Sport as resistance in Kashmir

Though under Indian rule, Kashmiris will almost certainly rally behind archrivals Pakistan in the World Cup clash on Sunday as a form of political defiance.

There are few sports rivalries to match that of an India versus Pakistan cricket faceoff. With over a billion people cheering for these archrivals, the game morphs from a mere sporting spectacle to a bitter showdown of conflicting nationalism and cultural jingoism felt on and off the field.

Amid this demonstration of hyperpatriotism and sporting fervour, the Indo-Pak cricket game is another frontline for the resentful Kashmiri population to express their disdain for Delhi’s rule in the restive Himalayan region, and a tool of resistance against the Indian state.

Much like everything else in Kashmir, expressing support for India’s cricketing rivals becomes a passionate act of political assertion, rebellion and defiance, especially since Pakistan has long supported Kashmir’s political aspirations and right to self-determination. “Sport is politics when it comes to a cricket encounter between the archrivals. It may not be so for the cricketers playing the game on the 22-yard strip, but it is something more than just a game for Kashmiris,” explains Gowhar Geelani, a Srinagar-based journalist and sports commentator. “For a Kashmiri cricket supporter, the Pakistan-India contest is war minus the shooting.”

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The dispute is rooted in the historicity and context of the unresolved Kashmir debacle, where many Kashmiris see Pakistan as a “sympathiser” and India an “aggressor”. This explains why Kashmiris overwhelmingly cheered for Pakistan against India in the ICC Champions Trophy final in 2017. After Pakistan’s victory, residents of the capital Srinagar set off firecrackers and carried out celebratory rallies, waving Pakistani flags and chanting, “Jeevay jeevay, Pakistan.” (Long live, Pakistan.)

In a tweet to his thousands of followers, senior separatist and spiritual leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also congratulated team Pakistan, and said that all the fireworks felt like “an early Eid in the occupied valley”. In response to the celebration, India’s Central Reserve Police Force stationed in the city reportedly smashed cars and beat up locals.

In April 2017, a video of a local Kashmir match went viral. In it, players in the Pakistani cricket team’s jersey stood to attention as the Pakistani national anthem played before the game. The local police later arrested them. For most Kashmiris, the event was not extraordinary – playing the anthem or wearing the jersey happens at most the cricketing events. The state police regularly issue advisories in advance to its men to prevent any “untoward incident” during or after cricket matches. They also instruct locals not to assemble on Srinagar streets to watch Indo-Pak matches.

Defiance in adversity

Expressing support for Pakistan has often landed Kashmiris in trouble with the Indian authorities. Fearing reprisals from local authorities, Kashmiris working and studying in different parts of India are often recalled home before any India-Pakistan cricketing event. In March 2014, a university in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh expelled 67 Kashmiri students for cheering for the Pakistani cricket team in an ACC Asia Cup match against India. The students were charged with sedition, which carries a possible life sentence. These charges were later revoked following a public outcry in the valley and intervention from the Jammu and Kashmir state government. Pakistan offered places in its local universities to the suspended Kashmiri students. 

Another private university in the northern Indian city of Greater Noida expelled six Kashmiri students for shouting pro-Pakistan slogans during a match. In August 2014, as many as 12 students at a private engineering college in the state of Punjab were injured after clashes erupted over Kashmiri students cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match against Sri Lanka.

In April 2016, local police in Kashmir closed down an engineering college, the National Institute of Technology, in Srinagar city after local Kashmiri students quarrelled with Indian students during India’s World T20 semi-final clash against the West Indies. Kashmiri students’ support for the West Indies irked their Indian counterparts, resulting in a massive brawl. “Kashmiri’s love for Pakistan cricket is not just in terms of the sporting sense, but it is an understanding that any applause for Pakistan would hurt India’s ego,” asserts Srinagar resident and cricket enthusiast Hilal Ahmed.

