On March 1, BCCI Secretary and BJP MP Anurag Thakur had urged that people should not “play politics” with the India-Pakistan World T20 match in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. A week later, the match, scheduled to be played on March 19, was moved out from Dharamsala to Eden Gardens in Kolkata. Contrary to Thakur’s wishful thinking, the move, in fact, was all about politics. This wasn’t surprising given that India-Pakistan matches have always been held hostage to politics and history. This time round though, the politics was initiated by domestic rivalries before traveling across the border.
The politics around the match began when the International Cricket Council (ICC), in December 2015, released the fixtures of the World T20 tournament, and surprisingly, the high-profile India-Pakistan encounter was allotted to Dharamsala. The reason why Dharamsala was chosen over larger and better-equipped venues could plausibly be traced to the picturesque town being located in Thakur’s home state. Thakur is not only an MP from Himachal but his father, Prem Kumar Dhumal, is a former chief minister of the state. What was a coup for Thakur went awry when the present Himachal chief minister, Virbhadra Singh, from the Congress, decided to settle old scores.
Singh shot off a letter to the Union home ministry on March 1, expressing his concerns over providing security for the Pakistan team.
Singh couched his concerns in “nationalist” sentiments by saying that “martyrs’ families (of the recent Pathankot attack) and hundreds of ex-servicemen, were opposed to the match or allowing Pakistan to play at Dharamsala”. While party and family politics were definitely at play, Singh was echoing sentiments Thakur had voiced in 2015 when there was talk of an India-Pakistan series. Thakur had tweeted then, “Dawood (Ibrahim) in Karachi. NSA wants to meet separatists here. Are you really serious about peace and you expect we’ll play cricket with you?”
Even as Thakur cried foul and talked about the country’s image taking a hit, Pakistan decided to step in. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) threatened to pull out of the tournament unless there was an assurance from the Indian government on the Pakistan team’s security. While the Pakistan team’s departure was kept on hold, a three-member team visited Dharamsala on March 7 to review security arrangements. The delegation asked the ICC to change the venue, which was shifted to Kolkata. Thakur vented his frustration by tweeting, “Owing to the petty politics played misusing the emotions of martyrs’ families, HP CM ensured that PCB demanded utmost assurance before confirming participation.”
The politics — petty or not — that Thakur lamented is integral to any India-Pakistan encounter, be it on the cricket pitch or in the concert hall. In the recent past, we’ve seen concerts by ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali cancelled in Mumbai and ink thrown at the organiser of a book launch of a former Pakistani foreign minister. The common thread was the BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena, which was behind the protests. The Sena has a long history of disrupting India-Pakistan matches. Whereas in the first decade after Partition, India-Pakistan cricket matches were played in relatively good spirit, it was from the 1970s that the contests became much more intense. The Sena ensured that Pakistan did not participate in the 1993 Hero Cup and dug up the Delhi pitch during the 1998-99 series.
But just as India-Pakistan cricket has been a proxy for nationalism, it has also bridged distrust. In the same series that the Sena tried their disruptive tactics, the Delhi match was moved to Chennai, where 50,000 spectators gave the winning Pakistani team a standing ovation. In 2004, when India toured Pakistan, then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee saw them off with the memorable message, “Khel nahi, dil bhi jeetiye (Win not only matches, but hearts too)”.