don’t ask questions of Pawar and gang, or of the PCB, today.

The hidden story of corruption in cricket is the story of sundry officials [and, please, let's not talk of this as a purely 'sub-continental' phenomenon -- boards across the cricketing world have been complicit, at various times, in various ways, in covering things up] who have, through their acts of omission and commission, created an atmosphere that, if not outright facilitating corruption on the part of players, at least condones it in nudge-wink fashion. And unless the official role in corruption becomes part of the conversation, we are never going to resolve this issue for good. At best, we will kill off the careers of a couple of cricketers, the circus will go underground for a while, and resurface once the dust has settled [Qayyum, if you recall, had issued strictures against the two Ws of Pakistan cricket, back in the day; today, their successors, the two brilliant Ms, are being accused of pretty much the same sort of offense. What is common? A board in denial.]

Spot fixing is not new, despite the media’s breathless seizing on that phrase with all the eagerness of a kid with a new toy [Hey, what did Herschelle Gibbs say he took money from Hansie Cronje for? To score under 20 [It's a different matter that he then had amnesia and went on to score 74]. Williams? To give more than 50 runs in his 10 overs. And so on, so there you go.]

It is also among the most difficult ‘crimes’ to spot, and take action against. While on that, read Osman Samiuddin’s prescient piece from earlier this year.

Now we know it doesn’t matter what Tendulkar does, for the reality, as the ACSU’s first comprehensive report revealed in 2001, was far more complex. They called it occurrence-fixing, but soon Rashid Latif would give it a far more evocative name: fancy-fixing, which opens up cricket’s vast statistical landscape. With fancy – or spot – fixing, each ball of a match is effectively an event, an opportunity to bet and thus an opportunity to fix. It emerged that bets were being taken on the outcome of the toss, the number of wides or no-balls in a specific over, the timing and specifics of declarations, individual batsmen getting themselves out under a specific score, even field settings.

A visit last year in Karachi to an individual familiar with the world of bookies was mind-altering: bets were placed on what the first-innings total in a county match would be by lunch on the first day, or how many overs a bowler would bowl in the first hour of a session or a day, or on how much difference there would be in first-innings totals, or on how many runs a specified group of players would make. It didn’t stop.

Paul Condon, among others, also explained why spot fixing is difficult to control, in his exit interview from anti-corruption duties:

It is a wonderful game, but if you were designing a game to fix, you would design cricket, because it is a whole series of discreet events, and every ball you can bet on. You can’t guarantee a throw-in or a free kick in soccer, but if you’re a corrupt player, you can guarantee to do certain things at key moments [in cricket], and if you can bet on that you can make a lot of money. Corruption in any walk of life, whether it’s politics or business or sport, is about human frailty and weakness, and opportunity. Most cricketers are totally sound in their integrity, but one or two still mix with the wrong people.

Condon is also worth reading on how easy it is to get sucked into the circle of corruption — and that brings up another point that has baffled me these last few days.

While some talk of ‘zero tolerance’, there seems to be a section of opinion-makers hell bent on parsing corruption. This lot says, okay, spot-fixing is bad — but hey, it is a lesser evil than match-fixing; spot fixing does not affect the outcome of the game, so the punishment should be less severe.

Really? Firstly, the argument that spot fixing cannot affect the outcome of the game is wooly-headed at best. Consider this: I am a bookie/fixer; I fix certain individual outcomes. For instance, a batsman then in prime form, will not score too many runs. Another batsman will get run out. A bowler for the same team will, while defending a score, give away way too many runs at the top. [That's a real live example -- think Cronje] In each case, I’ve “spot-fixed” certain outcomes. Now tell me that cumulatively, those individually bad performances do not adversely affect the team’s result?

The asinine part of this debate on degree of culpability is that it focuses on the offense the News of the World brought to light — to wit, the bowling of no balls. The apologists therefore go, oh hey, kid bowled a no ball and made a shitload of money, big fricking deal, we should be so lucky. What is ignored, though, is that the bowling of no-balls on cue was merely a demonstration, by a fixer to what he thought was a potential client syndicate, of just how well he could control on-field performance. If this wasn’t NOTW carrying out a sting, but a real betting syndicate ‘inspecting the goods’, as it were, then the demonstration would have convinced them the fixer could do what they wanted him to.

