If Wishes Were Horses

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Umar Mukhtar on the flip side of diplomacy between India and Pakistan involving sports

‘Unofficial’ India Kabaddi Team in Pakistan.

Kabbadi, mankind’s oldest game, has emerged as the new dungal between India and Pakistan. With New Delhi and Islamabad not looking at each other and busy in diplomatic Kabbadi, the revelation that an “unofficial” Indian Kabbadi team is participating in the World Kabbadi Championship (January 12-18), named after Guru Nanak, in Pakistan shocked the game lovers.

As the news reached the newspaper front-pages, everybody in BJP government is swearing that they did not permit anybody. But the Pakistani media is reporting that the “Indian team” has reached semi-finals. Incidentally when they crossed the Wagha border on February 8, top Pakistani sports officials drove to receive them with pomp and show, perhaps to win a few diplomatic brownie points. This added fuel to fire.

“No one has given permission to any Kabaddi player to go to Pakistan,” Kiran Rijiju, India’s sports minister was quoted saying. “Issuance of giving visa is the sovereign prerogative of a country; we have no role in granting visa. We’ll talk to the Kabaddi Federation on whether it was an informed visit or not.” SP Garg, the administrator of Amateur Kabbadi Federation of India (AKFI) also swears that no such permission was granted to anybody.  “We came to know about it only after the information was sought. AKFI does not support any such activity. Legal action may be taken against the defaulters,” he was quoted saying.

But the rumours are rife that the team has gone unofficially.

However, Times of India reported that Punjab Kabbadi Association (PKA) confirmed that they received invitation and they accepted it but before they could decide Pakistani managers of the championship changed rules. It was later that at least 60 Kabbadi players crossed the border. “Pakistan Amateur Circle Kabaddi Federation (PACKF) secretary general Muhammad Sarwar Bhatt claimed that an Indian kabaddi team was formed out of these players while others were adjusted in teams of different countries,” the newspaper reported.

Even this is not satisfying the angry lot.”Twelve players are required to form a kabaddi team. So how could a 60-member contingent obtain the permission to travel to Pakistan and take part in a tournament,” a former Punjab Kabaddi Association (PKA) functionary told The DNA.

But the situation took an interesting turn on Friday when the “unofficial team” entered the semi-finals after beating Iran 50-38 in the quarter-finals. Besides, Pakistan, Iran and Australia have entered the semi-finals.

The championship that will fetch the topper 10 million Pakistani bucks is being participated by teams from Australia, England, Germany, Iran, Azerbaijan, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Canada. The runner ups will get Pakistani Rs 7.5 million.

Ever since the championship was started in 2010, India has always hosted and won it. This is for the first time that the game moved across the Redcliff divide that the ongoing situation between the two neighbours overshadows it resulting in formal Indian boycott. Pakistan, however, claims that Indian team is part of the event. In coming days, the interesting details will be out.

Now, even the horse is caught in the adverse diplomacy between India and Pakistan.

In an interesting twist to the Tokyo 2020, Pakistani equestrian named Usman Khan has qualified for the Olympics to be hosted by Tokyo in July. However, he wants to ride his horse whom he has named ‘Azad Kashmir’. Since his horse shares the name with the part of Kashmir that is in Pakistan’s control and a parliament resolution says belongs to India, New Delhi is unhappy.

Indian officials accused him of making a political statement. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra, who is Kashmir origin sports manager, has told the ANI that his association may lodge a formal complaint to International Olympic Committee (IOC) against Pakistan equestrian Usman Khan over his horse’s name.

“We find it objectionable. We are studying the matter,” Batra was quoted saying. “We have not lodged a formal complaint with the IOC as we are looking into the matter properly. We will analyse the matter as it is a politically sensitive issue for India.”

Khan, according to Pakistani media is unwilling to yield. “It’s a trivial issue really,” The Dawn quoted Khan, 38, saying. “My intentions are very clear. The horse was not named in response to the lockdown in Indian Kashmir.” He is currently hunting for sponsors to fund his and his horse’s Tokyo travel.

The horse earlier named Here to Stay had a name change that Khan claims cost him US$1000.  In his stable, Khan has claimed, all the horses are named after beautiful areas of northern Pakistan.

What happens to ‘Azad Kashmir’ is diplomacy but who Khan is, is important. Son of an army officer and a Lahore resident, he has been rider since the age of seven and is currently living in Melbourne (Australia). Al Jazeera reported that Khan went to a university in Adelaide and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Geographical Information System, but soon after switched gears and picked up eventing – an equestrian discipline which combines dressage, cross-country and show jumping. In 2005, he left his master’s research scholarship at Melbourne’s Monash University to focus on his riding career and broke his leg in 2006 to stay home for two years. An IT consultant, he qualified twice for the Asian Games in 2014 and 2018.

Usman Khan’s with his controversially named horse.

“He said he has spent approximately 3 million Australian dollars ($2m) from his personal savings to fund his athletic career, including travelling across Australia to different International Federation for Equestrian (FEI) events,” the global broadcaster reported. “His Olympic horse, Azad Kashmir, a 13-year-old New Zealand thoroughbred, alone cost him 11000 Australian dollars ($74,000).”

Khan wants to perform better and make Islamabad proud in a sport that is elitist, expensive and hugely unpopular. Commented outlook: “If wishes were horses, Azad Kashmir would have been something else.”

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