Kartik said the Khelo India Games would pass without incident, and I believed whatever Kartik said. Kartik is the taxi driver who took me into Guwahati and simultaneously giving me a lesson on navigating Guwahati: what happens where and how to understand it. The day I landed, this could be simplified into: nothing is happening; And the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) is rubbish.
He could foresee many events. He predicted that we would see a burning tyre on our way and we did. He predicted the bill for the ride. Finally, and most importantly, Kartik predicted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not turn up at the opening ceremony of the Khelo India Youth Games. And now, we know he won’t.
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Except, the truth is that anyone who knew anything knew Narendra Modi would not show up in Guwahati. When news becomes slander, gossip becomes news. And the gossip was fairly fertile. The PM hadn’t cancelled his plans at the last minute. His plans had stayed cancelled from the moment the invite had been extended. The organisers knew about this weeks before they actually announced it. If this was damage control then it was worse than saying the truth. Captain Broadchest is scared of being booed.
“If he turns up,” Kartik said, “there will be lots of tension in the city. Anyway, there is a huge amount of dissent against the CAA, the last thing needed is a familiar face to direct it at.”
The All Assam Students Union (AASU) had promised a huge protest if the Prime Minister turned up to inaugurate the Games. “We don’t have any problems with Khelo India,” AASU President Dipanka Kumar Nath said. “Students have been protesting while simultaneously carrying on with their studies. They will also play sports now. But we oppose the manner in which the Prime Minister has imposed CAA on the people of Assam. We came to know of the cancellation of PM’s visit today. However, if he remains adamant on CAA, he will definitely face people’s protests whenever he visits Assam in the future.”
AASU leaders and artistes led by Zubeen Garh staged a Ronosingha (war trumpet) protest against the citizenship act in Guwahati on January 9.
As the news filtered in and passed around the stadiums through the day, you couldn’t help but notice that barely anyone cared. Or even registered the fact itself. The athletes were already in practice, the coaches with them, and some of the events were already in play. If the opening ceremony was important, it was for the people who didn’t care for the sport itself.
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Which is a shame, because even on a day when there were only two events in action, the stands were filled not with keen casual local fans, but instead with the team contingent themselves. This was another of Kartik’s predictions.
“45000 people turned up to the stadium to watch the cricket match that never happened,” he had said. “There are no priced tickets for the Khelo India Games. It is free. But I can safely say not many people will turn up.”
Because, in a country obsessed with the cult of personality, young people with extraordinary skills, dedication, heart and a vision for a brighter future count for nothing. Why watch promising kids, who may be the stars of tomorrow, for free. But the truth is, the stands were filled nonetheless. Because the young prop up the young. And athletes like to watch sport. They are keen, they compare, they contrast and in the case of the underdog, they even cheer in support.
Despite the noise about the absence of one person there were many better present.
There was the face of these Games, the 18-year-old archer Komalika Bari, who had kick started 2019 with a gold in the recurve and ended it with a gold at the World Youth Archery Championships — only the third Indian to do so. There was an Assamese kabaddi team, the first of its kind taking on the might of Haryana in the opener, and even registering a double digit score in the loss.
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The gossip, though, didn’t end with the absence. The doors had been firmly opened and news was trickling through. Kartik had dutifully informed me that the Games anthem was performed and composed by Assamese icon, Zubeen Garg and a day later a volunteer passed on a pixelated video of Zubeen himself at a protest, flanked by the AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya from earlier in the day in Guwahati.
“He has been at a protest before also. Many in fact. They were thinking of changing the anthem and getting a different singer, but the Chief Minister said there is no need, the two things are not linked,” the young man said.
And they are not. One has nothing to do with the other. But it does, because there is a face that links them all. And that face may be absent in person, but not in form. A significant amount of the Khelo India 2020 organising budget has been spent on advertising and branding. Flex boards that will eventually end up as makeshift roofs are peppered across the city. Even without being there Big Brother’s face will dominate the games venues. And all eyes on him. The Games begin, and the games continue.
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