And then the real fix would have begun  - a bad over here, a dropped catch or two there, an underperforming bowler, a maladroit batsman…

Still think it is all innocent, and merits no more than a slap on the wrist? Here’s the corollary: once you start down the route of taking money for performance, there is no stopping; in the words of the famous song, ‘you can check in any time you like…’

So this time a Mohammad Amir takes money to bowl a no-ball. Next time, the team is about to bowl under conditions where someone with talent can literally make the ball talk — and that is when the fixer comes to him and orders him to bowl badly. You think he can say no? Not a chance — once you are caught in the toils of the betting syndicate, you are their’s for life — and that is another reason why you cannot treat ‘spot fixing’ as a lesser crime, deserving of a lesser punishment. [Read Amit Varma on the subject of this crime, and appropriate punishment, here].

There’s a heap of angles to this latest controversy; above, I was merely riffing off points that stood out for me. Here’s one last in that list — a Delhi High Court, no less, has argued that betting should be made legal.

That should gladden the heart of, among others, my libertarian friend Amit Varma, who argued this case way back in 2005. Money quote:

In some ways it is perverse that “betting” and “match-fixing” are treated almost as synonymous terms in India. It is like frowning upon sex because rape is a bad thing. Match-fixing is unambiguously wrong because the player who participates in it is betraying an implicit contract with the fans of the sport, and perhaps an explicit one with his cricket board. Why is betting wrong, though? What justifies it being banned in India?

Speaking from a different perspective, R Mohan once made an identical point to me in course of an interview:

The problem is that we, all of us, tend to forget that these are two different issues. Does betting exist? Of course it does. And perhaps 99 per cent of India’s 950 million population are guilty of it. Have you staked a bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes on the outcome of a match? If you have, you are gambling — the same as the guy who stakes a million on the same game. There is no law that says a little gambling is legal, but a lot of it is not. Gambling exists, period — andeverybody does it. You gamble when you buy stocks, you gamble when you put your money in a fixed deposit because how do you know if the bank will still be there, and in a position to pay you back, five years later?

The laws in this regard make no sense. I mean, I can walk into any racecourse in the land and bet a million on a particular race, and it is all entered in black and white and perfectly legal. But if I bet a rupee on a cricket match, I am guilty of a crime. Where is the sense in that? And again, if I go to Ladbrookes of London and bet on whether Sachin Tendulkar will score a century in the coming game, say, that is perfectly legal too. So, we have a situation where betting on one sport is legal, the other is not. Where betting on the same sport in one place is illegal, in the other, not. Where is the sense in all this?

If the government had any sense at all, they would legalise booking — I mean, it is not going to go away, is it? And give licenses to bookies. And through these means, add maybe Rs 500 million, Rs 100 million to its treasury.

Thoughts?

Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the home minister’s angst

So while I was away in Dubai, ooh-ing and aah-ing about outsize piles of steel and glass, Sri Lanka came up with a novel idea to fill a gap in its social calendar: another series against India, and how incredibly novel is that? Cricinfo has some detail:

The teams began 2008 by playing four ODIs against each other in a tri-series in Australia and faced off in two more matches during the Asia Cup in Pakistan in July. India then toured Sri Lanka for three Tests and five ODIs in July-August. After a gap of a few months, India visited Sri Lanka again in January-February 2009 for five more ODIs and a Twenty20. They won four of the one-dayers and the Twenty20 as well. Not yet satisfied, India returned in September, this time for a tri-series involving New Zealand and the hosts. They played Sri Lanka twice and lost once. Now it was Sri Lanka’s turn to visit and they toured India in December for three Tests, five ODIs and two Twenty20s.

So over the last two years, India and Sri Lanka have played a whopping 32 matches against each other across three formats – six Tests, 23 ODIs and three Twenty20s. That’s 52 days in all. And they want more.

