India versus Pakistan is always more than a game. For instance, in Dharamsala this time around — ahead of the World T20— it’s also Congress versus BJP and ex-servicemen vs businessmen. Daksh Panwar sifts through layers of intrigue in a bid to understand why world cricket’s most lucrative fixture is facing resistance in this hill-town
If you can indeed tear your eyes away from the snow-capped Dhauladhars, which lord over the landscape and reduce everything else into insignificance, the first thing you will notice as you enter Dharamsala are the floodlights of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) Stadium rising above other buildings and a canopy of Deodar trees. You will also be hard pressed to miss an airbrushed Anurag Thakur staring back at you from a billboard. The BJP leader and cricket administrator’s smiling face is flanked by the silhouette of a bat-wielding cricketer on one side and that of a rifle-carrying soldier on the other.
Three words are inscribed at the bottom of the poster: Devbhumi, Virbhumi and Khelbhumi. Land of the gods, land of the brave and land of sports. This last epithet for Himachal Pradesh is also the most recent one. And it is a stretch. For, the state’s biggest name in sports — literally — is the Great Khali. But there’s a reason why there is a new-found emphasis on “khel”, and why the emblematic Himachali soldier and the cricketer share the same piece of advertising real estate. It’s because of the third, the politician. Politics, recently, has turned the soldier against cricket. And politics now is trying to bring the two on the same page.
To get to the heart of the matter, one needs to go a few months back in time. Early in December, even as India dithered over playing with Pakistan in a bilateral series due to stiff political opposition, it was announced that Dharamsala would host the blockbuster tie between the arch-rivals in the World T20. Spectacular as the venue is, Dharamsala doesn’t have adequate infrastructure to host this biggest match-up in world cricket. It’s the smallest town to host the two teams in a World Cup. Back then, defending the decision to award Dharamsala the match, Thakur, who is BCCI’s secretary and HPCA’s head, had rather triumphantly said: “Looking at the heat generated by the discussion on whether the series between India and Pakistan will be held or not, I think you need a cool atmosphere, and the right atmosphere is in Dharamsala. Itni garam game ke liye, thandi jagah chahiye (A hot game like this needs a cool place).” The next two months couldn’t have proved Thakur more wrong. A sharp turn of events, starting with a terrorist attack in Pathankot in January that claimed two soldiers from this region, generated so much heat that at one stage it looked like the match could happen anywhere in the country but Dharamsala. Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, in fact, told the BCCI as much, saying that hosting Pakistan would mean disrespect to the families of the dead soldiers.
The Kangra valley is home to a large number of servicemen and ex-servicemen. In almost every family — or extended family – there’s someone who has donned the uniform. Therefore, as the anti-Pakistan rhetoric after the January attack hit a crescendo, it found a resonance 80 kilometers away in Dharamsala. Soon, the anguish at the Pathankot deaths — and that of another soldier from the region in the Pampore attack late last month — sparked a fire that threatened to subsume the upcoming Pakistan match as well.
A couple of furlongs away from the HPCA stadium, nestled amid dense pine trees, is the Dharamsala War Memorial. It bears the names of the soldiers from the region who have fallen in the line of duty. The list is long. You recognise a few names. Major Som Nath Sharma, India’s first Param Vir Chakra recipient who died in the battle of Badgam in 1947, is one of them. He was from the village Dadh, not far from here. There is also Captain Vikram Batra, the most recent name to receive the highest gallantry honour India can accord to its soldier. Captain Batra, who died trying to capture Point 5140 during the Kargil war in 1999, was from Palampur, which is 35 kilometers from Dharamsala.
“Under the present circumstances, this match should not happen in Dharamshala. In Pathankot, which as you know is not far from here, they entered our country, killed our soldiers, and this has been proved that the attackers came from Pakistan,” says G.L. Batra, father of Captain Batra. “Matches should be held in a friendly environment, and under the present circumstances, one country is sending militants to kill your people. I wonder what the world will think of us, that we keep welcoming those who have killed our people.” NK Kalia, father of another Kargil Martyr Saurabh Kalia, who also hailed from Palampur, is another prominent voice opposing the match.
