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It must be peacetime….

It must be peacetime….

Politics, not terrorism, nearly put the kibosh on Pakistan’s 2010 Shandur Polo Festival

In a marked departure from the recent past, this year’s Shandur Polo Festival was not only accompanied by a significantly lower threat of terrorist activity along with the protective numbers of police and army, but also by the absence of the Gilgit Team or any representatives, equestrian or otherwise, from the former Northern Areas, now known as Gilgit-Baltistan.

It was to have been the first Shandur Polo Festival to pit an amalgamated Gilgit Team from Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), which was renamed by the Federal Government last year, against the Chitral Team comprising the best from the former Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) which was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (PK) this spring.
Instead, politics intervened and there took place a very one sided PK event.The reasons why the Gilgit Team and Gilgit-Baltistan not only withdrew but completely boycotted the entire event are varied. One was because G-B wanted to have a full participatory role in the Festival and not merely attend as an invited guest of the KP government which had taken on the event’s organising role with Federal Government acquiescence.

Another was because of a sponsorship revenue profit-sharing dispute by the governing authorities of the two regions. A third was G-B annoyance over KP allegations that the portion of the Shandur Plateau claimed to be a part of G-B is not, in fact, so and that this had been a gross misnomer to KP’s detriment for more than 100 years.

The significance of Gilgit not playing in this year’s event can be found going back in the writings of Major William A. Brown, a colourful if historically controversial British Officer in the waning days of the Raj and soon after who wrote: “Polo is the national game; polo is the life of the country; in fact polo is Gilgit…Polo is talked, thought, and dreamt by most of the population.”

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, despite its name change, retains the status of being one of the four Provinces of Pakistan whereas Gilgit-Baltistan, despite its name change is still not a Province although it now has certain provincial-type privileges and administrative procedures.  As the Northern Areas, it was Federally Administered.
This carries weight because with its Provincial status KP technically “out-ranks” G-B, but the latter now has more negotiating powers than before. In the past any disagreements or misunderstandings involving the Northern Areas and the NWFP, perhaps arising from a revenue-sharing type situation or other dispute, was dealt with through Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

And just as Freestyle was the order of the day on the Festival’s polo pitch, so too may this kind of approach have been used during negotiations. These began in May and ended with G-B pulling out and KP deciding to go it alone almost hours before the Festival began on July 7.

Giving his over-all opinion of this year’s event Shandur Polo Festival pundit and social commentator Rehmet Nabi who, in addition to organising annual international tours to the Festival has had a life-long interest in polo and  the welfare of the Shandur eco-system, described this year’s Festival as being politics verses polo.

“If viewed as the Shandur Polo Festival this event has not left anyone happy, and cannot even be considered in those terms. That’s not to say that there was not good polo being played, but the fun was out of it because the traditional rivalry, and everything that goes with it, was not there this year.” Rehmet Nabi said.
He estimated that the crowd this year only numbered between 2,000-3,000 people of whom, he thought, about 15 were foreigners.

“The low foreign figure is still fall-out from the War on Terror. But the other figure should be compared against the estimated 12,000 people who attended two years ago despite suicide-bombings around Pakistan, and even the low attendance last year was directly due to the war taking place in nearby Swat. This year it is purely due to local politics.”

He added that he would not be surprised if there was a Boundary Commission survey conducted soon to determine if next year’s Festival would take place at all, and to settle the allegations that not only the Shandur Plateau but land currently going deep within G-B belongs to KP or not.
For the supporters of the KP teams—and even for those few attendees from G-B and elsewhere who came for the polo no matter who was in the saddle, the Festival had more matches taking place, more players, and generally more polo-related activities such as practices, than in previous years.

Once the decision was taken for Gilgit-Baltistan to boycott the Festival, more elimination events had to then take place for the selection of the KP teams who would then play among themselves in Festival-type eliminations to the final event.

Riders and mounts were pushed more than ever. Forty eight players from eight teams of six players participated in elimination events, rather than the customary 36 players on three teams comprising A, B, and C squads. There were two matches on the first and second days with the final played on the last day, as opposed to the normal schedule of one match on each day.

This was an unexpected bonus for one polo devotee from the far northern Waterberg region of South Africa near the Limpopo River and its World Heritage Site BioSphere who, going against world current, left her World-Cup enthused country for Shandur and its more than 3,716m high polo ground.

“The polo is fabulous and I feel that I am having a more than complete Shandur Festival experience,” she said after enjoying two events on Day Two and having met some of the players and admiring their mounts. “Whatever has been going on before the Festival is of no consequence to me. I am enjoying it all.”

