To promote soft image of the militancy hit north western region of Pakistan and ‘’to put it in the news internationally for something heartwarming and positive””, Amir Haidar Khan Hoti, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has formally invited the newly-wed royal couple Prince William and Princess Kate (Duke & Duchess of Cambridge) to witness the final of the Shandur Polo tournament.
The initiative is taken by Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) that works on several projects and tourism promotion events in a region that is rich in history, natural beauty and cultural heritage but marred by unabated violence and conflicts over the last few years.
In an invitation letter issued by Pakhtunkhwa House, the chief minister formally invites the royal couple to the annual Shandur Polo Tournament 2011 on Saturday, the 9th day of July, 2011 at Shandur Pass, Chitral in Pakistan.
Highlighting the beauty and geographical importance of the region the chief minister writes in his letter that Shandur is the highest polo field on earth. Shandur Pass which is one of the most peaceful and serene areas of Pakistan is situated near the border of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces at a distance of 147km from Chitral and 212km from Gilgit.
“The pass not only connects Gilgit and Chitral but also offers one of the world's most interesting and attractive sports annually i.e. freestyle mountain polo. The exhilarating game is played on the 'Roof of the World', about 12500 feet above sea level approx, where the Hindukush, Pamir and Karakoram ranges meet”, he stated.
Recalling the contributions of British rulers of the Indian-Sub continent to the promotion of Polo the CM elaborates that the game is inscribed in tradition that predates history. In ancient times, polo being the 'King of Games' was played between small kingdoms, villages and rival groups of Chitral and Gilgit. The British picked up the game here, introduced some safety rules and subsequently popularized it all over the world.
“Patronized by a British Political Agent Major Evelyn Hey Cobb in its early days, polo tournaments were held annually on this ground 1936 onwards”, the letter states.
Since 1936 a number of foreign dignitaries and members of the Britain’s royal family visited Chitral and witnessed Polo matches that turned the sports one of the powerful passions among the youth of the mountainous region close to the Pak-Afghan border.
In 9191 HRH Princess Diana and in 1997 HRH Duke of Edinburgh flew into Chitral especially to witness polo matches. The fond memories of the princess Diana visit to Chitral are still alive in the shape of large size photos that adorned the walls of every big hotel in the Valley.
One objective of the invitation is “to help foster relations between the two countries”, who are important allies in the ongoing war against terror.
According to a press statement issued by TCKP polo teams from Gilgit have confirmed participation in the upcoming Shandur Polo Festival. Besides the rules (or no rules) there is quite a difference between the polo played in Chitral and the version introduced by the British. The size of the ground, number of players and the period of play in both versions are different.
As compared to the tribal areas and urban centers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Chitral was considered a safer area until 2009 when Taliban militants kidnapped a Greek social worker Athanasee Laironaise from Kalash Valley of the district.
On May 02, 2011 militants attacked Paitasun check post in Chitral, killed a policeman and kidnapped three more.
In October 2010 Some 100 militants stormed a check post in Arandu Chitral and snatched weapons, cell phones and cash from security personnel of Chitral Scouts, a border security force.
Reportedly militants from Swat Valley slipped into Upper Dir and Chitral after Pakistan launched a major military offensive in 2009 against the militants of Fazlullah in Swat Valley. Chitral touches Nuristan province of Afghanistan from where they target security posts in the border areas of the district.
It is yet to be seen whether the royal couple accept the invitation but locals have pinned high hopes to the event. They opine that the sports event can prove an antidote to the poisonous impacts of religious extremism.
“The war against terror can’t be won only by military adventures. It also needs to be fought on the social, cultural and ideological grounds.” says Khurhsid a master level student from Chitral at the University of Peshawar adding by participating in the festival the royal couple can give a powerful message to the youth that by joining hands we can defeat obscurantism and terrorism and can give a safer future to our coming generations.
Chitral is also the abode of the Kalasha pagan tribes. These Indo Aryan tribes worship nature and beauty and living in small valleys along the Hindukush region. Contrary to the past when girls of the tribe freely danced and sang to celebrate life, this year heavy contingents of police and frontier constabulary were deployed on the eve of the Joshi festival.
Shaheen Buneri is a journalist working for RFE/RL Mashaal Radio in Prague. He is currently on a month-long trip to Pakistan under a fellowship from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.