ACT 2016: The uneasy silence of India-Pakistan through the eyes of hockey legend Islahuddin Siddiqui
Islahuddin Siddiqui was born in India, played for Pakistan, became his nation’s best player, won the 78’ Buenos Aires World Cup and the 78’ Asian Games, yet talk revolves around Indian hockey and the stalwarts of those days.
For a man who built a hockey dynasty across the border, even though his early footprints were in Meerut’s Mohalla Karam Ali Chowk, Pakistan’s Islahuddin Siddiqui is still drenched in the nostalgia of the past. He was born in India, played for Pakistan, became his nation’s best player, won the 78’ Buenos Aires World Cup and the 78’ Asian Games, yet talk revolves around Indian hockey and the stalwarts of those days. He does avoid the clichés of what modern sport has become, especially Indo-Pak encounters, and somehow finds refuge in the sepia-tinted past where sublime skills, dinners with Hindi film stars and meeting Indira Gandhi come achingly alive.
Fast forward to 23 October and the India-Pakistan match at Kuantan. Islahuddin is strangely quiet about the circumstances this match is being played under. Perhaps, the turbulent times of today have cast a dark shadow over what exactly needs to be said of this India-Pakistan encounter that will have fans screaming for a win on both sides. Islah, as he is popularly known, enters his own dark and silent space. For almost 40 seconds he doesn’t say anything, it’s a long silence and perturbing. "Siyasat ki baat nahi karunga (I will not talk about governments or politics)," he says. “You know what, it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying so much and everything eventually becomes meaningless. It’s all talk. And I come from a generation where I have had dinners with your film stars and politicians and spoke about both our nations."
Islah knows where relationships stand today and he doesn’t want to add fuel to the fire anymore. “Too many are already doing it,” he remarks, looking up quizzically. “I am a hockey player and I believe Pakistan as a nation is peaceful. Hum bhi aman chahte hain (We also want peace) and I say this that if sport is given an opportunity to come up again in Pakistan, things would be normal. Once teams come there, we would provide security like you would give us when we come to your country.”
Islah avoids the hyperbole, the clichés that have come to define Indo-Pak relationships over anything, even a 60-minute hockey game. “In the seventies, when we came, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna all hosted us. We had great evenings and fabulous dinners. It was the Asian XI and I was the vice-captain of the side.” Islah remembers the Wankhede stadium completely jam-packed with hockey fans and film stars all attending. “After the match, Hema Malini called us for the shooting of Burning Train at the RK Studios and there was a Hollywood crew also there. Dharmendra hosted us.”
It is not surprising that apart from World Championships and Olympic medals, ‘relationships’ are the assets that Islahuddin has accumulated from his playing days. His book, aptly titled ‘DASH’, is about a player who in his time was the fastest out of the goalpost when defending a penalty corner. The forewords are by two of the greatest players to have played hockey – Holland’s Paul Litjens and India’s Ajit Pal Singh. Ajit Pal’s foreword describes the India and Pakistan of today – “It is impossible to understand the dynamics of a hockey match between India and Pakistan as it was till the 1970’s. It was intense. It was fierce. And it was truly all-consuming. The reason was simple: with severely strained ties between them, the two countries came face to face either on the hockey field or on the battle field. It was less important to win for either of the teams, and more important not to let the other have its way. It was negative energy at work.”
When the Indian cricket team toured Pakistan in 1978 and played the third Test in Karachi, the dinner party was at Islahuddin’s residence. “Most of the cricketers like Zaheer Abbass, Mushtaq Mohammed, Wasim Bari were all my school class mates and I requested them to come home for dinner and we had a great time with Bishan Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath and Kapil Dev who was so young then. I do believe relationships heal wounds and that the world is watching and noticing how we react to each other.”
It’s not only about beating Pakistan in hockey or any tournament, like the chest thumping that happens in cricket when we declare ‘Pakistan has never beaten us in a World Cup’. It’s the same sentiment except for the scale, that is sometimes frightening.
Islahuddin smiles at the thought of the 23 October match and says, “You know when we came to India in 74’ as part of the Asian XI, Bhutto and Indira Gandhi had wanted both the teams to play. There were four matches in Pakistan and then four in India which was extended to nine matches. At that moment, of course, we were excited to be in India but along with hockey, the most exciting part was to watch Pakeezah, Ganga Jamuna. And in one instance we arrived at a cinema hall to watch Pakeezah with the film already half over. But can you believe it, the people inside the hall ensured that the film was re-started.”
“I know 23 October will be a big match and I am excited by the spectacle that an India-Pakistan match brings along with the crowds and fans,” he says. “Listen, one team has to win and yes, the pressure is on us after the defeat against Malaysia. But, deep, hidden away in the players, is an indescribable passion that defines an India-Pakistan match. And I hope we are all witness to a great game.”
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