Keep this up, and wives of Indian players are going to be filing for divorce in droves — and citing Sri Lankan players as the cause, for alienating the affections of their husbands. Seriously though, do either of the boards even know the meaning of ‘enough’?

Elsewhere, television stations across India breathed a collective woosh of relief when it turned out the franchises had ignored Pakistan players for the upcoming IPL season — the auction provided the talking heads a promising issue [here's Cricinfo's full coverage] to flog at considerable length, and when I flipped through the channels this morning, many of them were still at it.

Judging by reactions, the franchises have in one stroke hurt Indo-Pak relations, embarrassed the country, dealt a mortal blow to Pakistan cricket and devalued the equity of the IPL, to name only the more prominent sins that have our television anchors excited.

Sundry celebrities have helped the good work along with their comments — Shah Rukh for instance with an none more so than Home Minister P Chidambaram, who with a pretty pout was seen talking of how disappointed he was that Pakistan players wouldn’t feature this season.

Chidambaram and his ministry have, in recent days, warned that (a) parts of the permanent fence at the Line of Control have been cut, signaling the possibility of a concerted push by militants from across the border to infiltrate into India; (b) that the ceasefire has in recent days been broken by Pakistan troops firing into Indian territory; (c) that there is the very real apprehension of LeT-sponsored terrorist attacks across the country, including with para-gliders; and (d) that there is significant intelligence that hijack attempts will be carried out.

So, a question for the home minister: If these threats are real, and if one or more of them fructifies in the immediate future, what do you suppose the reaction within India will be to Pakistan players appearing in the IPL? Even assuming the mango person is okay with it, how do you suppose the likes of the Shiv Sena will react? And while on that outfit, the Sena has already said it will ‘not stand idly by’ if Australian players play in the IPL — so does the home ministry have any thoughts on that? Does the home ministry have the will to stand up against attempts by extra-constitutional authorities to impose their writ on the rest of us?

No? Then PC should just shut the hell up, no?

The problem for the franchises is very clear: If they pick Pakistan players, and if something untoward happens, their investment goes down the drain. Given the current climate, given the drumbeat of warnings emanating from India’s own home ministry, why should any franchise take the chance? Amit Varma among others makes that point.

That leaves the other one — the “damage done to Pakistan cricket”, the “snub to Pakistan players”, etc. What damage? A few players will not be able to add big bucks to their bank balance, true — but the ‘damage’, if any exists, is to individual fortunes, not the collective good.

More to the point, if participation in the IPL is so integral to the well-being of Pakistan cricket, where was this angst when the government last season banned its players from being part of the IPL? It wasn’t the franchises who “snubbed” Pakistan players in 2009 — it was the Pakistan government that actively blocked its players from coming to India. The dog did not bark then, no one made the case that bilateral relations had been irreparably harmed, and PC was absolutely okay following an IPL sans Pakistan stars. But now that franchises have taken what is a purely economic decision, there is a deafening uproar?

You could argue, with considerable justice, that the whole thing could have been handled better; the Pakistan stars could have been warned and given the opportunity to withdraw from the auction rather than see no public takers — but to take that button and to sew on it the vest of fractured international relations is a bit much, no?

Oh, and out of the corner of my eye I notice that Bangladesh, after raising some hopes of tweaking India’s nose a bit, is hurtling towards demise. Nice — frees me up to catch up at work after a week-long absence. Back to regular updates on blog once I settle back down here. Meanwhile, quick poll: is this whole Pak/IPL thing media-manufactured, or is there some justice to the criticism the franchises are attracting? Appreciate your thoughts.

Protecting Pakistan’s nukes

I follow this timeline fairly obsessively, and the more you read the more worried you get [maybe the trick is to not follow the darn site?].

Last week, one of the stories I was editing for India Abroad related to a Brookings Institute conference on the Obama administration’s policy options in Pakistan — and it is perhaps a function of the times that the bulk of the panelists’ time appears to have been taken up by the question of Pakistan.

Representative Jane Harman, the California Democrat who heads the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment, trotted out the tired line that the key to Afghanistan and Pakistan lies in Kashmir — a theme Obama previewed during his presidential campaign and got considerable flak for.

