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9-min read

The Real Reason Why Minerva Punjab Didn’t Turn Up for Match Against Real Kashmir FC

Minerva Punjab, citing security concerns in the wake of Pulwama terror attack that claimed the lives of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, declined to participate in the game.

Manas Mitul | News18.com

Updated:February 21, 2019, 10:12 AM IST
The Real Reason Why Minerva Punjab Didn’t Turn Up for Match Against Real Kashmir FC
Real Kashmir FC warm up ahead of their cancelled game with Minerva Punjab at TRC Ground in Srinagar (Photo taken from real Kashmir FC Twitter account).

New Delhi: On February 18, football clubs Real Kashmir FC and Minerva Punjab were up against one another in an I-League game at the TRC Ground in Srinagar. However, only one of them turned up.

Minerva Punjab, citing security concerns in the wake of Pulwama terror attack that claimed the lives of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, declined to participate in the game. The club’s owner, Ranjit Bajaj, further expressed concerns about the fixture against the Srinagar-based I-League club in the run-up to the game.

Citing military retaliation in the aftermath of the attack against Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) operatives in the region, Minerva, a day ahead of the scheduled game, said they did not believe it was “too much to ask for a safe match venue to play”.

In the statement, the club maintained that they had not “forfeited” the match against Real Kashmir and were ready to play the match at “any safe venue”.

However, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) declined Minerva’s earlier request to defer the match or change the venue.

Explaining his position, I-League CEO Sunando Dhar said that he had been assured the local authorities will provide security cover for players to travel to and from the airport and the hotel on the day of the match.

“Our officials are already in Srinagar in preparation of the match,” he was quoted as saying by news agency PTI. “I have spoken to the match commissioner and he told me that the situation in Srinagar is currently normal,” he added.

“So we have decided to go ahead with the match,” Dhar said.

Match Day

On the day of the match, Real Kashmir FC, the match referee, along with the linesmen and the match commissioner gathered at the ground for kick-off.

An adrenaline-driven crowd of around 3,500 people gathered at the stadium in deep anticipation of a good game, which eventually couldn’t be held as the opponent team, Minerva failed to show up.

As per rules, the match officials waited till 3 pm, an hour past the kick-off time for the Chandigarh-based club to turn up. At 3 pm, the referee cancelled the match.

Minerva Punjab’s owner Bajaj, maintains that his club gave the match a pass purely based on security reasons. “Minerva’s stand is very simple. We want security guarantees from security agencies that the place safe to play a football match,” Bajaj told News18 over the phone on Tuesday.

He explained that the only security assurance Minerva had received ahead of the game was in the form of a letter from the match commissioner, forwarded to him by the AIFF. This, according to him, was not sufficient as “guarantees have to come either from the army, the Ministry of Home Affairs, or even the J&K police”.

His hands were further tied, as five foreign players in the team, he said, had received travel advisories from their respective embassies in the wake of the attack.

Twist in Tale

At first look, Bajaj’s concerns seem palatable and his arguments seem justified.

However, his further statements when sifted closely, reveal that security concerns, after all, was not the only reason for the team to withdraw.

On one hand, Bajaj says the club had no qualms about playing in Kashmir, provided they received security assurances. On the other, he believes playing a football match in Kashmir “two days after the worst attack on J&K soil in 20 years is not right”.

“You understand?” Bajaj said. “That’s a moral stand that it’s not right to do.”

Two days before the game, Bajaj had took to Twitter and posted screenshots of old Facebook posts of Real Kashmir FC player Danish Bhat.

In his post, Bhat has expressed a liking for the Pakistan cricket team. Subsequently, Bajaj and his wife, also the co-owner of the club, tweeted multiple times how the Kashmiri club had not issued an official condemnation of the Pulwama attack.

“…need to know if the team we play support India in this or not? …,” he wrote on Twitter.

Bajaj’s stand that his opinions are personal, notwithstanding the lines between his personal claims and his team’s stand, clearly seem to be blurring.

Closer Look

The football club Minerva Punjab comes under the Minerva Academy, a prominent training institute for the Services Selection Board (SSB) interviews for Army, Navy and Air Force. And this identity is dearer to Bajaj.

“Before being a football club, we are an armed forces academy,” he said, further alleging that this made Minerva a “soft target” in Kashmir.

Bajaj also asserted that Minerva was ready to play an immediate game anywhere outside Kashmir. But if the venue was to be Srinagar, the club would play Real Kashmir but only 20-25 days later.

“Why are they so adamant in doing it now? Why is it so urgent? If they can postpone the game with East Bengal for 20 days because of snow, why can’t they do the same for 40 people dying in the worst attack?” he said.

When asked about his Twitter posts on Bhat, Bajaj said, “The person wearing the India shirt should be willing to die for the country, on and off the field. Danish, who is their main player, has aspirations to play for our country, but you can’t do that when you don’t love our country and love the enemy country instead. He should go and play for the country he loves.”

