All tours abroad require civil clearance and security clearance from the Indian government. In 2004, opinions were sharply divided over the team’s proposed visit to Pakistan. The government was more against than in favor of the tour and the BCCI was undecided on the issue. The board was like a bat in the crease, not sure if it should go forward or back.
Initially, he decided to test the waters by sending a security delegation to Pakistan to assess the situation on the ground. I was part of this security team, along with Professor Ratnakar Shetty of the BCCI and Yashovardhan Azad, a top official of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India. We landed in Lahore in a blaze of publicity, with media and television networks following our every move. Our luggage was collected by airline staff and delivered directly to the hotel, while we were taken from the airport to meet the Secretary of the Home Office.
The ministry downplayed the security issue, calling it a mamooli masla, a trivial issue, which had been hyped by the media. We were told that the Pakistani people and politicians were in favor of the tour and the authorities supported the plan to hold matches in Karachi and Peshawar.
Senior officials assured us that Pakistan was ready to host the Indian team and the intelligence agencies were keeping a close eye on various terrorist groups. There is no threat, they told us with supreme confidence. An officer gave additional perspective to convince us that the Indian team would be safe. A white American in Anarkali is under greater threat, he said.
It was obvious that Pakistan were desperate for the tour. The PCB needed the money that the sale of TV rights would bring. Also, Pakistan’s reputation was at stake. A military regime unable to provide security to a visiting cricket team would create an awful sight – it would tarnish the image of the army generals in power.
Regardless of Pakistan’s position, India could not ignore the harsh facts. Pakistan was unsafe, if not dangerous, territory. The recent incident of a bomb blast that shattered the windows of the hotel where the New Zealand team was staying and injured some players was fresh in everyone’s mind. New Zealand abandoned the tour midway and that only reinforced the narrative that Pakistan is not ready to tour. During the meetings, hardliner Yashovardhan was uncompromising, outlined his concerns and insisted on certain demands from a security perspective. Surprised by his tough stance and serious tone, the Pakistanis could only scribble notes and offer reassurances.
The official reply came early the next morning and the message was brief. India’s security wish list had been approved at the highest level. Already from the top, instructions had been given to – as they say in the Sarkari language – “do the necessary”. They also had one request: If you need anything else, let us know.
Encouraged by the positive response, we set out to visit the sites for on-site assessment and meet with local authorities. It was the most complete darshan of Pakistan a tourist could hope for. The itinerary covered Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Multan, Gujranwala and the two security points, Peshawar and Karachi.
First we went to Rawalpindi, where General Pervez Musharraf had recently survived an assassination attempt. The incident had taken place not far from the police chief’s office, who admitted he was afraid of being fired and even arrested and wasn’t sure at the time if he would survive.
He took us through the arrangements for the tour, covering all the points Yashovardhan raised in the meeting with the ministry. We realized that the officers were using the same safety book while giving us presentations. The same assurances were repeated at each venue, the message being: Our brothers from Hindustan are very welcome.
In Multan, the meeting began with a short recitation from the Quran by a maulvi. We had been informed that this southern Punjab city was a land of obedient, God-fearing, peace-loving people and Sufi saints. There has been no terrorist activity in the last three years and all potential threats have been eliminated. Also, in a preemptive move, the police had rounded up all the troublemakers and put them in jail!
In Lahore, our next stop, the police briefing took place at the Pearl Continental Hotel, which was decked out for Basant, the equivalent of Diwali, with colorful kites decorating the lobby. Ali Zafar’s popular number ‘Channo’ was blasting loudly in the background, adding to the festive spirit. DIG Tariq promised “undistinguished security” with all systems fully geared for action. We are preparing for the worst, but not expecting it, he said, and issued a thinly veiled threat to miscreants: Lahore knows our capabilities.
After Lahore, our next stop was Faisalamad. A textile hub, it was known as Lyallpur until the mid-1970s. The city is associated with Bhagat Singh and Sir Ganga Ram and the cricket stadium is named after the poet Iqbal. Here too, the local authorities had made extensive arrangements for our hospitality. During the breakfast meeting, pizzas, sandwiches and gulab jamun were served in a display of Pakistani hospitality. The security plan was equally complex. The two hour drive from Lahore to Faisalabad was pleasant. We drove down the modern highway, past the Sargodha Air Force Base, the Ravi River and Gujranwala, escorted by a small group of Punjab Police commandos in black overalls.
Next on our itinerary was the border town of Peshawar (pronounced “Pesaaar”). Here, the government document did not go beyond the city limits, weapons were sold in thelas on street corners, and rockets could be delivered to the home. This posed a major challenge to the security of the tour.
We met the governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) at his official residence, an imposing colonial bungalow with a long driveway through vast manicured gardens, where we saw herds of deer grazing peacefully. This calm, however, could not hide the turmoil in the neighborhood.
In Karachi, which was next on our itinerary, we met General Javed Zia, the Director General of Rangers, Sindh. As head of the elite force, the general was responsible for law and order in the province. He confirmed that his troops were prepared to face any situation and all threats had been analyzed and responses had been prepared.
After declaring peace in Karachi, he outlined a security plan that resembled a slick military operation. Its main features were: Transit Roads: Closed to traffic, entire route with snipers and Rapid Action Force. Snipers to deploy on building roofs. Hotel: Players will stay on a floor with safety disinfection. No visitors allowed, all calls must be monitored. Security personnel in and around the hotel. Pitch: Control room set up, Rangers in the stands, which would have CCTV coverage. Mobile patrol in the area of the National Stadium. Total Security Coverage: 1,300 Rangers on duty. Additional 50 for group escort purposes.
The security report confirmed that the Pakistani government was willing to do whatever was necessary for the tour to go ahead. That he was ready to deploy the policemen and commandos with extra pace, the disposable bomb unit and the Rapid Action Force to make the visitors from India feel safe. When the guns show intent, the wheels move.
Of course, none of this made Pakistan as safe as Switzerland. A newspaper reported that the Punjab Sports Minister had been kidnapped and released after 23 days after paying a heavy ransom. Surprisingly, neither the abduction nor the news of the resumption of his office made the front pages. Both items were buried in the inside pages of local newspapers – a confirmation that security raids were routine – there is no such thing as a bad thing. To borrow SRK’s famous line: Bade bade shehron mein choti Hoti batain hoti hain!
Back in India, the security delegation submitted its report. The Indian government decided that it was good, politically, to send the team to Pakistan and that security concerns about Peshawar and Karachi could be overcome by limiting the team’s stay in the two cities. Ironically, the political bigwigs who had initially opposed the tour did a neat somersault and insisted Karachi host a game. These flexible politicians, predictably, were quick to take credit for the breakthrough in improving Indo-Pakistani relations.
Excerpted with permission from Pitchside: My Life in Indian Cricket, Amrit Mathur, Westland.
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