August 01, 2020
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It’s Freezing, But They Want To Bat

Sporting bonds are bound across the India-Pak border. They yearn for the stifling siege to lift.

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It’s Freezing, But They Want To Bat
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Indian and Pakistani supporters watch an ODI in Lahore on March 24, 2004
Photograph by Getty Images
It’s Freezing, But They Want To Bat

Around the time of the sanguinary Partition of India in 1947, hockey wizard Dhyan Chand was posted by the British Indian Army in Bannu, near Kohat—currently in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. After he ret­urned to a newly partitioned India, his salary got stuck in Pakistan. After almost 27 years, he received his salary, all of Rs 13,000, thanks to a Pakistani who was an Indian once—the legendary hockey forward Col (retd) Ali Iqtidar Shah Dara.

Partition couldn’t weaken the bond forged between Dhyan Chand, then part of the Punjab Regiment, and Dara on and off the field. Both played as forwards for the Indian team that won gold in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and their combined exploits are now part of hockey lore. Dara went on to captain Pakistan and played in the 1948 Olympics. Both met up again in 1974 in New Delhi when Dara accompanied an Asian All-Star XI that played matches in India. At a reception hosted by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Dhyan Chand told Dara about his outstanding salary. “Within a few months, bauji [father] received his salary, Rs 13,000 in total, thanks to Dara saheb,” recalls Ashok Kumar, son of Dhyan Chand, who scored the 1975 World Cup-winning goal.

That is just one instance of the ties between athletes of undivided India, one that transce­nds geographical boundaries. Even after Par­tition, Indian and Pakistani sportspersons have been friends off the field—something that appears to be unbelievable amidst the heightened distrust that has infected fields of play in the past decade. That mood has only deepened after the recent Pulwama terror attack, the Indian repr­isal and the fog of conflict that see­med to engulf the two nations. As sporting relations between the countries are dealt a fresh blow by politicians, athletes’ personal bondings endure.

The first post-Pulwama casualty was the shooting World Cup in New Delhi, for which India didn’t give visas to two Pakistanis who were to compete in the 25m rapid fire pistol event, in which quota places for the 2020 Olympics were on offer. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) promptly withdrew the quota places, impacting three Indians, among other competitors. It also banned all IOC events in India over the barring of the Pakistanis, as that unilateral act violated its non-discriminatory charter. Taking its cue from the IOC, United World Wrestling, the global governing body of the game, has now asked all affiliated national federations to stop communicating with the Wrestling Federation of India. The grand plans of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to bid for three major events—2026 Youth Olympics, 2030 Asian Games, and 2032 Olympics—now hang in the balance.

Yashovardhan Azad (centre), seen with the Pakistan squad in 1999, was security liaison officer during India’s tour in 2004.

A question mark has also sprung up over the India-Pakistan match of the cricket World Cup on June 16 in England. If India pulls out, it would hand Pakistan two points. No decision has been taken, even as the International Cricket Council (ICC) rejected the BCCI demand for the isolation of Pakistan from the cricket fraternity.

 While cricket is invariably the first victim whenever tensions flare up between India and Pakistan, athletes and teams of many low-profile sports, like golf, squash, kabaddi, chess and tennis etc. have been criss-crossing the border for competitions, seemingly without anyone taking notice. They don’t attract attention partly because opposing these sports wouldn’t get politicians much traction—their guns are forever trained on the big game of cricket.

But the chill has affected these too—a Delhi chess official says how 18 Pakistani players competed in the annual Delhi Chess Festival a few years ago, though this year no one came, possibly because they didn’t get visas for the recent event.

Many prominent Indian and Pakistani athletes are for separating sports from politics, for the old, athletic camaraderie to prevail over hatred.  

Cricket has defused tension. In 1987, Gen Zia came to watch a Test. Cricketing ties helped a thaw too.

Shiv Kapur, winner of the 2017 Panasonic Open, is all for sports without boundaries. “You can send a message to Pakistan; a strong message. But I don’t think sports should suffer. If I were asked if India should visit Pakistan for a series, I would probably say no. But in a World Cup, I don’t see why we should boycott a game. As players, the match should fire the Indians up to be more competitive,” Kapur tells Outlook.

Ashok Kumar agrees: “Sport has played a positive role in building bridges. In the present circumstances, we can’t say brotherly relations should be maintained. Not giving visas to players, though, will spoil India’s image.”   

Jahangir Khan, considered the greatest squash player of all time, says sports and politics are separate entities. “I am against mixing sports with politics. On both sides [of the border], there are sports lovers. Some of my Indian fans still send messages to me. I’m sure there are supporters of Indian sports in Pakistan. Sport is the only thing that sends a message of peace and friendship,” Khan tells Outlook from Pakistan.