Hate Speech and Beyond

Ever since the fateful attack in Pulwama took place, a similar rhetoric has penetrated the collective consciousness of people, leading to the persecution, harassment and physical assault of Kashmiris across the country. Kashmiri students have been driven out of hostels and colleges, they have been questioned over their patriotic allegiances and forced to shut their shops and flee.

Speaking to News18, Sandeep Chattoo and Shamim Meraj, the co-owners of Real Kashmir FC, said Bajaj’s comments were regrettable. “Danish is our star striker. He posted something about the Pakistan team four years back when he was kid. His uncles are in Pakistan, so what about it?” said Chattoo.

“What’s been going on is bordering hate speech,” Meraj added.

Regarding Real Kashmir’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the Pulwama attack Chattoo said, “Mr Bajaj cannot tell Sandeep Chattoo, a Kashmiri Pandit living in Kashmir, whether I felt bad when 40 of our soldiers were killed or not. What is he trying to say? I personally know half the forces there, half the time we are with them. It is because of them we have the strength to invite people to come and play in Kashmir.”

Smashing Bajaj’s claims of an impending security threat against the backdrop of military retaliation, Chattoo said Srinagar was “completely normal” on the day and the military operation took place in the peripheries of Kashmir. “Every week there is an army operation going on Kashmir. There are encounters in Srinagar that sometimes that go on for 72 hours but life in the Valley goes on.”

Both the co-owners further said they called Bajaj personally and assured him of all security arrangements.

News18 reached out to I-League CEO Sunando Dhar to verify the claims, who then said, the match commissioner, Andrews, was briefed by security officials. He then sent a detailed report about the arrangements to the AIFF, which was then forwarded to Minerva.

“Match commissioner is the AIFF representative and he was there, three days before the match. He was roaming around in the streets, speaking to every official,” Dhar said.

News18 has also learnt that life in Srinagar was normal on the day of the operation. The TRC stadium is just a kilometre from Lal Chowk, the city centre in Srinagar and all games in the past had gone on without any hiccups, even when an armed forces operation was underway.

Match commissioner Andrews, too, supported the claims made by Dhar. “Whatever actions that need to be taken when a team doesn’t turn up have been done and reported to AIFF,” he said. “My job was to conduct a match; the match could not happen. When the team did not report, the referee cancelled the match,” he said.

Though Andrews refused to speak on the contents of his report to AIFF that was forwarded to Minerva, News18.com obtained the said report from another AIFF source.

In the report, Andrews found that the situation in Srinagar the day after his arrival was “normal”. Based on his meeting with Security Chief of Police and Head of Srinagar District Police, the match commissioner understood “as on date the situation is much stable and there will not be any issues in conducting the subject match on February 18.”

The official also requested for the security arrangements for the visiting team upon arrival from the airport till their departure from Srinagar, including the hotel where the team would be staying.

“DY SP of Security of Kashmir has assured full security in the stadium during the meeting. Taking into consideration of the above fact, I trust there shall be no issues in conducting the match on 18th Feb 2019 at 2 PM,” the report read.

Show Must Go On

AIFF released a statement on the evening of February 18, hours after the match was cancelled, stating that the match commissioner’s report (presumably, the one written after the cancellation of the game), along with other relevant documents were being referred to the AIFF League Committee for further action as per the I-League regulations.

The statement concluded with the following line: “Despite the tragic events which have unfolded in Kashmir over the past few days, football for the people of Jammu and Kashmir has been maintained on schedule, with assistance from the security provided by the authorities, with the qualifying matches of the Santosh Trophy being completed on February 16, approximately 36 kilometres from Jammu in Katra, which was, and is still under curfew.”

Following the cancellation of Real Kashmir-Minerva game, Bengaluru FC, former I-League champion and one of India’s most popular football clubs that now plies its trade in the Indian Super League, extended an offer to play an exhibition match in Srinagar against Real Kashmir. Real Kashmir has accepted the offer.

“Let’s do this,” the club tweeted, adding “We promise the most electric football atmosphere! Let’s play to heal. Let’s pray together for the departed and share the grief of bereaved.” Parth Jindal, owner of Bengaluru FC, tweeted: “We look forward to the opportunity of sharing the beautiful game in your beautiful state which is an integral part of our great country.”

On February 24, ARA FC will travel to Srinagar to play Lonestar Kashmir, another club based in the Valley, for a 2nd division I-League game.

In a short time, Real Kashmir has captured the hearts and minds of Indian football fans. They became the first club from Kashmir to compete in I-league, the first division of Indian football, in 2018 after becoming champions of the second division in the 2017-18 season.

Their incredible rise continues as they are now third in the I-league table this season and are fighting for the championship. Minerva Punjab, the defending champions of I-League, currently sit at the ninth spot on the table.

The result of their match that didn’t take place hangs uncertain as the clubs wait for the AIFF League Committee to take a decision. “We have referred the matter to the league committee and it is supposed to meet in a few days’ time and it will be taken up,” Dhar said.

Meanwhile, Minerva has also moved court. According to Bajaj, they have a court date set on 22 February at the Delhi High Court, where the fate of the game would be decided.

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| Edited by: Zoya Mateen
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