While the Congress CM Virbhadra Singh, who is the main political rival of Thakur’s father Prem Kumar Dhumal, has now agreed to host the match after the state High Court’s intervention, he has said he wouldn’t use force on ex-servicemen should they protest on match day. And there are many who are threatening to disrupt the match. The Ex-Services League, which is led by Major Vijay Singh Mankotia, issued an ultimatum against the match. “Terror and T20 cannot go together. There is no give and take in this issue. It’s a question of sentiments of the soldiers, the families of martyrs, war veterans, ex-servicemen,” Mankotia thundered as he launched ‘Operation Balidan’ against the match. Mankotia is also a Congress leader.
While there those who are genuinely aggrieved and are opposing the fixture, you can also see some amount of realpolitik and hijacking of the issue. You can see India vs Pakistan descending into Congress vs BJP, especially as the region braces up for municipal elections. Dharamsala is set to vote for the mayoral election on March 27. Many feel this is the reason Congressman Mankotia, who was at the forefront in receiving the Pakistan team on their maiden visit to this hill-town in 2005, is vehemently opposing their arrival.
The protests have made Pakistan sufficiently nervous about the match. They are planning to send a delegation to review the security situation in Dharamsala.
These circumstances are a far cry from eleven years ago when Inzamam-ul Haq and his boys arrived here to play a three-day warmup match against a Board President’s XI team. They got such a rousing reception upon arrival that it was surprising even for those less cynical times. Hundreds of people flocked to the airport to welcome the team. There is a picture of local fans thronging the team bus, thrusting their hands inside the windows to shake the visitors’. In this frame, one little girl, held aloft by perhaps her father, is holding out a Himachali cap as a gift to Shahid Afridi. That was Dharamsala’s first brush with big-time cricket. And it was also the cricket-mad India’s first serious sighting of the venue that could seriously challenge Newlands, on foothills of Table Mountain, as the most scenic international venue.
Pakistani cricketers played a small but significant role putting Dharamsala on the bucket list of an Indian cricket fan. Over the last few years, the HPCA stadium has become another site of pilgrimage in the region, the other being the Tsuklakhang complex, the Dalai Lama’s abode, in McLeodganj. Tourists now flock here from Punjab, Chandigarh and even Delhi during weekends/long weekends and make it a point to stop by at the stadium and click selfies with the mountains in the background. When there’s an international match here, all hell breaks loose. The capacity of the stadium is 23,000 — modest by Indian standards — but this additional influx of people raises the population of this town, approximately 52,000, nearly one and a half times. You can see it bursting at the seams. The infrastructure cripples under the assault of PB (Punjab) and HR (Haryana)-registered vehicles. Traffic comes to a virtual halt as the broad-tyred SUVs crowd out the narrow hilly roads. But the locals remain happy and welcoming. Cricket brings chaos, but it also brings big business.
Indian and Pakistani fans will descend in their thousands ahead of March 19 as they undertake the biggest pilgrimage that a cricket faithful can make: a match between the two teams in a World Cup. There’s an incredible buzz about it here. It’s front-page news in local newspapers, everyday. But if you believe all that is written, the Pakistanis aren’t likely to get gifts and garlands from local fans. Their bus might get pelted with stones this time around, the headlines warn. The written word, however, is not representative of the prevailing sentiment, which is in favour of the match.
The mood of Abhimanyu Roy fluctuates as per the headline his gaze falls on. There was nervousness when the CM asked that the tie be shifted out, but it transformed into cautious optimism after a recent meeting between Virbhadra Singh and Anurag Thakur. “All this is so illogical. It does not matter if the government is of the BJP or Congress, the country is after all ours. If the Pakistan team comes here with respect and leaves with respect, it is after all a matter of honour for India. If you shower them with shoes and abuses, you as a country will be defamed,” he says.