“Even when India played against the West Indies in 1983 and the Aussies in 1986 at Srinagar’s lone international cricket stadium, the Kashmir crowds booed the Indian team and raised slogans in support of the Caribbean and Kangaroos,” says Geelani.

Also in 2016, former Pakistani all-rounder Shahid Afridi stirred up a massive controversy in India after he said people had travelled from Kashmir to Kolkata to support Pakistan during the ICC T20 World Cup. Afridi has never shied away from raising the contentious topic in public. In his autobiography, Game Changer, he said Pakistani Prime Minister and former captain Imran Khan must do more for Kashmir and its people. “Kashmir belongs to the Kashmiris. Not to Indians. Not to Pakistanis. That debate comes later. But first and foremost, Kashmir is for the Kashmiri people themselves,” wrote the 40-year-old cricketer.

In April 2018, he tweeted about the “appalling and worrisome situation” in Kashmir and that the dispute must be resolved as per the UN resolution. “Myself along with every Pakistani supports Kashmiri’s freedom struggle. Kashmir belongs to Pakistan.” The tweet evoked a sharp response from Indian cricketer-turned-parliamentarian Gautam Gambhir, who told the media that in Afridi’s “retarded dictionary”, UN meant under-19.

Indian cricket’s embarrassing Kashmir tale

On 13 October 1983, Kashmir hosted its first-ever one-day international at Sher-i- Kashmir stadium in Srinagar, in which a highly spirited Indian team were taking on the runners-up, the West Indies, after having won the Prudential World Cup at Lords, England. What followed was an absolute embarrassment for the hosts. The highly charged Kashmiri spectators, who filled the stadium to capacity, chanted anti-India slogans with many attendees carrying and displaying posters of Imran Khan. The West Indies received tremendous support from the crowd as every boundary and every Indian batsman’s wicket was cheered with delight. The atmosphere was so electric that West Indies skipper Clive Lloyd later said he felt as if he was playing in the lanes of his village at home.

During the lunchtime break, three local youths rushed to the wicket and tried digging up the pitch to disrupt the match. The trio were quickly detained. According to the police charge sheet, the group attempted to disrupt the match as Kashmir was a disputed territory and could not, therefore, host international matches. After 28 years, a local court in 2011 acquitted all the accused for want of evidence.

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Former Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar wrote in his book Runs ’n Ruins that the Indian players were really upset by the crowd, and were stunned and unable to understand its reaction as they had come to the ground as the world champions. “As the Indian players came into the arena to loosen up and do their physical exercises, they were booed by some sections of the crowd. This was unbelievable. Here we were in ‘India’ and being hooted even before a ball had been bowled.”

Terming the Kashmiri spectators as among the “worst he has seen in his life”, Gavaskar added: “Being hooted 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. The West Indians were as surprised as we were but were obviously delighted to find support in their first big encounter against us after their defeat in the Prudential Cup finals.”

The cricket match was seen as a referendum against India’s rule years before the armed insurgency erupted in the region. This is perhaps one of the many reasons Kashmir was never granted rights to host a cricket match afterwards, despite the popularity of the sport.

In a region where the loathing against Delhi’s rule stems from the demand for the right to self-determination, the hoarding of superstar Indian cricketers like Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni in military uniform, placed in many parts of the valley, is a reminder of why Indian cricketers are not liked much in the region.  

The Indian paramilitary and police forces have placed big advertisements of Indian cricketers and Bollywood stars in military fatigues. It is mainly to showcase the soft image of the Indian military in Kashmir.

Indian cricketers tweet justifications for India’s military presence and actions in the region, which makes Kashmiris perceive them as political figures used by the state to strengthen its control in the disputed region.

Against this backdrop of political turmoil, cricket in Kashmir remains both a tool of political protest and a reason for celebration. Politics and sports cannot always be divorced – Nelson Mandela understood this well. For the world, India-Pakistan cricket matches may be just a game, but for Kashmir, it remains much more than sport.

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