Cricketing Confluence

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As Afridi batted his sixes to victory, cricket became the European Rugby with clashes hitting cheering Kashmiris left, right and centre. With a UP University rusticating 67 Kashmiri students, Islamabad’s foreign office picked the ball for a diplomatic hit. Riyaz Ul Khaliq weaves twirls and twists into Kashmir’s cricketing ballad

Shahid-Afridi

(Shahid Afridi)

It was the first ball of the fiftieth over that Saeed Ajmal, ninth of the Pakistani wicket, had returned to the pavilion in Bangladesh’s Mirpur stadium. Silence descended in the balconies and bedrooms of Srinagar’s cricket-fans because the order was tall: 10 runs from five balls. Pakistan was on the brinks of a crushing defeat. People started sweating despite winter.

Junaid, who replaced Ajmal, managed a single fetching Shahid Afridi to face Ashvin. It changed the situation completely. Third ball was a Sixer, so was the fourth one. Pakistan won the match against India. In Kashmir the pin drop silence broke into a wave, almost everywhere.

“I did not watch these three balls that changed the match,” said Abdul Majid Khan, an old city resident. “I was laying prostate and lacked courage to watch it.”

Celebrations lit the black midnight. Thousands of crackers burst up in skies with high-decibel noises. Areas like Nowhatta in Srinagar, witnessed youth getting to the main road and celebrating “their victory” over “them” for nearly two hours. There was, however, no law and order problem.

But Meerut is not Srinagar. Students from two hostels of Swami Vivekanand Subharti University (SVSU) were allegedly attacked by their classmates for allegedly cheering for Pakistan. The versions of the incident that followed India’s loss of the key Asia Cup match are contested by both sides.

Kashmiri students in MLD and VHR hostels say they did not cheer at all but enjoyed the match. The University administration that had its Warden watching the match personally alleged that the Kashmiri students resorted to violence and damaged property besides shouting pro-Pakistan slogans. Within less than 24 hours after, the SVSU gets 67 of them in two university buses escorted by UP police and they were deported to Gaziabad and Delhi. They were told they are rusticated for three days and then they were sent home, some of them penniless, hungry and thirsty.

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(Remnants of last International cricket Match played in Srinagar Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

As they reached home, they came to know that they are being tried for treason. It angered everybody across the political divide. While separatists took to the routine protest route, NC and PDP – the two unionist formations intervened. While Chief Minister Omar Abdullah managed intervention of his UP counterpart Akhilesh Yadav, his predecessor took up the issue with Prime Minister. It was Pakistan foreign office that started playing its inning by offering rusticated students education with open hearts.

Well before the clocks ticked the midnight on Thursday, sedition charges had been dropped. Tensions, however, exist. Nobody knows about the course that events may shape up for the students who were deported in the middle of their academic session.

It was not Meerut alone. In Punjab, where thousands of Kashmiri students prefer to study, considering it safer, some students in Desh Bhagat Dental College & Hospital in Muktasar encountered tensions. Around 27 Kashmir boys and 20 girls are studying there. In Malak Pur area, there were similar complaints from PIER group of colleges. A few small incidents were reported from Rajasthan as well where hundreds of Kashmiris are preparing for various engineering courses.

Unlike Meerut, the students in Muktasar could not claim their innocence. A small video clip showing them breaking into celebrations after Pakistan win, albeit in a hall, bears testimony to the fact that youth fail to comprehend the space and time matrix and ignore host emotions when it comes to cricket.

A series of tweets by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah explained the predicament in which he might have been feeling himself as the chief executive of India’s most sensitive state. “I believe the University did what it had to, to control the situation but this action (charging them for sedation) by the UP Govt is uncalled for & should be reversed,” Omar tweeted. “Sedition charge against Kashmiri students is an unacceptably harsh punishment that will ruin their futures & will further alienate them.”

Omar spoke to Yadav and managed to get the sedition charge dropped against “misguided” students. “I believe what the students did was wrong & misguided but they certainly didn’t deserve to have charges of sedition slapped against them,” Omar said. “Finally while what the boys may have done in Meerut is misguided it certainly isn’t illegal, regardless of whom they were cheering.”

