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Caught at silly point

The Pakistanis are shut out of IPL-3, and a fading right-wing party must clear the Aussies. Must India’s cricket overlords be so craven? Samar Halarnkar writes.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2010 23:16 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Don’t be fooled.

India’s rich and famous are weakly telling us that 11 talented Pakistanis were shut out of cricket’s most lucrative tournament because it wasn’t certain they would be available through the season.

Here’s what Shilpa Shetty, the Rajasthan Royals’ co-owner, said: “We were not convinced about their availability, and that’s why we did not want to take any risk.”

This is what she really means.

We know the unpredictable Pakistanis can change a game. We know their presence would liven up the IPL immensely. We know they are the T20 world champions. We would love to have them on the team.

But we’d rather not.

What if there’s another terror attack during the Indian Premier League (IPL)? What if the government says we must send them back? What if the government doesn’t really want them in the first place? What if someone calls us unpatriotic for playing — and paying — Pakistanis?

One hopes none of these questions are playing out in the mind of Kolkata Knight Riders’ owner Shah Rukh Khan, whose bowling coach and cricketing legend, Wasim Akram, is the sole Pakistani left in IPL-3.

And what of our latest whipping boys, the Aussies, some of whom are playing in IPL-3? There is disquiet in the IPL because the Shiv Sena, struggling for political relevance, has issued a no-Aussies diktat after the attacks on Indians Down Under. “The BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] will discuss the matter with the political party and reach on (sic) a consensus,” says IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi.

This timorous, more-loyal-than-the-king attitude is something that particularly afflicts many tycoons and stars in the new, rising India, where cash is king, and personal convictions and doing the right thing are expendable subjects.

A dishonourable silence and general apathy when things go wrong in the country, beyond its balance sheets and factories, is not unfamiliar to India Inc. So it was after the massacre of Sikhs on Delhi’s streets in 1984. So it was after the murder of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 (The exceptions: Anu Aga of Thermax, Cyrus Guzder of Airfreight Ltd. and HDFC’s Deepak Parekh). So it will always be. In 2007, Ratan Tata — a man whose vision and drive I greatly admire — said of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat: “You’re stupid if you’re not here.”

As for Bollywood, it falls easily to its knees, crawling when asked to bend. Scenes and dialogues are routinely deleted from films because politicians disapprove. The Sena’s rival, Raj Thackeray, is a leading unofficial censor.

Once you bend to anyone, it’s hard to stand. Last year, in a fine example of hair-splitting, Shah Rukh Khan’s Billu Barber shaved the ‘barber’ from its title when hairdressers said the word degraded them. ‘Billu Hairdresser’ didn’t quite have the same ring, so the film became just Billu.

The honourable exception is Aamir Khan who freely aligned himself with a protest against the Narmada dam and did not backtrack when Modi’s Gujarat ensured an unofficial ban on his 2006 love story Fanaa.

At least the svelte Shetty said something, however inaccurate (unlike last time, visas are not a problem this year and both governments have, unofficially, been supportive), about shunning the Pakistanis. For people who revel being in the public eye, the owners of the eight franchisees cowered behind a wall of silence when asked about their refusal to bid for the Pakistanis.

In part, this is easy to explain. The 26/11 atrocity may be fading from our memories, but it hasn’t faded yet. Any hand of friendship to Pakistan in a time of tension has always been unpopular.

In 1951, six years after the two nations were created in a subcontinental bloodbath, Jawaharlal Nehru faced outrage when he recognised one Indian rupee as equal to a Pakistani rupee. The benefits didn’t matter. “The general consensus in New Delhi was that ‘India has been completely defeated,’” writes Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi.

I was too young to know how people felt then, but it’s apparent that even the wars of 1965 and 1971 did not generate the feeling of hostility then that many Indians — possibly a majority — feel now towards Pakistan and Pakistanis. So, with the added fact that 56 of 67 players up for bidding didn’t get picked for IPL-3, I don’t see India getting too exercised over the 11 Pakistanis among that lot.

This timorous attitude is a tragedy for cricket in particular and for the future of India-Pakistan relations in general. Our neighbour needs our courage now more than ever. It is indeed difficult to fully trust Pakistan. As I write this there are, despite their internal turmoil, fresh Pakistani attempts to infiltrate terrorists into Kashmir, intelligence officers say. But that does not mean we shun Pakistanis, much less when we have a chance to play together on the same team. Togetherness and familiarity are more effective than any high-level talks will ever be.

When the debates are done, and we settle down to IPL-3, it will be that much duller without our mercurial neighbours. Last week, Shahid Afridi said that while he would play on any IPL team, given a choice he would like to play alongside his friends, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh. Imagine the destructive Shahid Afridi facing the Rs 3.45 crore West Indian rising star Kieran Pollard. What a grand sight that would be. The only thing Afridi must now face is his humiliation — and we our gutless actions.