It was getting tense. You could feel the intensity in the air. Ravindra Jadeja was smacking it all over the park. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was pecking away at the target, his characteristic calm-amidst-chaos in place. But it was far from over yet. The five boys, in their early 20s, squatting on a shop perch near Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, were glued to the phone screen, watching the India v/s New Zealand semi-final live on Hotstar. The azaan from the grand mosque was reverberating in the background. But nobody thought of offering prayers. For now, Allah was second priority. Cricket first.
31 needed of 2 overs. The boys know it is not beyond Dhoni, even though his reflexes may have slowed in the last two years. He is on the wrong side of thirties, after all. And he has to face Lockie Ferguson. The fastest among New Zealand bowlers and the World Cup’s second-fastest. First ball. Short and wide and over the cover boundary. Sixxxxxx! “This guy can still do it,” exclaimed one of the boys whilst nervously rubbing his chin. Another one was biting his nails. The hands of the boy holding the phone were trembling and sweating, even though it was a fairly pleasant evening after a hot afternoon in the largest city in Jammu & Kashmir. “I can’t absorb another heartbreak. I will surely die today,” he yelled nervously.
Next ball, someone produced magic. It was Martin Guptill. He had barely done anything right the whole tournament. But now, he threw a cannonball from the square leg and hit the stumps. And the next moment, the skies were ablaze. Fireworks were on. Everyone was running around, shouting, “India has lost! India has lost!” But they weren’t heartbroken about the country losing. Quite the opposite.
Suddenly, the cars on the road seemed to be intoxicated. They started moving to and fro, without finding anywhere to go. Streets were swarmed with people. They were rushing from their homes to streets as if liberated from decade-long jail terms. There were slogans. There was dance. Somebody was throwing his shirt up in the air. In ecstasy, disbelief, and joy. This was no mere celebration. It had a discernible political message. This was "cric-referendum", a word you will find Kashmiris use on their social media to describe this state of things. Videos and images soon went viral with the people of Srinagar and some other places in Kashmir seen setting off firecrackers and chanting slogans against the Indian regime in the war-torn valley.
The Kashmir Valley has a history of mourning India’s wins and celebrating her losses. In wars. In politics. In sports. “Why won’t I celebrate this moment? How else do I vent?” said Rizwan, one of the young boys VICE met on the street. A second later, Rizwan took off his shirt, swung it round and round in the air, and yelled, “Go India!” When he said it the first time, only a few boys replied, “Go back!” The second time he yelled it, it seemed like a few hundred people responded to what resembled a war cry. The third time, it felt like the whole city piped in.
This is not a new phenomenon. Young boys on the streets of Kashmir often see India as an "occupying" state. Its every loss has to be cherished. And every gain, mourned. While the sport brings out hyper-nationalism and patriotism across the country and with Indian-origin people around the world, Kashmiris often see their stance as an act of political assertion. The sentiment is rooted in the unresolved Kashmir issue where many Kashmiris see Pakistan as a “sympathiser” and India an “aggressor” and an "occupier".
It is not just the young who share this sentiment. 55-year old Sajad Ahmad was also on the roads celebrating, albeit passively. In 1983, he was only a teenager when he had smuggled anti-India, pro-Pakistan and pro-West Indies posters in his underwear, to an international cricket match between West Indies and India that was being played in Kashmir for the first time. “These boys remind me of that match day,” he sheepishly reminisced. The whole crowd had cheered for West Indies that day. After the match, West Indies captain Clive Llyod is famously reported as having said, “I felt like playing in the lanes of my native village in Guyana.”
But when you are conveying a strong political message through sports, its repercussions are also to be faced. Kashmiris have faced sedition charges, severe beatings and expulsion from colleges for supporting the Pakistan cricket team and celebrating Indian losses. But that is all forgotten for the moment. For now, on the evening of July 10 as most of India mourned its unexpected defeat, for some, it was time to celebrate.
Follow Hanan Zaffar on Twitter.