Anti-Pakistan protests threaten to derail Indian hockey league

MUMBAI Mon Jan 14, 2013 5:03pm IST

Players challenge for the ball during a men's Group B hockey match at the Riverbank Arena at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 5, 2012. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes/Files

Players challenge for the ball during a men's Group B hockey match at the Riverbank Arena at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 5, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Moraes/Files

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - A new franchise-based Indian hockey league faces the prospect of being forced out of Mumbai after heightened regional political tensions led to protests against Pakistani players competing in the IPL-style event on Sunday.

Following the latest outbreak of violence in disputed Kashmir, around 100 workers of the hardline right-wing Shiv Sena party protested at a stadium where the Mumbai Magicians team, who have four Pakistani players in their squad, were practising.

The players had to be whisked away and the team subsequently left Mumbai on Monday for New Delhi, where the inaugural match of the five-team Hockey India League (HIL) will be held.

Local organisers are unsure if they will be able to hold the franchise's home matches in Mumbai if Pakistani players remain in the side.

"It does not depend any longer on the HIL and the players. It will now depend on the government of India's stand and the government of Maharashtra's stand," Ram Singh Rathor, the secretary of Mumbai Hockey Association, told Reuters.

"I think it will be a very difficult situation if we have to play with the Pakistani players in Mumbai."

The Mumbai police said they had beefed up security at the practice venue after they became aware of the protests.

"No players are there in Mumbai currently. We will hold discussions with the HIL and understand their plans and make arrangements accordingly," Ravindra Shishve, the deputy commissioner of police (Zone-I), said by phone.

"It is too premature for me to speak about the details of the arrangements."

LATEST VIOLENCE

Four soldiers were killed last week in the worst outbreak of violence at the Line of Control, which divides disputed Kashmir, since the nuclear-armed neighbours agreed a ceasefire in 2003.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Ties were soured again in 2008 when gunmen killed 166 people in Mumbai in a three-day rampage with India blaming a Pakistani militant group for the massacre.

Shiv Sena, who dug up the Wankhede Stadium pitch in 1991 on the eve of a test match between the two countries, called for the players' visas be cancelled.

"We will not allow Pakistani players or artists to perform here," Rahul Narvekar, a spokesperson for the Hindu right-wing party, told Reuters.

"Pakistan is involved in militant attacks on India and you are letting them make money in India... this is injustice to the martyrs who have died in these attacks."

The city was also omitted as a venue last month when Pakistan toured India for its first bilateral cricket series in seven years.

Mumbai is scheduled to hold its first HIL match on Sunday but Rathor said that the issue needed to be discussed at the highest level of administration before they could proceed.

"Yesterday was only a practice session, so we could manage it. But what will we do if such things happen when the whole stadium is packed with spectators?" Rathor added.

"It is not only a question for the players but it has to deal with the safety and security of the crowd also.

"It's always a problem in Mumbai if you are holding matches which have Pakistan players. I was speaking to the police and they also have their own concerns."

(Additional reporting by Kaustubh Kulkarni; Editing by John O'Brien)

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