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Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra On Kashmir’s ‘Tricky’ Sher-I-Kashmir Cricket Stadium

Sher-i-Kashmir cricket ground at Sonawar has been witness to intense political sermons, be it by former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajyapee or Manmohan Singh. It has witnessed everyone who has spoken of healing Kashmir’s ‘bruised souls’.

Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium in Srinagar's Sonwar.(File photo)
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Kashmir’s Sher-i-Kashmir International Cricket Stadium at Sonawar is expected to reverberate with songs and slogans once again on Monday. The atmosphere at the cricket ground nestled among majestic Chinars is expected to be electric. However, this time, it is not going to be cricket, but politics which has mostly dominated the ground’s turf.

The sloganeering during Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra of “Jodo Jodo, Bharat Jodo (United India)” and “Nafrat Todo (Break Hatred)” has already raised the political pulse in the Kashmir Valley in grip of Himalayan chill.

At the cricket ground, Rahul is expected to bat for Kashmiri politics, which has been only a one-sided narrative since August 5, 2019, when the Narendra Modi-led Union government scrapped Article 370 —ending J&K’s special status— and reduced it from a state to a Union Territory (UT). The jostling crowds of Kashmiri politicians thronging Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is being viewed as signal that they want to come out of ‘state of inertia’. They expect Rahul to announce that August 5, 2019 was “injustice” to the people of J&K. It is, however, to be seen what Rahul will say for Kashmir at the stadium.

With a different Kashmir in 2023, the day will also give a sense of political pulse in the Valley. In fact, the stadium is witness to Kashmir’s political aspirations and politics.

Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium, a witness to history

In 1983, when world champions India were up against Clive Llyod’s West Indies, the crowds went ecstatic at the stadium. After trouncing mighty West Indies at the historic Lord’s cricket ground in England to lift the World Cup trophy, India had expected a rousing welcome at the Valley’s stadium. However, it turned completely opposite. The Indian team faced jeering and booing at the hands of crowd.

“Being hooted at after a defeat is understandable, but this was incredible. Moreover, there were many in the crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans which confounded us, because we were playing the West Indies and not Pakistan,” wrote Little Master Sunil Gavaskar in Runs & Ruins. The crowd’s behaviour to the legendary all-rounder Kapil Dev’s team from the stands reflected what was brewing in Kashmir at that point of time — its politics.

Gavaskar also wrote, “To be fair, it was not the entire crowd, but sections of it. But these sections were the most vociferous and thus it seemed most of the crowd was against us.”
Later, a group of Kashmiris also invaded the pitch and tried to damage it. Among the group was Shabir Ahmad Shah, who later became the poster boy of Kashmiri separatism. There was also Showkat Bakhshi in the group, who would later become a militant commander.

The group’s act was their way of registering their protest. They believed that Kashmir was a “disputed territory” and its discourse was not decided as per the political aspirations of its own indigenous people. Until it’s decided, they believed, India could not hold an international match on its turf.

In 1986, the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium witnessed another one-day-international between India and Australia. The crowd went jubilant that day, said a witness from north Kashmir’s Sopore. It was after Australia had won the match.

In fact, cricket has not been just a game in the volatile region. The gentleman’s game, like other things in the Valley, has reflected the region’s larger politics.

The cricket has been caught in an equation of narratives. The game has been used to balance the narrative by warring sides.

In 2010, when street protests donned Kashmir’s landscape over the fake Machil encounter, a cricket league —Kashmir Premier League (KPL)— attracted crowds. It was projected as Kashmir’s return to normalcy. Again in 2015, JKPCL attracted hordes of cricket lovers to Kashmir University’s cricket ground. With players in bright uniforms hitting sixes out of the ground, the spectacle was again presented as reflection on the ground. There was also Downtown Cricket League in 2015, which was also termed as something different in Srinagar’s downtown, which otherwise at that point of time was synonyms with stone-throwing protests.

There have been occasions when separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was also seen inaugurating local cricket tournaments inside his bastion Downtown Srinagar in the past. His slain father Moulana Mohammad Farooq was also an avid cricket fan. Moulana Farooq would frequently be seen at the Eidgah cricket ground before he was killed in early 1990s.