But Omar’s most important tweet came late that evening. “The sad fact is that some of these students are recipients of the PM scholarship for Kashmiris,” Omar wrote. “Perhaps they need to introspect.” Deported students told Kashmir Life 65 of the 67 were recipients of Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS), a special initiative that pays them for everything till they complete their degrees.

But the expelled students swear they were not responsible for the ruckus. “They (non Kashmiris) were hooting till the first ball of the last hour,” said one student, who wishes to stay anonymous. “We briefly hooted for the last two balls.” He said their hostels were attacked. “It will be an honest enquiry that will offer the exact nature of the crisis,” the student said. “We had never any compliant with the university, it managed us well but there was a lurking undercurrent that Kashmiris are not permitting any student from any other state to touch the top academic positions.” His assessment is that cricket was used to hit at a different target! There are only girls and around seven boys who are still in the University.

Expelled Kashmiri students addressing media in Srinagar.

(Expelled Kashmiri students addressing media in Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

Kashmir has two of its cricketers Suresh Raina and Parvez Rasool playing for India’s national team. There are best Kashmiri sports-persons bringing laurels to their teams. The latest is Meraj-Ud-Din Wadoo who led Kolkata-based club Mohammedan Sporting Club, to lift the prestigious IFA Shield trophy after a gap of 43 years. Wadoo was adjudged the best Indian footballer of the season.

But it is not affecting the phenomenon of Kashmiris cheering for Pakistan. Whether or not this cheering has political overtones, it transcends decades of turmoil and the politico-ideological divide of the place. It has been there ever since the subcontinent recognized cricket as the new sporting religion of the region.

There are two trends that the game has evolved in Kashmir. One, when India is pitted against Pakistan. The other is when India is pitted against any other country.

Scenario first is a serious crisis. Kashmir exhibits state of a curfew like situation. Traffic is off the roads, roads get deserted. Market in Srinagar exhibits a major appetite for diesel gensets. Cable operators can not have the luxury of being lenient.

“When Pakistan is pitted against India, tensions run high. It’s an almost war-like situation, minus bullets and bombs. It’s no more just about cricket; it’s about pride and retribution. Defeating India becomes a rallying cry,” wrote Zafar Mehdi, Kashmiri editor of Afghan Zariza, Kabul’s first magazine. “Such is the frenzy that even the pro-India ministers and legislators, watching the action in their plush government mansions, in their heart of hearts pray for Pakistan’s victory.”

There are instances in which some Kashmiri cricket fans died of cardiac arrests as the tensions surged with bad performance. The folklore has many instances in which individuals have destroyed their radio or TV sets after the team they supported lost. “I was a school goer when my neighbour, a butcher, was told that I am supporting India team,” a banker Ikhlaq Ahmad said. “He was literally in ambush for me for three days with his butchering knife and I had to stay indoors.” Ahmad said his mother is still invoking the butcher’s threat whenever he puts on TV for a match. “But I am not a Pakistani team supporter,” he said.

Kashmir has evolved like this. The last major reference on the cricket front was on October 13, 1983 when India was pitted against West Indies, for a historic first in Srinagar. It was Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, not far away from powerful Gupkar Road that hosted the match.

“The Stadium was filled to the brim,” Meraj Akram, a college lecturer said. “For every hit that any West Indies player had, the entire crowd would get into ecstasy and standing ovation.”

But the incidents during the year had an impact. On August 15, 1983 when the official function was at its peak in Bakhshi Stadium someone lobbed a petrol bomb inside. It killed a city girl. When Delhi announced its plans for hosting a match in Srinagar, a discontent was simmering. It eventually led Shabir Shah led Peoples League to ensure the match is disrupted because, they felt, Kashmir being a disputed region cannot host an international event.

Pervaz Rasool and Suresh Raina.

(Pervaz Rasool and Suresh Raina.)

