Everyone in Pakistan loves Virat Kohli. Almost everyone who follows cricket. That includes those who don’t consider Pakistan-India matches anything less than a face-to-face act of war that must culminate in the annihilation of the other. All those who love cricket in Pakistan consider Team India, on merit, a splendid squad. During the Pakistan-India debacle of the 2019 World Cup match on 16 June, there was not a single good bit of Indian cricket that went unpraised by Pakistani cricket enthusiasts. Pakistan, despite defeat, lauded India’s performance.

Cricket acts as a noisy catharsis for the best and the most noxious on both sides of the border, highlighting, uneasily, the very real simmering enmity between the two countries which are geographically so close that borders blur in some places.

Pakistan seemed jubilant at the abysmal World Cup departure of the Kohli-led Indian team. In what would have been a normal reaction from a Pakistan that at present, for reasons beyond cricket, doesn’t think of India in glowing terms, instantly noticeable was Pakistani elation at India’s defeat, having faced incessant trolling that went beyond good-spirited mockery. It was a predictable response to the defeat of the-neighbour-you-love-to-hate. The arrogance of Indians, and not the performance of the team, is what undid India’s World Cup.

Watching online reactions, I realized the significance of the shift in the Pakistan-India relationship. It happened after Balakot and Abhinandan. For once, India was everything that Pakistan should distance itself from. No longer was love for Indian movies, songs, actors and cricket distinguishable from venom-spewing politicians and wishing-for-Pakistan’s-annihilation public, online and on the streets of India. Pakistanis who always wished to see India as a visa-less journey became aware of the barbs that didn’t merely cover wires on borders, but laced the words and sentiments of every Pakistan-bashing Indian seen at political rallies and on TV debates. Voices of the moderates, muffled, became a cave echo that went unheard.

Pakistan believes India does not wish to have peace with Pakistan and that Pakistan should lock its peace overtures in the box of things-that-never-happen.

India does not like Pakistan and Pakistan does not like India. The perception that exists vis-à-vis India in Pakistan and vice versa barely covers the way a regular Pakistani views India. I can’t speak for Indians, but I know many Pakistanis who despite being a minority, beyond politics and secure borders, understand the inevitability of a good mutually beneficial relationship.

There is a Pakistani-British doctor who says, “India’s medicine and media are very advanced. Pakistan army is the best. India is huge and its education system is superior to ours. I’ve seen Indian doctors in the UK, how hard they work. Their focus is on their children’s education. They spend less on luxury, unlike us!"

A businessman who says, “From religious and political angles, India seems to have gone through an upheaval in the last five-six years or so. To me, it seems 1,000 years of Muslim rule has not been digested. That’s why what took Pakistan 70 years, India did in 4 years of Modi’s first government. Culturally, India is diverse… I still believe the majority of Indians, like us, want peace and friendship, and are not haters."

A high-level diplomat who says, “Hindutva is a vindication of the two-nation theory. Pakistan desires peace, but not if it means capitulation. The Indian tendency to politicize sports and showbiz is deeply resented in Pakistan. India’s knee-jerk reactions to terrorist attacks and blaming Pakistan are not taken well in Pakistan. While we recognize that India is bigger in size and resources, we don’t want to capitulate to it. For dispute resolution, India, being the bigger entity, has to show large-heartedness."

A celebrated female novelist who says, “I’ve always been fascinated with India because it’s our neighbour. We still have a strong association despite the political instability. We share history with India. I love Bollywood movies and that’s one of the strongest reasons why I like India… Indians are warm, welcoming. I’ve received more love and adulation from my Indian readers than from my Pakistani readers. India and Pakistan can be really good friends if there’s no political tension between them."

A barrister who says, “I think India is a beautiful country, and I wish we could have good ties with India."

A Singapore-based chemical engineer who says, “As India stands today, I see it moving away from its claimed secularism, becoming more intolerant. If it avoids that... India [could be] a big economic power...."

A Canada-based businesswoman who says, “I’ve always been pro-India due to its diversity and secularism, but unfortunately, the present India... is losing its diversity and secularism. Minorities are not safe in present-day India. [Yet] I feel Bollywood is equally mine, as if all Indian stars are mine!"

A TV presenter who says, “Geographically, economically, India has its own importance. India is our neighbour; it’s moving towards becoming a huge world power; but in the context of social and political terms, India doesn’t seem like a big power. Its caste and class system, persecution of minorities, human rights violations in Kashmir. All that deprives India of its ‘Shining’ credentials."

And me... I love Virat Kohli too.

Mehr Tarar is a Lahore-based columnist and the author of ‘Do We Not Bleed?’

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