That argument runs roughly thus: Pakistan sees India as its primary threat. Hence it focuses the bulk of its military/security infrastructure on its border with India. This leaves Islamabad lacking resources to adequately push its existential war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Ergo, solve the Kashmir problem and Pakistan will no longer perceive India as its main threat; hence it will be in a position to deploy its military/security apparatus to best advantage.

The naivete implicit in this line of thought is astonishing. For starters, Pakistan’s perception of India as the threat is a matter of political and military convenience, not a point of fact. As long as Islamabad can keep the India bogey front and center before its people, it can distract attention from domestic ills: a Balkanized country and a failed economy, with the over-arching threat of a fundamentalist takeover, being merely the most important of these. Similarly, as long as the military harps on India it can justify its enormous expenditure on hardware and, in fact, provide its own raison d’etre. And ‘harp’ is the mot juste: the state sponsors and actively promotes a steady drumbeat of programming aimed at convincing the ordinary Pakistani that but for the grace of the military and whichever political power broker is in office at the time, India would have swallowed Pakistan whole by now [more on that later].

Bottom line, the government and military need the India threat — which is why ‘solving Kashmir’ resolves nothing; Islamabad merely has to discover/invent another reason for feeling ‘threatened’. And it will. Too often, the military is accused of having created the India bogey for its own ends, but the fact is that successive prime ministers from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on down have equally held up the India threat to rally its people behind the political process.

Incidentally, just how does Harman and her ilk propose to go about ‘solving’ Kashmir? The most commonly propounded solution is to make the Line of Control the new international border. Assume that is acceptable to us — does Pakistan have a government in place that has sufficient popular support to proselytize that solution and gain widespread acceptance for it? Does it, hell — the reaction to that will be that Pakistan cannot accept formalizing the LoC because to do so means ‘ceding’ Kashmir to India, and negating a decade-plus of ‘jihad‘.

Harman is not the first US lawmaker to propose the ‘resolve Kashmir, solve Afghanistan-Pakistan’ solution — but none, including her, have as yet been able to indicate just how the US, or anyone else, proposes to solve the problem in the face of Pakistan’s continued intransigence.

Bruce Riedel, the former CIA analyst who co-authored Obama’s review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation and thus paved the way for the formulation of the administration’s Af-Pak strategy, had a different view [Riedel's writings on the region here].

He believes among other things that Pakistan’s India-centric threat perception is dictated by self-interest and not because of India’s actions [So one would hope -- what act of India's can Islamabad point to, to justify this 'threat'? Hell, we didn't even go to war when Pakistani nationals trained, funded and armed in that country waged war in Bombay a year ago] but because of its own self-interest. And, further, that while it is mandatory for the US to support Pakistan in its current struggle, the US should also begin showing some ‘tough love’ [his words]  by calling them out publicly when they go down the wrong road — such as doing deals with the Quetta Shura or other extremist elements, for instance, or using the ‘India threat’ to justify deploying less than the required resources to its battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Riedel’s is, in administration circles, the unpopular line to take; for some weird reason, successive US administrations seem to prefer accepting — or at least, appearing to accept — Pakistan’s ‘concern’ about the ‘India threat’ as genuine, and even to feed that paranoia.

Maybe it is this paranoia — real, or a convenient creation — that Harman and her fellow travelers might want to try and ‘solve’. And fast. The October attack on the military complex in Kamra, which experts say is one of the storage points for Pakistan’s nuclear components, should have been warning enough [the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies had a think paper out on the theme]. More recently, Seymour Hersh has produced for the New Yorker a typically comprehensive effort on the safety — or lack thereof — of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that is required reading [the only reaction out of Pakistan, incidentally, is the suggestion that its nukes are safe, thank you very much so shut up already].

Harking back to the question of the ‘India threat’, Venkatesh Varadarajan in email pointed at the sort of official media manipulation that breathes life into this perception. The relevant excerpt from his email:

On another note, was watching a Pakistani music channel the other day – decent music actually. But I was a bit surprised at the anti-India obsession on it. They had this junta interview segment where they interviewed the ‘man on the street’ plus some musicians. Constant underlying theme: we are waay better than those guys across the border; they suck, they force you to compromise on your principles, yada yada yada.