After the half time, the teams went for lunch and four youth jumped the barricades and ran with stumps in their hands. They started digging the pitch. All the four were arrested. They were residents of Batamaloo: Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat (alias Islam), Sheikh Abdur Rouf and Irshad Ahmad Bhat. Interestingly, a non-local had also jumped the barricades and entered the pitch. He too was arrested.

 Trail against the five and seven others, also accused of playing some affiliate role, continued for a long time. Srinagar District and Sessions Judge Kaneez Fatima acquitted them in November 2011, almost 28 years later for “lack of evidence”. Two of the 12 accused had died while the trial was going on.

But the game resumed after the pitch-digging. The crowd was completely hostile – celebrating a hit by West Indies and loss of an Indian wicket. It shocked most of the Indian players and the people who watched the match on TV screens. The match was truncated because of bad light followed by a dust storm. West Indies won the match as averages were compared.

Guest team expressed surprise that they never got such a supportive crowd even back home. But that was not the only controversy of the first ever ODI that Srinagar hosted. Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah, who was part of the crowd, was criticized for ignoring the absence of tri colour in the pavilion. He later famously said that the national flag was not supplied by the Board of Cricket Control in India!

International cricket stayed away from Kashmir. But the government was desperate to create another sporting event that does not prove embarrassing. Authorities were aware of the fact that on April 18, 1986 when Pakistan wrested Sharjah Cup from India, it triggered a mid-night celebratory procession of thousands of people from Batamaloo to Maisuma. They were carrying traditional torches. But the government was keen to take a chance. That came on September 9, 1986 when Australia flew to Srinagar to play against India.

“Kashmir remained on strike that day but I had to watch the match so I came on foot from Pampore,” said Ghulam Nabi. “There were quite a few civilians because the crowd comprised of soldiers, cops and the elite.”

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(Remnants of last International cricket Match played in Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

Sunil Gavaskar helped India score 222 for 8. Australia achieved the target with three wickets in hand and six balls to go. Allan Border scored 90 not out off 106 balls and was adjudged Man of the Match. Despite the arrangements, there was pro-Pakistan sloganeering. Arrests followed.

The venue of the two matches was very soon converted into a garrison. CRPF occupied the stadium in 1990s and for years it was the address for terror and torture. It was only in 2002 when part of the paramilitary forces had left and the venue hosted a gala-function of National Conference (NC) – Omar Abdullah being coronated as Dr Abdullah’s successor. A year later, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaking to a good crowd that Mufti Sayeed arranged – to extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan.

But nobody had fiddled with the 1986 impact that the stadium had witnessed. When Kashmir Life’s Bilal Bahadur went to the stadium on April 27, 2010, he could capture many shots that suggested they belonged to past – scattered name plates and score boards. Most of the stadium was demolished to pave way for a new stadium well before the Dr Farooq led J&K Cricket Association was caught in the money embezzlement in 2012.

In last 25 years, when the situation brought in hoards of security men who started living in the neighbourhood, celebrations were low key because of reprisals. As it resumed later, it baffled security forces. Since it would create a larger crisis to retaliate for cheering a team, the security forces, tired of watching celebrations over Pakistan’s cricket victories, evolved their own system of countering it.

Pakistan did not win always when it was pitted against India. So for every Pakistani loss in cricket, they would invest heavily in crackers. It has remained a routine for a last more than two decades.

At times, it proves fatal. On April 22, 1994, after Pakistan lifted the Australia Cup after defeating India, a celebratory crowd started dancing on the streets. Security forces opened fire killing a University of Kashmir employee Imtiyaz Ahmad on the spot.

On Sunday night, when a group of skiing instructors and trainee soldiers were watching the match in Jawahar Lal Nehru Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports at Gulmarg, there was visible division. As Pakistan won and an instructor Mohammad Yousuf Reshi from Bhaderwah clapped over the win, soldiers took him to their room and stabbed him. For the last two days he is recovering in a Srinagar hospital as the police had no option but to register a case and arrest five persons including three soldiers.

Game is just a show and the shows have invariably remained uninterrupted throughout history. Amir Khan’s Lagaan was just a great film that lacks relevance to future.

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