Hindu bigots vow to stop cricket tests

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The Independent Online
BY ONE measure at least, Shiv Sena, the quasi-fascist party led by a former cartoonist called Bal Thackeray, has already failed, writes Peter Popham.

The last time a tour of India by the Pakistan national cricket team was announced, Shiv Sena dug up the pitch in Bombay, precipitating the tour's cancellation. On 6 January, 25 of the party's Delhi activists pulled the same stunt in the Indian capital under the quiescent eyes of a lone policeman. But this time, to widespread surprise and joy, Pakistan has decided to go ahead.

On Wednesday, a Pakistani official told India's cricket board he was satisfied with security measures. The only concession to extremists has been a switching of dates, with the first test to be played in Madras from 28 January and the second in Delhi, to allow Delhi time to beef up security. Shiv Sena responded angrily to Pakistan's decision, threatening to send 5,000 of its members into the Delhi ground to attack the Pakistani players on the field.

India-Pakistan cricket fixtures have a deserved reputation for being among the most explosive encounters in sport. Both nations take their cricket much more seriously than any other sport, and have produced crop after crop of world-beating players to justify the excitement. But problems occur when the teams play each other, because these nations take sibling rivalry to the level of lunacy.

Kashmir, the only state in India with a Muslim majority, and the cause of two out of the three wars between India and Pakistan, is the issue on which Mr Thackeray focuses his rhetoric. In an official report, he and his party were blamed for a crucial role in the bloody anti-Muslim riots in Bombay that followed the destruction of Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992.

"I maintain that Pakistan should not be allowed to play anywhere in India," he said on 5 January. "We are not against cricket but against the Pakistanis. We have our workers in the north and south of India. Wherever the Pakistanis play, we will oppose them."

After years of domination in Bombay, where he holds no office but is the city's de facto boss, Mr Thackeray's star has been waning since electoral losses last year. He may see the test series as a good chance to re-establish his muscle in Indian politics.

But even if sabotage comes to nothing, there are still the rank-and-file Indian supporters to contend with. In the past, several games have been called off due to rioting, and a number of players have been injured. A subcontinental crowd can be frighteningly volatile when angered. The cricket officials of both countries will probably be praying for two thumping Indian victories.