I mean, come on!! Grow up! I’m guessing it probably was a state sponsored channel. But still … The only way they’re going to get over it is if they get something else to do with their time other than listening to the mullahs.

 

When smoke gets in your eyes

Pakistan has an interesting way of dealing with terrorists.

First, it “means business”, but points out that action will “take time”. Then, it “arrests” him – or at least, “verbally” tells the culprit to stay put at his residence, No: 116E, Mohalla Johar in Lahore City in this instance. Verbally, too, the detainee is told there is no problem if he wants to lighten the tedium of such harsh incarceration by attending the occasional party.

During this time, various apologists make considerable noise about how the arrest du jour shows that Pakistan is taking severe action against terrorists.

And then, in a Hitchcockian twist, the detainee is released. [Déjà vu all over again – this is the second time Hafiz Saeed has been arrested and released after 26/11].

It is only following the release that we learn he wasn’t charged with terrorism-related offences after all [though during the ‘trial’, news reports presented a totally different picture – so now you know why these hearings are always held in-camera].

Saeed was merely charged with making speeches that could possibly incite violence [you know, like a Pakistani version of Varun Gandhi] and with trying to raise funds for what Islamabad says is a perfectly legitimate organization.

The word “legitimate” is used loosely here. Check this out, from the story of Saeed’s release:

He was also accused of appealing for funds for a banned group. Mr. Saeed currently leads Jamat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity widely viewed as a front for Lashkar-e-Tayeba.

His lawyer, A. K. Dogar, said he had argued that the government had not banned Jamat-ud-Dawa and therefore it was legal to solicit donations for it. “The court accepted my contention,” he was quoted by news media as saying outside the court.

An absolutely valid argument, and one with considerable legal force. The question it begs is: why did Pakistan not ban the Jamat?

Islamabad wanted to – or at least, it said so. It said, too, that it could not take action until the UN told it to [Why Islamabad required the United Nations to green light action against a terrorist outfit on its own soil is a question best left unasked].

“After the designation by the Indian government of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa under 1267, the (Pakistani) government upon receiving this instruction shall proscribe the JuD and take under (sic!) consequential action as required including the freezing of assets,” he [Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations Abdullah Hussain Haroon] said.

That was on December 10.

A day later, on December 11, the United Nations Security Council put it official seal on the contention of India and the United States that the Jamat-ud-Dawa is merely the Lashkar-e-Tayeba by another name [a deft bait and switch operation carried out in 2002 under the nose of then President Pervez Musharraf, when the UNSC named Lashkar-e-Tayeba a terrorist organization].

Even China, which had on three previous occasions blocked India’s bid to have the J-u-D proscribed, finally stopped objecting in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks and voted in favor of putting J-u-D on the proscribed list. Pakistan certainly cannot claim it didn’t know about this, as the fact of the ban was no secret – in fact, within hours of the ban, a J-u-D leader reacted with a press statement that can be summed up in two terse words: F**k off.

So that’s the story: The J-u-D was proscribed in December. Pakistan said it would ban the J-u-D in December. Immediately after the UNSC resolution, Pakistan acted [Note that the word ‘act’ has more than one meaning]:

It placed Hafiz Saeed under house arrest, as the New York Times describes; it froze the J-u-D’s assets in true horse, stable door style, as the WSJ reported;  and if the outfit remained open for business, well…

Pakistan has made no secret of why it took these ‘stern’ actions.

Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar on Friday said the government acted against Jamaat-ud-Dawah in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolution in order to prevent the country from being declared a terrorist state. “We are part of the international community and cannot afford confrontation with the whole world.”

Now, 10 months later and with the danger of being labeled a terrorist state averted, the courts say there is no problem with Hafiz Saeed proselytizing for the J-u-D because hey, the organization is not banned after all.

So what then were those proclamations of ‘action’ all about?

From the story of Saeed’s release:

India has given Pakistan evidence, based on its intelligence and the testimony of the sole surviving gunman, that it says showed that Mr. Saeed provided detailed instructions to the militants who carried out the attack. But Pakistan says there is not enough evidence to charge him.