Besides, the graduation of Valley’s cricketers to international level is always politicised. Be it Parveez Rasool’s IPL or playing for Team India or Valley pacer Rasik Salam Dar playing for Mumbai Indians, the accomplishments have also been given political overtones.

There have been several instances when students from Kashmiris studying elsewhere have been arrested for supporting a particular cricket team. They have been detained and booked for sedition. In Kashmir on several occasions, celebrations are seen whenever Pakistan defeats India. It is not that there is only support for Pakistan cricket team. There is also a section of cricket lovers, who are die-hard Indian cricket fans. There are admirers of Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni. There are also Virat Kohli fans. However, support for a particular team in Kashmir is viewed as a political belief.

Sher-i-Kashmir cricket ground at Sonawar has been witness to intense political sermons, be it by former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajyapee or Manmohan Singh. It has witnessed everyone who has spoken of healing Kashmir’s ‘bruised souls’. It is also witness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in 2015 in which he announced that he doesn’t need advice from anybody on Kashmir.

The historic stadium is also witness to funeral gathering for former Chief Minister and late PDP founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 2016. Many in Kashmir found it “meagre” in comparison to funeral participation of militant commander Burhan Wani in the same year. Both Mufti and Wani hailed from south Kashmir.  

In 2017, it was this cricket stadium former from where Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti issued a stern message to Centre. It was when Mehbooba Mufti said separatism is an “idea that cannot be killed or jailed”. It was when the Centre had started its crackdown against separatism in Valley.

This time Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra’s culmination at the ground assumes significance. It is especially when there is minimal opposition in Valley on the ground to government’s policies felt by the political parties.

The enthusiasm for the Bharat Jodo Yatra among Kashmiri politicians in Kashmir is evident. It seems to be huge. The observers feel the Yatra is the first major platform for Kashmiri political leaders to re-establish themselves again in the region’s political landscape, which has been frozen for quite some time now. Particularly, they believe when the Kashmir’s mainstream was “caged” post 5 August 2019. It was the time when three former Chief Ministers of the erstwhile state were detained under Public Safety Act (PSA). It was when the region’s special status was abrogated with simultaneous bifurcation and down-grading into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.

Rahul Gandhi's address at the Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium is expected to bring some boost to the Kashmiri politicians, who have faced onslaught from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at Centre. This was evident when former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah welcomed Congress scion and son of his late friend Rajiv Gandhi at Lakhanpur in Jammu. The flamboyant Farooq rode bus all the way from Jammu to Lakhanpur to receive his friend’s son who has chosen to open “mohaabat ki dukaan in bazaar of nafrat (shop of love in bazaar of hatred)”. Besides, Kashmir’s prodigal son Farooq who at present is seen delivering more religious sermons than political has already termed Rahul Gandhi as “Shankaracharya”.

Farooq, who many view as “wily” politician, is the son of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. In 1953, when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Shyama Prasad Mookerjee tried to enter J&K without a valid permission, he was arrested and put in jail by Abdullah where he later died. After 66 years on 5 August 2019 when BJP government decided to repeal Article 370, it was described as realisation of Mookerjee dream of ‘Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan, Ek Nishan’ (One legislature, one chief functionary, one flag). There is also a tunnel at Chennani-Nashri named after Mookerjee now in J&K.

Besides, the stadium named after Kashmir’s tallest leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah has been vindicated by BJP at Centre and his birth anniversary is no more a government holiday now and his name is no more engraved on UT’s gallantry award for police personnel in changed Kashmir.  

Former Jammu and Kashmir CM Mehbooba Mufti has also announced that the Yatra has brought new lease of life in Kashmir’s politics. By joining Yatra along with her daughter Iltija and mother Gulshana, Mehbooba has given a sense of what it means to changed Kashmir.

Rahul at the centre of pitch inside Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium in Sonwar will give a glimpse of how Kashmir’s new political innings will move. Though the pitch has got tricky and topsy-turvy after Article 370 abrogation.

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