Freestyle is the hallmark of the Chitral-Gilgit polo playing axis. According to Major Brown in his privately published memoir entitled The Gilgit Rebellion, the British never attempted to introduce Hurlingham rules to Gilgit polo or, it would seem, to polo in the region as a whole.

“The policy has always been to preserve the ancient traditions of this king of games where the mightiest and lowliest are united in the common bond of love of the greatest game in the world.”
And as noted by Major Brown: “There are no rules apart from really outrageous crimes and by the latter I mean deliberately striking an opponent with your stick, whip, or clenched fist, or placing your stick between the forelegs of your opponent’s pony so that the pony goes for a series of somersaults and the rider to hospital or the cemetery.”

However — with the object of getting the ball through the opposing goal — “crossing, knocking a stick from an opponent’s hand with your own, dangerous riding, pinning a man’s arm down by putting yours around his waist, riding off and so on are all in the game.”

With true devotion to the ‘king of games,’ this year’s cobbled together Shandur and Lawori teams competed in the final event.  In the best Freestyle tradition by half-time Shandur was clobbering Lawori 9-0 with Shandur scoring three goals in less than a minute. When it was all over Shandur won 12-1.

And with an over-all more relaxed atmosphere the Festival took some unexpected detours from the polo itself. Included was a renewed and expanded emphasis on the fragility of Shandur’s environment, and this was accompanied by a detailed hydrological survey of Shandur Lake by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF-P)’s Pakistan Wetlands Programme. While the polo event was going on, scientists with sophisticated equipment in a large inflatable boat cruised daily the length and breadth of the lake.

In place of discussions about bombings or terrorist related fears the more care-free atmosphere spawned such eclectic impromptu discussions as the taxonomical binominal nomenclatures of local fauna and flora, while Mr. Christen Romero a law student from Baton Rouge —one of the few foreign visitors to this year’s event — discussing problems facing wetland birds in his home state of Louisiana and those facing the migratory birds which use the high altitude Shandur Lake as a stop-over.

Meanwhile, some Pakistani visitors feeling comfortable venturing afield from the Festival grounds became friendly with a few of the 100 plus villagers who spend their summers tending yak, cow and goat herds on the Shandur Plateau. Later, they urged event sponsors to consider doing more Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives for the 27 households perched on the hillsides above the polo ground.

Concurrently the WWF-P’s Pakistan Wetlands Programme (PWP) revitalised the momentum of two years ago again swung into action with its “Save Shandur!” environmental activism campaign. Through their efforts one prominent organisation visiting the Festival from Islamabad moved its camp from a sensitive wetlands area and bird nesting ground to another location and thanked the PWP for raising their awareness.

Other PWP promotions integrated polo-ground conscious raising events with sweeps through the impromptu bazaar to educate people on the need to conserve the sensitive high altitude wetland complex, along with leaflet and poster give-aways and the massive solid waste collection campaign. For the first time this included separating ‘Bio-degradables,’ ‘Glass and Metals’ and ‘Others’ into three separate, colour coded bins totalling 90 containers in all. The contents, subsequently, were categorized and weighed.

“Despite the lower number of attendees, the amount of solid waste was remarkable high,” said Mr. Abbas Waffa who acted as focal-person of the PWP’s refuse collection initiative at the event. If one looks at the numbers for this year against those from two years ago it at least amount to the same, if not more,” he said.
With about 50 high-visibility vest wearing environmental volunteers called “Wetland Warriors” from local villages constituting a workforce increase of almost 40 per cent over 2008, the PWP collected 2,380kg of refuse of all kinds over a four day period.

In 2008 4,196kg of refuse was collected over the same period, but there was an estimated four times the number of visitors, but nevertheless making this year’s event a higher volume of over-all refuse event. And in a refinement to 2008, the bio-degradable materials were collected in cotton gunnysacks and buried in and environmentally appropriate landfill while the non-biodegradables were trucked out to recycling points in KP.
Interestingly, where as it was estimated two years ago that 70 per cent of what was collected was non-biodegradable material, this year that figure was down to 39 per cent.

While lauding the “Save Shandur!” campaign and the solid waste disposal regimen achieved through participant cooperation — which even withstood last year’s hot war nearby and this year’s cold war political wrangling — people were loath to speculate about the future of an equally successful cooperative effort between the relevant governing authorities to resolve issues relating to next year’s Shandur Polo Festival.

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