Pakistan and India Try Talking for a Change
By John Alderman, Tue Apr 06 02:00:00 GMT 2004

In a four-month trial tied to a historic cricket series, India has allowed its mobile carriers to implement roaming services in Pakistan.

This sign that the two adversarial countries might enter a new phase of warming relations is remarkable, given the great historical and recent disputes between them. Opening the doors to mobile cooperation is, for many, a sign of better days, and rising fortunes, within the region.

After independence from Britain in 1947, India split into two parts: one keeping its name, India, and the other becoming the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Since that violent separation, the two countries, despite many ties, have often been antagonistic. Three wars have been fought between them.

In 1999 the tensions reached nearly apocalyptic levels, as both sides revealed that they had developed nuclear weapons, and the rockets to deliver them to each other, just as the dispute over northern Kashmir heated. While fevers mounted, the grim reality of a nuclear exchange, after having been calmed by the cold war’s end, again seemed terribly possible. The 2001 terrorist bombing of the Indian parliament further poisoned relations as India accused Pakistan of aiding terrorists.

Can Cricket Things Cool Off?

A vestige of a British colonial past, cricket is remarkably popular in India and Pakistan. Since 2000, the Indian government had banned all cricket games with Pakistan, and it’s been 15 years since an Indian team has played on Pakistani soil. The idea of matches between the two seemed to be a confidence-building measure that would touch all levels. While other recent openings have included transportation links, this would be the only one beamed to millions of TV sets.

As Technology Minister Arun Shourie said, "People are not just interested in watching Indo-Pak cricket matches but also sharing their excitements." That means talking about it — especially those Indian fans who made the trip to Pakistan.

A little overshadowed by the sports fever, the roaming agreements have allowed Pakistani and Indian companies to work together. Maybe equally important symbolically and in the long term for freeing minds and generating income, the free flow of dialogue could make the prospect of war seem less inevitable. Escaping the cycle of war seems more possible as the region has become aware of its ability to escape the cycle of poverty.

Because of the nature of Pakistan’s split from India, there remain many families with members on both sides of the border. Reestablishing ties that have severed and business cooperation seems like a good start for mending fences, just as technology-driven innovation propels the region forward.

Transforming Ties For Changing Times

There has been a lot of press recently about jobs from America being shifted to lower-paid engineers in India, and most of it has been given a protective, alarmist spin. While no one likes to lose jobs, the idea of technology’s ability to raise standards for everyone and lift economics from a zero-sum game is not mentioned nearly as often. A report late last year announced that Indian divisions of American companies had already applied for over 1000 patents. Increased trade and freer communication with India can help Pakistan’s economy to benefit, too.

Those who live in the area have witnessed an inspiring transformation. Speaking to Fakhar Iqbal Butt, a manager of revenue assurance for Pakistani carrier Mobilink, one can easily sense optimism for the technology as well as the cultural connections it might foster.

“This is something which was missing previously,” he says. “There was not any platform for the general public.”

Butt notes that two International roaming agreements between Indian companies and Mobilink have already been finalized and operational, with more in process. “Government has also lifted a number of sanctions from both countries,” he says. “People from both ends, many for first time, have been given such a positive platform to interact with each other.”

Other than the technical changes, Butt says that he has observed “a lot” of social, cultural and traditional changes. International roaming, he says, supports these changes.

Both governments are risking prestige on a smooth outcome to the matches, and the Indian administration should know very quickly whether the bet was right: elections are later this month. The campaigning Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee noted the countries that were once playing with the bomb, “are now playing cricket.”

The revenue from these games, which have proven to be extremely popular, has been a boon for everyone from TV stations (like Dubai-based Ten Sports which is reportedly expecting to earn $33 million from telecasts) to local hotels and restaurants in cities hosting games. An estimated 8000 Indians are visiting Pakistan for the games.

But sport diplomacy is not without risk. While in 1971 an American ping-pong team became a symbol of peace when it visited China, the next year saw the Munich Olympics become a sad symbol of the rise of terrorism. One can imagine tempers rising dramatically after an episode of hooliganism or worse.

But for now, an area too used to violence is witnessing another kind of war: a price war, as carriers cut prices in efforts to compete.