March 10, 2009

A Lahore landing

In 2004 Pakistan unrolled the red carpet for India. A look at the team's arrival in Lahore

Five years ago, to the day, the Indian team reached Pakistan for a historic tour. It was conducted in the context of a peace movement between the two countries, a forthcoming general election in India, and in the shadow of a (failed) bid on President Musharraf's life. Security was a priority, and yet there followed thirty-seven amazing days of cricket. Everywhere was headiness and bonhomie, difficult to recall in light of recent events. Here is a flashback from Rahul Bhattacharya's acclaimed book, Pundits from Pakistan (Picador).


The Elite Force stand guard at the Gaddafi Stadium during India's first practice session on the tour © AFP
 

Wednesday, 10 March, the Indian cricket team were to land in Pakistan. Perhaps I had romanticised it too much. I had wanted to be on this side for the arrival, the extraordinary emotional historic arrival. Instead I found a great array of security personnel, two young girls with a chart, and one man from Sialkot.

It was a hot, dry, cactus kind of day. On the way I had asked the driver if he might switch on the air-conditioner. Gruffly he said it did not work. Soon he learnt I was Indian. At once he switched on the a/c. He felt ashamed. He did not charge me extra for the a/c.

The pampering would not cease over the coming weeks. Friends and family in India had advised before leaving that better to be inconspicuous and try to pass off as Pakistani; by the end of it Pakistanis were contemplating posing as Indians and reaping the rewards. I had not been made to feel so welcome anywhere in the world.

The first indication of the security web that lay not just round this corner but the next six weeks came when the taxi was halted at two places well before the terminal, for a boot and undercarriage scan. And at the terminal, a variety of security units made themselves conspicuous.

Catching the eye first were the all-black Elite Force, their sporty logoed caps and t-shirts at odds with their thumping boots, their silver buckles on leather belts, the semi-automatic pistols hitched on to their waists, the rifles in their hands. What appeared from a distance to be a phoenix on the front of their t-shirts was two pistols in profile facing away from one another; the No Fear tagline on the back had been nicked from an Australian surfwear company. The Elite Force, I was told by a journalist on security affairs, was a unit of the Punjab Police set up in 1998 to combat growing sectarian terrorism in the state.

The other slick lot appeared to be the Tiger Force, many of them with 250cc Honda motorcycles in tow. The Tigers, I was told, were conceived as the Elites of the Sindh Police, and largely employed in urban areas, and thus the bikes. On closer inspection there also emerged a Mujahid Force. This was a paramilitary unit derived from the civilian population as well as the armed forces, and usually assigned to national security installations.

 
 
The players did not arrive at the appointed hour. Their takeoff had been pegged back by thirty minutes. This was a ruse, to throw off any time-activated bombs. Ruse after such ruse and arrangement after arrangement had been devised for the next month and a half. There were to be multiple options for each land route the team took, with decoy motorcades sometimes sent out on the false one
 

As the tour went along, two more units would make their presence felt at the grounds. Deputed at Lahore and Peshawar were the grandly titled, grandly attired, Frontier Constabulary, a force of tribal men from the regions by the Afghan border, trained by the army, deputed to patrol the western boundary. At Karachi there would be the Pakistan Rangers (Sindh), another paramilitary force whose primary function is border patrolling. Out and about at the moment were also a number of airport security staff, all of them carrying weapons, and a smattering of plainclothesmen. Altogether, the men were in their hundreds. The Indians were in many safe hands. And they were travelling with two security men of their own.

I had reached too early. Despite the guns and jeeps and bikes, it was an afternoon of drift, detachment. The Allama Iqbal Airport possessed an unhurried, almost lofty, air, as befitting a structure named after a poet. It was a new facility, elegant, modern, fresh, spacious. There were barely any onlookers. The only persons, other than the security and the mediamen and the PCB officials, present with the express purpose of receiving the Indian team were the two delightfully shy little girls. They had been brought there by their mother, a Patna resident before marriage. The girls, dressed identically, had come with a bouquet of flowers each, and a white chart. 'Main apne Hindustani mamaji ka swagatam karti hoon' (I welcome my Indian uncles), the message on the chart said. The script was Devanagari. The girls had made the chart themselves, the mother said, following her directions.

