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Cricketers for communal harmony
By Saeed Suhrawardy

Blessed are those who seek light amidst encircling gloom. Blessed are those also who carry light to guide others on the right path. In the Holy Month of Ramadan, these thoughts visit us quite frequently. The Society for Promotion of Rational Thinking (Sprat), based at Ahmedabad, embarked on a novel idea to launch their campaign for communal harmony.The ‘pundits’ of management, associated with the movement, were keen to ensure that their movement should fire the imagination of the youth. They knew that asking a politician for the job would be counter productive. The political class has given nothing but frustration to the rising generation. Any message from them was likely to be disbelieved.

They hit on the bright idea that if cricketers could sell soft drinks and other consumer items, they could also bring home the message of communal harmony.

They availed of the opportunity provided by the visit of cricket stars for 4th One Day International Cricket Match between India and West Indies at Ahmedabad. They were lucky that their idea caught the imagination of well-known cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, an alumnus of the famous Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. There are several professors of IIM closely associated with the work of Sprat. It was Harsha Bhogle who helped members of Sparat in getting in touch with cricketers. Harsha Bhogle spoke to Arun Lal, secretary of the newly formed Indian Cricketers Association. Arun Lal spoke to the well-known leg spinner Anil Kumble, who got the players agree to support the initiative.

Among others associated with the organization, are Y.K. Alagh, former Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Harsh Mander, who resigned his IAS job to work against communalism. His article, “Sare Jahan Se Achha Jahan Samara” was an eye-opener for those who were not aware of the pogrom in Gujarat. Former Union Minister Arif Mohammed Khan, who recently joined hands with Dalit leader Ram Bilas Paswan, for forging a new front of secular forces to challenge Sangh Parivar, is in their company.

It was a unique experience for cricket stars when they were face to face with small children.. The children had before them heroes who had brought honour for the country.It was a great privilege for Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath, Mohammad Kaif, Virender Sehwag, Sanjay Bangar and V.V.S. Laxman that they were requested to launch VRI (We are Indians), the campaign for communal harmony.Speaking for the players Srinath declared, “Communal harmony is the need of the hour and we as responsible citizens, need to show our support for this campaign.Let us all take that extra step to walk together and say no to all the communal violence and killing that has happened.”

The cricketers met 12-year-olds Zafarullah Khan and Pathan Atif Khan, who had stones thrown at them and whose houses in the Nutan Mill area of Saraspur were looted and burnt by a mob. They met Anil Raju Bhai, a wide-eyed 10-year-old. He is a member of the few Hindu families in a Muslim-dominated area, whose house was destroyed by a mob.According to M.H. Jowahar of Sprat, “We wanted to bring together children from different communities, some who had directly suffered and others who had lost nothing tangible, but suffered any way. A lot of things divide us and some unite us irrevocably and cricket is one such thing.”

Elsewhere, in the disturbed state of Gujarat, there was the familiar tension over the latest episode of a long-running political battle. But for a brief period, a five-star hotel in down-town Ahmedabad provided the perfect Children’s Day treat: six boys and girls affected by the riots got a chance to meet six Indian cricketers.Faces beaming, eyes shining, they got up close and personal with their heroes, overcoming initial coyness to ask for photographs and autographs. And the good vibrations seemed mutual.Dravid, a clear favourite with children, said: “It’s our privilege to meet children and launch this campaign of communal harmony. We must make our children happy and I appreciate the efforts of the organizers of this campaign.”

Latest cricket sensation Sehwag spent a long time shaking hands with children, asking their names and signing autographs. “ It feels good to be part of this campaign”, he said.The tragedy of the riots was great”, said Srinath. “ Everybody needs to do whatever they can do to promote communal harmony and peace in the country.”If the stars were happy, the children were star-struck. Zafarkhan, Afrozekhan (9) spent the first few minutes just staring at the cricketers. “We try to imitate the players when we play cricket in our mohalla. Today, they spoke to me, asked my name and asked me what I wanted to be. I told Rahul Dravid that I wanted to be a cricketer,” Zafarkhan said.His family, staying in the Gomtipur area, was forced to shift to relief camp for five months after their house was burnt down.I never thought that I would meet Dravid, Sehwag and Srinath,” said eight-year old Aviraj Dua. Aviraj’s father Indraraj was shot dead during the riots on March 1, near the family’s house at Bhidbhanjan Hanuman temple at Bapunagar.

“SPRAT’ will now take care of the education of these children,” said Abid Sheikh, a neighbour who gave shelter to Dua family during the riots.Those days seemed a long time ago for Aviraj’s sister Shivani (6), who spent her time pointing at the cricketers and identifying them. “I am happy to see them from so close. I had earlier seen them only on TV, she said tightly clutching the autograph book with the signatures of all players.Atif Mohammed and Younus Sheikh, stay in the Nutan Mills area of Saraspur. They were initially scared by all the attention. But soon they too started shaking hands and taking autographs. “ I will keep these with me all my life,” a beaming Atif said.For office-bearers of SPRAT the get-together was a moment of satisfaction and achievement. One of them said with a sigh of relief, “This is an attempt to promote communal harmony in whatever way we can.”
Acknowledgement: Based on inputs from HT and Indian Express of Nov.14, 2002

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