Cricket, of course, can be seen as a weathervane of India-Pak ties, and has been used to def­use tension—in 1987, Gen Zia-ul-Haq came over to watch the Jaipur India-Pakistan Test in a peacable gesture, while in 2004 bilateral cricket ties were restored after 15 years, thanks to Atal Behari Vajpayee and Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Afghanistan cricket captain Asghar Afghan, now in India for a series against Ireland, bats for unfettered sporting ties. “Spo­rts binds the world together and helps improve relations between countries. If all countries play with each other, animosity would disappear. Cricket should be separated from politics,” he says.

Gen Musharraf with Manmohan Singh during the India-Pak ODI in Delhi in April 2005.

Photograph by Narendra Bisht

While Indian and Pakistani sportspersons have been friends and partners off the field, India’s Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna partnered Pakistan’s Aisam Qureshi in doubles competitions on the ATP circuit. Then again, can any bond be closer than matrimony? Former India No. 1 golfer Nonita Lall married Faisal Qureshi, Pakistan’s No. 1 male golfer in the early 1990s, and they live in New Delhi without attracting attention. More recently, Sania Mirza married Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. Earlier, in 1983, former Pakistan captain Mohsin Khan had married Bollywood star Reena Roy. Mohsin even acted in a few Indian films. In the early ’90s, ex-Pakistan captain Zaheer Abbas married Kanpur’s Samina (nee Rita Luthra).

Abbas, a cricketing great, begs for the sport to be left alone. “Sports is not related to politics. Pakistan has always strived to play [with India], in good times or not-so-good times. India has played less often with Pakistan in bilateral series, except in ICC tournaments. The bottom line: you do as you feel right, there’s no point in talking now,” Abbas tells Outlook.

Afghanistan Cricket Board chairman Azizullah Fazli says all of Asia gains from quality cricket in the region. “Afghanistan’s game has improved because of our good relations with India. Cricket, and sport in general, sends the message of peace.”

Even seven decades after the country was torn asunder, emotions run high among citizens in India and Pakistan as they size each other up, and many are the emotionally charged stories attached with India-Pakistan sporting ties. Yashovar­dhan Azad, the security liaison officer attached with the Indian cricket team on its 2004 tour, speaks fondly of Pakistan. “It was a wonderful experience. I was invited for dinners, and I addressed young police officers in Lahore while the DIG (Lahore) made me sit on his chair as I signed the visitors’ register. Cricket was, in a way, successfully used as soft diplomacy,” recalls the officer who retired as secretary (security), cabinet secretariat.

Vishal Uppal, current captain of India’s Fed Cup women’s team, recalls a nail-biting Davis Cup tie with Pakistan, played in perfect spirit, in Mumbai in 2006, when there was some doubt about Mahesh Bhupathi’s availability due to an injury. “So, I was sent to Mumbai 22 days ahead of the tie to give practice to Paes. When I was leaving Delhi, my grandfather, to motivate me, told me not to return home if India loses to Pakistan. We had played Pakistan in Davis Cup 33 years ago. When we won, we exc­itedly jumped on to the court with Indian flags,” Uppal recalls. India is to play Pakistan again in Pakistan in September. A decision on that tie will be taken by the new government that will be sworn in after the general elections in May.

Gaurav Ghei, the first Indian golfer to qualify for the British Open in 1997, goes against the grain and is for pausing sporting relations for a moment. “Even for sporting ties, the environment has to be right. Right now is not the best time; there’s absolutely no chance of bilateral ties,” he feels. Golfer Daniel Chopra, who represented India at the junior and amateur level before settling down in Sweden, doesn’t concur. He is remindful of the motto of the Olympic Games—sports and politics should never mix. “I’m sure that all players from both teams have friendly ties. Politicians don’t play sports against each other. If they did, most of the world’s problems would be solved,” Chopra, whose fat­her is an Indian, tells Outlook.

Says Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of the All India Chess Federation: “We should keep sports away from politics. Sports can be used as a tool to imp­rove relationships and life.”

The greatest India-Pakistan sporting memory for Enrico Piperno, former India Davis Cup coach, is watching the 1982 Asian Games hockey final with Pakistani tennis player and friend Rashid Malik in New Delhi. “I jumped up and down when India scored the first goal and after that they ‘killed’ us [India lost 1-7]. It was heart-breaking. Whether you win or lose, you shake hands and come away. That’s why sports is a great leveller,” he says. Sadly, a sporting shake of hands between an Indian and a Pakistani athlete looks unlikely now. Still, nobody knows what’s in store. Remember India’s sudden app­roval for the 2004 cricket tour to Pakistan? It’s time for a similar thaw.


Instances Of Pakistani Athletes In Action In India

  • 2018 World Cup hockey Bhubaneswar
  • 2018 World Junior Squash Chennai
  • 2016 12th South Asian Games Guwahati/Shillong
  • 2017 Asian Athletics Bhubaneswar
  • 2014 Hamza Amin, Panasonic Open India, SAIL SBI Open Delhi
  • 2013 Hamza Amin, Muhammad Munir, SAIL SBI Open golf Delhi
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