In the eyes of the growing crew of media corps on this vacant afternoon, the sisters and their mother became the atmosphere. The girls were asked to pose for photo after photo and the mother chatted with journalist after journalist. Soon, the Indians would be here.

The cricketers had endured a long morning of protocol in Delhi. Hair combed and boots polished and togged in national blazers and ties, they had been marched to 7 Race Course Road to meet with Prime Minister Vajpayee. Schoolchildren had held up placards and flags to wave them to the lawns inside, and on the lawns a police band made symphonic renditions of Hindi movie songs before the PM requested 'Hum Honge Kaamiyaab' ('We Shall Overcome'). Ladoos and fruit juices were served, and finally Vajpayee bid the ambassadors farewell with the message, 'Khel hi nahin, dil bhi jeetiye' (Win not only matches, but hearts too).

A newspaper sponsoring a send-off event presented them with a good-luck card signed by fans. They might have considered carrying it along for inspiration had the thing been smaller than 22,500 sq ft. Still, the card must have been more reassuring than the pronouncement from Kapil Dev, who had spent time with the squad at the preparatory camp in Kolkata: 'It may be a goodwill series for some,' he had said, 'but for the boys, it's life and death.' India's flair is not for understatement.

The players did not arrive at the appointed hour. Their takeoff had been pegged back by thirty minutes. This was a ruse, to throw off any time-activated bombs. Ruse after such ruse and arrangement after arrangement had been devised for the next month and a half. There were to be multiple options for each land route the team took, with decoy motorcades sometimes sent out on the false one. All stadiums and hotels would be searched for explosives by sniffer dogs. A helicopter would monitor activity on high-rise buildings around the National Stadium at Karachi. At Karachi and Peshawar, safe houses had been identified should the situation come to it. Already confined to a bubble, would the next step for the Indian cricketer entail living in a bunker? The players were provided a USD 500,000 insurance cover against a terrorist attack, twice the usual amount.


As instructed, the Indians dutifully won hearts and both series © AFP
 

The dry-hot noon grew long on the flat outskirts of Lahore. There was talk about Pakistan's successful testing the previous day of the missile Shaheen II, which, at 2,500 km, had most of India in its range. The Indian government had been informed of the test in advance, as a courtesy. The television sets beamed pictures from Karachi, where Pakistan's best XI were trouncing the second-stringers in a warm-up match. The media contingent steadily kept growing, the little girls continued to strain themselves shyly, and, by now, sensing all the activity, a decent gathering of bystanders had developed.

I had immersed myself in the Karachi game when I felt a sudden rush. Cameramen and photographers bustled to get to the upper tier of the terminal. The bystanders were trying to follow. All but one stairwell and elevator had been put out of limits, so a fervent scramble ensued. I managed to squeeze my way up.

Another ruse: the Indians were to exit from the arrival lounge. The arrangements below, the security, the vehicles, the coach, were all a decoy. Thrice the number of everything awaited upstairs. Things happened rapidly now. Shutters began going off everywhere as the players emerged, through layers of human chains formed by the commandos, led by a smiling Sourav Ganguly, captain of India. In brisk strides, the squad covered the 30 metres out from the doorway of the terminal to the coach, some like Rahul Dravid and the physio, Andrew Leipus, filming, some like Mohammad Kaif playfully engaging the cameras, some like Sachin Tendulkar inscrutable behind tinted glares. As they zipped past, one by one, the only thing that struck me was the youngness of the bunch, the fresh-facedness of Irfan Pathan and Laxmipathy Balaji and Parthiv Patel and Ramesh Powar and Yuvraj Singh.

Would they be up to these weeks?

In a trice, with the lensmen tripping over one another, the coach took off, with a horn which sounded like the last exhale of a slain giant. I looked around; it did not seem like the girls had made it upstairs. Their poster would return home unseen by the Indians. And it was now that I ran into the man from Sialkot, who'd just raced up, breathless. 'Chali gayee Indian team?' (The Indian team has gone?), he asked, a little confused. He'd travelled, he said, four hours by train for a glimpse.

Down in the distance, the motorcade powered on in formation, the bullet-proof coach led by a jeep and a stagger of bikes, flanked by bikes, and brought up on the rear by a set of jeeps and a fire engine. It picked up pace and grew smaller and smaller till it pulled away from the airport site, turned right at the yellowgreen fields across the road, and headed, purposefully, towards the city of Lahore.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04

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