Check out the highlighted bit. Without going into details, Home Minister P Chidambaram in an interview with Barkha Dutt discussed the nature of evidence India had built against Saeed.

Firstly we know when Kasab first met Hafiz  and where. We know what Hafiz Saeed told the trainees. We know at least a couple of places where the training took place. And that  Hafeez Saeed visited these camps. We know that it was Hafiz Saeed who gave names to buddy pairs. The final farewell call was made by Hafiz and Hafiz Saeed even tested Kasab and others on their training achievements. A terrorist actively, and demonstrably, involved in 26/11 testified that Hafiz Saeed played a role in prepping him and his mates for the attack. The testimony, and other details, has been passed on to Pakistan.

Further, the sole surviving terrorist involved in 26/11 testified to the meetings he and his team had with Saeed.

The dossier quotes from Kasab’s confessional statement before the Mumbai’s additional chief metropolitan magistrate in which he claims to have first met Hafiz Saeed in December 2007 at a 21-day training camp.

According to Kasab’s statement, he subsequently met Hafiz Saeed at other training sessions in Chelabandi, Sevai Nallah and a place called ‘Baitul Mujahideen’ where he ‘selected trainees and supervised their training’.

According to Kasab’s testimony, after the completion of training Hafiz Saeed formed five pairs of 10 fighters for carrying out attacks in Mumbai and gave the attackers operational instructions, including the hijacking of a boat and the timing of the attack.

He is said to have specified targets on a large screen in a ‘media control room at the training camp’.

Fahim Ansari, who was originally arrested on Feb 9 last year in connection with the Rampur camp attack case, also claimed in his statement that Hafiz Saeed had visited the training camp and exhorted the trainees to launch a ‘Jihad against India’.

It would be understandable – on a relative scale – if the courts had deemed that the evidence presented was not enough to convict Saeed. What is inexplicable is that the evidence is not even deemed enough to charge the man.

It’s a strange place, Pakistan. A land where you can get 14 years in jail if you make jokes about Mr Ten Percent President Asif Ali Zardari, but where you can walk free if you plot the killing of hundreds in a foreign land. [While on jokes, it is good to see that the sense of humor of the average Pakistani is not dead yet – check out this absolutely Onion-esque ‘news report’].

None of this should come as a surprise – the only truism about Pakistan’s “actions” against terrorists is that it is all smoke and mirrors. The state will act only when it has no other option; the action will last only as long as the perceived threat remains [vide Ahmed Mukthar’s honest, and disarmingly naïve, explanation cited earlier on why Islamabad acted against the J-u-D]; the moment the coast is clear, the terrorists will be freed either by the courts or by some other mysterious means.

Consider two recent incidents. On March 3, 2009 a suicide attack was launched on the Sri Lankan cricket team as the team bus approached the gates of Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium. And earlier this month, on October 10, armed gunmen stormed the holy of Pakistan’s holies – the heavily fortified military headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan says its military officials have arrested one Aqeel, aka Doctor Usman, who led the raid on the army HQ. Authorities say, further, that they believe Doctor Usman was likely linked to the attack against the Lankan cricket team.

I’m no lawyer, but I’ll defend this Doctor Usman for free – and guarantee to get him out. Here’s how:

On October 25, 2008, authorities ‘arrested’ four people in connection with the September 20, 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott. One of them was Doctor Usman.

He could not have been part of the attack on the Lankan national team in March, because even five months later, on August 11, he was still in custody — it was on that date that the Anti-Terrorism Court completed its hearing into the Marriott bombing case.

And on September 22, 2009, the ATC rejected Doctor Usman’s plea for acquittal in that case.

Thus, your honor, my client could not have attacked the army GHQ last weekend even though he was actually captured on the premises, because he was demonstrably in ATC custody at the time. Or did someone fudge the books and let him out? If so, why is that person or persons not charged with complicity in the army HQ attack?

The problem with the smoke Islamabad keeps blowing in its farcical ‘war on terror’ is that it is increasingly getting into its own eyes.