Roy runs a small hotel near the stadium. It’s off season now, and the rooms are unoccupied. In fact, he is giving away — without asking — a Rs 200 discount on the usual Rs 1200 per night rate. Will it still be the case around March 19, the day of the match? “All rooms have been booked for Rs 5000 a night,” he replies. “In fact there is hardly any room in Dharamsala for those dates. India versus Pakistan means big bucks.”
Even those who have no interest in cricket — or don’t directly benefit from it — find the opposition to the match baffling. Jampa, a 52-year-old soft-spoken Tibetan runs a small book shop on the temple road in McLeodganj. While the Dalai Lama has often attended IPL and international matches at the venue, but most Tibetans in ‘Little Lhasa’, as Dharamsala is known, have hardly any interest in cricket. Like everyone else around them, they are not looking forward to — or indeed opposing — March 19. Their ‘D-Day’ is March 20, the last phase of the Tibetan parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, Jampa sees a connection between cricket as a vehicle of promoting peace and the Dalai Lama’s teachings of nonviolence.
Across the road from the temple is Nadroo Fayaz’s shop that sells everything from Kashmiri handicraft to Tibetan paintings and gemstones. Fayaz is one of the first Kashmiris from the valley to have come to Dharamsala post-1989 and set up business here. Now, he says, there are 100-odd Kashmiri shops in the region and 300-odd Kashmiris who stay and work here round the year.
“I have seen tourism grow after cricket came here,” he says. “A lot of domestic tourists come to Dharamsala nowadays. And we prefer domestic tourists. Foreign tourists who come here have a different concept of vacation. They like to enjoy the beauty of the place and spend some peaceful time with the nature,” he says.
You just need to venture further uphill to Dharamkot and Bhagsu to understand what Nadroo leaves unsaid. The economy here is thriving on foreigners, many of whom come in search of substance-fuelled nirvana. They live on for months on a shoestring budget. “Indian tourists want a little bit of everything — a package, so everyone earns, from the hotel guys to the street vendor. The money is going to every corner, everyone is happy,” says Nadroo. “I am expecting to do business worth 4-5 lakhs during the tournament. I have never been too interested in cricket, but I feel there should be an India-Pakistan match. Whatever problems are there are just political, it does not affect us locals here.”
As dusk descends on Dharamsala, there’s a fiery glow on the peaks of the Dhauladhars. On the lower slopes and in the valley, lights have begun to flicker. In an hour or so, the night will be young and Dharamsala will look like a Christmas tree. A few elderly people, who have come for an evening walk at the War Memorial park, are leaving. Only a bunch of 13-year-olds remain. Your ears pick “India-Pakistan” floating in the air. You approach them. “We know why the people are against the action of Pakistan, but we feel it is not the fault of players. They are coming here to play, what their countries are doing is not their responsibility. Match and politics should not be clubbed,” says Gaurav, the quietest of the lot, his words belying his age.
Of the lot, Suryabhan, the most effervescent in the boy band, is confident he is certainly going for the match. “I am a ball boy, so I will get to see it even if I don’t get the tickets. We have seen India play the West Indies and South Africa here. It is for the first time I will see Pakistan play,” he says excitedly, before they head for the evening practice game between Ireland and Hong Kong.
At this very memorial, a group has planned a hunger strike, if the March 19 match goes ahead. The caretaker of the park points at his wristwatch telling you that it’s time. You get up and make a move. Near the exit, a soldier from the nearby cantonment is having tea at the open-air ‘Sainik Cafe’ — a place that does brisk business on match days. His kind has been invoked so much in political debates across the country that you can’t stop yourself from asking his views on the matter.
“Match to hona chahiye, ji,” he says. “Khel apni jagah hai, ladai apni jagah.”