Cricket is the lifeblood of the Indian public – so much so that it seems like the fortunes of fans rise and fall with the fate of their team.
It is a common sight to see children playing in the street wearing makeshift ‘jerseys’ emblazoned with the names of their heroes, and life stops when India plays bitter rivals Pakistan.
When the two clashed in this year’s Cricket World Cup, an Indian victory saw parades in the streets of India, the roads transformed into a triumphant cacophony of cheers and honking cars. And when India was knocked out of the competition at the semi final stage to New Zealand, there was a distinctly more sombre mood across the country.
Only in one part did the people rejoice at India’s downfall – Kashmir.
Even though it has been administered by India since independence from the British in 1947 and is visited by thousands of Indian tourists each year, support for India is scarce in the disputed region.
“[Kashmiris] weren’t celebrating that New Zealand won, they were celebrating that India had lost,” said Abuzar, a Kashmiri living and working in India’s capital of New Delhi who’s last name has been withheld to shield his identity.
A contested region nestled among the Himalayas, the state of Jammu and Kashmir (Indian administered Kashmir) has been subject to terror, war and military occupation for the better part of the last four decades. It is rare to find a Kashmiri who supports the Indian cricket team, and even rarer for open celebrations of an Indian triumph.
“Not supporting India is a way to resist the occupation India has imposed on us,” said Abuzar, mentioning that he has seen more Pakistani jerseys growing up than Indian ones in his hometown of Srinagar.
The sentiment goes far beyond the Indian government’s recent decision to revoke the state’s semi-autonomous status and black out its communications, although that has suddenly and drastically worsened conditions there. Growing up in Kashmir, Abuzar said, one could always feel the malicious presence of India.
The Muslim-majority mountainous territory has been the centre of a violent tug of war between India and Pakistan for the last 70 years.
Both countries claim the entirety of the region and have fought two major and one minor wars over it, regularly accusing the other of fomenting subversion and violence.
Today, the western and northern regions are controlled by Pakistan, two slivers in the north and east have been taken by China, which the rest remains in India.
An insurgency that erupted in the late 1980s in the Indian administered region has led to a prolonged and bloody conflict, one that has led to a constant Indian military presence with orders to root out militants by any means necessary.
The controversial Special Forces Act in 1990 gave the Indian Armed Forces the power to arrest people without a warrant, shoot people who are deemed to be “disturbing public order”, and enter and search any premises.
The abuse of these powers has led to thousands of deaths and disappearances in the Valley, that has created a deep resentment against the India in Kashmir. Today, it is one of the most militarised places in the world.
Sentiments around cricket are an indicator for the feelings of Kashmiris towards India and its government. Often, the feelings are mutual as the Indian constantly portrays Kashmiris as separatists as terrorists.
Despite spending significant amounts of time in other parts of India throughout his life, Abuzar has never felt accepted as a Kashmiri outside his home state. Afraid to reveal his identity as a Kashmiri, Abuzar mentions the “cold, hard looks” he gets from Indians when they find out where he is from.
“They only want Kashmir, they don’t want its people.”
Cricketers from Kashmir are often caught in this crossfire. Pervez Rasool is the only cricketer from Jammu and Kashmir to have ever played for India.
Despite his status in the beloved national team, he has had to prove to Indian police that he was not a terrorist and has fed off questions about his loyalty for not singing the Indian national anthem before a game.
From the other side, Rasool has had to fight off accusations of betrayal from some Kashmiris who campaign for independence or union with Pakistan.
There was a time when Abuzar remembers things getting better, recalling the years growing up when the Indian team was getting more support. The younger generation was more used to leaving home and living and working in parts of India, and felt more secure than their parents had. Even if they didn’t feel Indian, they no longer hated the identity as such.
But Kashmiris were never allowed to hold on to that feeling for too long.
The developments of the last few years have led to a complete change of heart, with the right-wing Narendra Modi led government constantly demonising Muslims calling for them to leave India.
As the only Muslim majority state in the country, Kashmir has become tense with Kashmiris sensing they were less welcome and less Indian. When faced with re-election in 2019, Modi’s BJP ran on a campaign promise to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir that was laid out in the Indian Constitution.
On August 5 this year, that promise became the reality and Kashmiris were caught in a nightmare. Communications were abruptly cut off and a curfew was imposed in the region, with thousands of additional troops sent to Kashmir to quell any potential dissent. Local politicians were detained, including three former chief ministers of the state.
In an ironic twist, it was a Kashmiri cricketer Wassim Iqbal whose Man Of The Match performance helped India defeat Pakistan just a week after the lockdown was imposed in the T20 Physical Disability World Championship in England, a feat that his family never found out about because of the communication blackout in his home state.
“Unfortunately, my family would not even know about it. I am worried for them and I am sure they will be very concerned for me too. I wish I could communicate with them just for a few minutes. They were so excited when I was leaving for this tournament,” Iqbal told India Today after the victory.
Despite the easing of the communication ban on October 14 and allowing a limited number of postpaid phones to function, the region and its people remain isolated for the most part, and no one knows when their freedom and way of life will be restored.
Some doubt it will be restored at all, fearing further action by the Indian government and will change the culture and demographics of the region to make it friendlier to New Delhi and push the sentiment away from Pakistan or Kashmiri independence.
Abuzar feels like these most recent actions by India have pushed the Kashmiris further than ever before, and is unsure if Kashmiris will ever warm up to India again.
“[My brother] strictly used to support and follow the Indian team,” said Abuzar. “He was a fan. […] But after recent events, he no longer has any loyalty [to them]. Now even he doesn’t even mind supporting Pakistan during a game, he doesn’t really care.”
He remembers seeing his classmates and friends routinely cheer for Pakistan during their schooldays in Srinagar, and is more familiar with the Pakistani jersey than India’s.
“But this is not necessarily because they want Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan,” he adds, “but because they have shown empathy towards Kashmir and its people.”
Comparing recent statements made by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Abuzar said that Khan showed that he cared about the lives of his people while Modi ignored their plight, choosing instead to talk about other issues.
“We’re locked at home for the past 70 days but all Modi talks about is the building of 70,000 toilets in the country.”
The revocation of their rights that were enshrined in the Constitution was the last straw, and Abuzar feels Kashmiris will never find it in their hearts to accept being a part of India.
“It feels bad, it feels like something has been stolen from you,” he said describing the current mood in the Valley.
After spending many years travelling, living and working in other parts of India, Abuzar thinks the full integration of Kashmir into India is a good idea.
But, he clearly articulates, it’s not just about him. All of Kashmir needs to want to fully integrate with India before the central government can claim the state. As ever though, no one seems to be listening.
“I wanted to feel Indian, I really did, but every time I tried, they put another barrier in the way,” said Abuzar, citing the continuous crimes against his people by the machinery of the Indian state.
In the past seventy years, the Kashmiri people have never had the chance to decide their own fate. Pawns in a larger geopolitical struggle between two world powers, locals are fed up with constantly being suppressed by the Indian government. That feeling was reflected in the fireworks that lit up the skies when India was knocked out of the Cricket World Cup.
“No one was sad in Kashmir when India lost,” he added.
“It’s a way of showing that we are opposed to [India], that we are not with you. Hear us out.”