Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Kashmir closes for big match

CRICKET INTERNATIONAL This cricket series is India's first full tour of Pakistan in more than 14 years, and Kashmiris are hoping that it will bring peace to the area

AP AND REUTERS , SRINAGAR,INDIA AND KARACHI, PAKISTAN

Pakistani captain Inzamam-ul Haq, right, shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Sourav Ganguly prior to their first one-day international cricket match at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Kashmir's roads were deserted yesterday as people stayed home to watch the opening match of India's groundbreaking tour of Pakistan, which Kashmiris hope will soothe tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.

"If cricket is the way to bring peace between India and Pakistan, then so be it," said Javed Zargar, a businessman in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state.

This cricket series is India's first full tour of Pakistan in more than 14 years. The two countries have maintained a tense relationship and fought three wars since the end of British colonial rule in 1947, two of which have been over the disputed state of Kashmir.

"There is a lot of symbolism attached to the match between India and Pakistan," said Zargar. "Peace for us has been very tricky and fragile. Cricket could even hurt the peace if it hurts the egos."

But many in India's Kashmir Valley rooted for Pakistan, reacting with disappointment as India blasted away runs, and cheering when Indian wickets fell. Many Kashmiris have disaffection toward India, due to a tormented history going back to 1947, when Kashmir became divided between India and Pakistan, and beyond.

The Pakistan-India cricket series is part of an ongoing peace process between the two nations that Kashmiris hope will help end tensions.

Across the border in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Mushtaq Khan, 40, a Kashmiri refugee who migrated to Pakistan in in 1990, sat watching the match on a borrowed TV set.

Khan said the presence of an Indian team in Pakistan implied there was hope of solving the Kashmir dispute.

"I think both sides are in close touch to solve the issue of Kashmir," he said.

As in the rest of South Asia, cricket is a passion in Kashmir, where separatist Islamic rebels have been fighting since 1989 for independence or merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Jammu-Kashmir is the only Muslim state in Hindu-dominated India.

The feeling for Pakistan "is a hangover of 1947," said Kashmiri teacher, Nusrat Bano. "Cricket has become a symbol of our loyalty to Islam and a compensatory device for giving self-expression to our oppressed political aspirations."

Traffic on Srinagar's roads was sparse. Most businesses in the city opened later than usual.

"I would have loved to stay home watch the match," said Imran Khan, a 12th-grade student awaiting his school bus. "I wish today was a holiday," said Khan, who while not related to the former Pakistan cricket captain of the same name, declared he would cheer for Pakistan's fast bowler, Shoaib Akhtar.

During past such matches, soldiers on either side of the cease-fire line, that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, have fired shells or gunshots to celebrate a good shot or lament the loss of a wicket.

"A match between India and Pakistan is seen more like a battle than a game," said Mohammed Yusuf, a 32-year old teacher who plays and watches cricket.

In Muzaffarabad, Abdul Qadir, 60, declared a similar verdict as he sipped tea in a restaurant.

"I watch [India-Pakistan] cricket matches like a war. It is a war, not a game," he said.

But India also had some supporters in Kashmir yesterday.

"Sachin is the best. And he is so cute," said student Tabish Andrabi, referring to Indian cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar.

India totals up runs

Rahul Dravid was dismissed for 99 as India piled up a record 349 for seven against Pakistan amid heavy security in the first one-day international at the National Stadium.

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