Srinagar’s relative calm was shattered this week by the BSF firing on protestors in Ramban and sectarian strife in Badgam, to remind you that this is a place plagued with conflict, militancy, protests and death.
The elusive peace seems a distant dream though India would like to believe that the selection of a talented Kashmiri Muslim to the Indian cricket team would assuage the sentiments of an alienated community.
Has Parvez Rasool, the 24-year-old all-rounder, replaced the gun-toting rebel or a stone pelter as the pride of the valley? These questions were swarming in the head as I made the one-and-a-half hour journey last week from Srinagar to Bijbehara, a small town south of Kashmir in Anantnag District, the place Rasool comes from. Just before Bijbehara town is Kashmir’s main centre of bat manufacturing — Sangam. Here one can see rows and rows of wooden planks lined up for drying and maturing before they are finally shaped into bats. Yes, Rasool comes from an area which already has a close connection with the cricketing world, famous as it is for the Kashmir willow, which provides majority of Indians with the bats they play with.
On the way, one can also see the menacing presence of SLR-wielding Army men scattered around the fields, all dressed up to fire, should they find anything suspicious hovering around. Rasool’s selection to the Indian team has coincided with a major cricketing event in the valley: The launch of the IPL model league, in which 12 teams, put together through an auctioning process, are participating. In a place where there are hardly any tournaments of any worth being organised, with the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association not even hosting a regular league, this tournament has created a lot of buzz and excitement.
Rasool’s home town is also hosting a few matches, the cricketer himself being part of a team, the Kanwals, whose owner Farooq Amin, a spice trader, is also the brain behind the tournament. The green ground, part of a government school, is shaded by a variety of trees with a massive walnut tree right inside the ground. You could well be in an English village green and not watching a match in the Valley of discord and turmoil.
Parvez’s brother Asif, a tall, bearded handsome man with a face reflecting calm and serenity, has played for the state and is leading his side in the tournament. As his build suggests, he is a fast bowler and his demeanour conveys pride at being the brother of the man who has made it big. “We knew he would make it one day. He had prodigious talent and worked hard to hone it,” says Asif, surrounded by scores of young members of the Bijbehara club team. All of them are thrilled and thanking Allah for chalking out such a wonderful destiny for their fellow player.
Rasool, though himself far away (at the moment in Zimbabwe and still waiting for his India cap) is very much present in the conversations, everyone extolling his virtues. His is not just the story of a home-bred Kashmiri youth making it to the Indian team, but also the story of a village boy breaking through the barrier of the Srinagar-centric cricket structure of the valley.
It is also the heroic story of a boy overcoming the complete lack of even basic facilities in the state for players. So much so that the valley, except for the main stadium in Srinagar, which is being renovated and no match has been played there for the last three years, has no turf wicket to play on. All matches are played on matting and one wonders what the association does with the Rs 25-30 crore grant it receives from the Indian Board every year. No wonder their office-bearers are universally condemned here.
Adil Rashid, a young batsman of immense potential, who has been Rasool’s teammate right from his school days till the Ranji team, is gushing in his praise. “He has opened a door which seemed shut for us. Now we all feel it is possible to play for the national team,” says Rashid.
For Rasool, the appointment of Bishen Singh Bedi as the state coach a couple of seasons back, came as a divine blessing. In interviews he credits his outstanding performance last season in the Ranji Trophy as well as against the Australians, to the guidance provided by the former Indian captain. Adil too sees Bedi’s arrival as a major factor in Rasool’s change in fortune. Unfortunately for the players, Bedi, disgusted with the functioning of the state association, is no longer the coach of the team and the players know they are the major sufferers.
Rasool was fortunate to be born in a family dedicated to cricket. His father, Ghulam, a government employee, was a decent all-rounder, having played for his district, and an inspiration for his sons to play the game. Ghulam, now retired, but still lean and thin, with a face like that of his elder son Asif, radiating peace and calm, narrates stories of how he had to take his son 50 miles to Srinagar regularly for him to improve his skills. He encouraged his son, never becoming an impediment even when he discovered on one occasion that his son had skipped his school exam to appear in a selection trial.
Given the complex nature of the Kashmir problem, Ghulam Rasool is aware that there is the danger of his son playing for India becoming a political tool in the hands of various vested interest groups. And that makes him and Parvez’s well-wishers apprehensive and wary of the media glare. “Why mix the two? He is a cricketer. It is the dream of any sportsman to play for the national team, an honour to play with and against the best in his field. And to excel with the best will be his next goal,” he says.
This sensitive question of whether Rasool’s selection will have a positive meaning for the Kashmiris, elicits careful answers from the people here. No one wishes to harm Rasool’s career and so they weigh their words carefully. They are extremely delighted that one of them will go on to represent the Indian team. Yet they say that the Kashmir issue should not be linked with Rasool representing India. One message that comes across loud and clear is that the Indian media should not politicise the selection. “This is not a trade-off. That India selects a ashmiri Muslim and we in turn support India and forget our aspirations and forgive the brutalities committed by the security forces against us,” is the gist of their comments.
It is very ironic that the same town where Parvez took his nascent steps towards stardom, was a scene of horrific violence in which around 50 protestors (figures vary) were killed by the BSF firing on them on October 23, 1993. The Bijbehara Massacre, as it is known, took place on a Friday, when around 10,000 people marched after prayers, protesting over the siege of the Hasrat Bal mosque by the army to flush out terrorists who had taken shelter there. Protests had erupted all over the valley, fearing that the Army may destroy the mosque. In Bijbehara, the protesting crowd was fired upon, in what by all accounts was an unprovoked assault on unarmed people.
It is a wound whose scars are very much visible here. When the incident took place, Rasool would have been a four-year-old toddler. There are many in the town, like Billal Ahmed, who works in a private firm, and remember having counted the dead. “I counted 42 bodies myself, one of them being my cousin,” he says in a voice laced with anguish.
Once this topic crops up, there is anger and outrage everywhere on the ground where hundreds have collected to watch the T-20 match. Imtiaz Ahmed, a school teacher, says: “In this very cricket ground the security forces would ask the residents to collect for days after those brutal killings, humiliating and insulting us. Do you think any one of us has forgotten that incident and just because Rasool is going to play for India, you think we are going to support India!” There is unanimity among people that they will support Rasool, but not India. It is a given fact that the majority in the Valley support the Pakistan cricket team and will that equation change when Rasool is competing against them? “No,” is the reply. Instead, “if he comes in the way of a Pakistan victory, we would not support even him.”
Yet, the loquacious Ahmed holds nothing against Rasool. “ We don’t call all those people who work for the government of India or those who get hefty salaries from corporate traitors. Even my passport stamps me as an Indian national and I can’t say I am not if I have to travel abroad. This is called pragmatism.” “This is a sentiment widespread across Kashmir, especially among the younger generation, whose aversion to India is very deep-rooted,” says Shabir Hussain, the young, dynamic executive editor of local English daily, Kashmir Observer. He goes on to say, “It will be very sad if the Indian media or the politicians sell this as some kind of normalcy indicator. Let the sport remain sport and let it not be politicised. Just because a Kashmiri is playing for India it does not change the nature of the Kashmir issue.”
And then comes the final, telling comment from Shabir, “Duleepsinjhi and Ranjitsinjhi played for England when India was ruled by them. Yet we remember them as Indians.” Caught between two competing nationalisms, Parvez Rasool, a shy, reserved, well-meaning young man will need all the skills of a trapeze artist to maintain his balance, standing as he is on a razor’s edge. One wrong step, one wrong word and he will fall, failing to pursue every sportsman’s dream of becoming a master of his craft, regardless of his nationality.