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Sachin Tendulkar pulls out of Olympic relay as India mounts huge security shield

April 17, 2008

Jeremy Page,
Times Online
April 16, 2008,

Delhi

Sachin Tendulkar, India’s biggest cricket star, pulled out of the
Olympic Torch relay today on the eve of its procession through Delhi in
one of the biggest blows yet to China’s build-up to the Beijing Games.

The Indian Olympic Association confirmed his decision this morning as
15,000 Indian security personnel prepared to virtually shut down the
centre of Delhi to prevent Tibetan exiles from disrupting the relay.

The torch is due to arrive in Delhi from Pakistan this evening for what
is seen as the most sensitive stretch of its global relay since India is
home to some 120,000 Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama.

It was not immediately clear what Mr Tendulkar’s reasons were: IOA
sources told Times Online he did not want to aggravate a groin injury
ahead of the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League on Friday.

“It's an individual decision," was all that Randhir Singh, IOA general
secretary, would say.

But the withdrawal will inevitably be seen by many around the world as a
gesture of protest against China’s security crackdown in Tibet following
anti-Chinese rioting last month.

Baichung Bhutia, India’s national soccer captain, pulled out of the
torch relay last month out of solidarity for Tibet and Soha Ali Khan,
the Bollywood actress, withdrew today citing “very strong personal reasons”.

Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman police officer, is also boycotting the
event in protest at the “suffocating security” surrounding it.

Mr Tendulkar, however, is arguably the biggest international sports
star, except perhaps for Diego Maradonna, the former Argentina
footballer, to have pulled out of the torch relay so far.

The cricketer’s decision came as a huge blow to Indian authorities as
they tread a fine line between forging closer ties with China and
upholding India’s strong democratic traditions.

The original plan was to take the torch on a six-mile route from the Red
Fort, former seat of the Mughal Emperors, to India Gate, an arched war
memorial in the centre of New Delhi.

But it has now been cut to just a 1.8 mile route along Rajpath, a
straight avenue flanked by wide lawns which leads from Rashtrapati
Bhawan, the presidential palace, to India Gate.

Indian authorities had also planned to close off the entire area to the
general public, allowing only schoolchildren to watch the relay from
behind metal barriers and phalanxes of police. But those plans were
thrown into doubt when the city government announced that it would not
send schoolchildren to the event.

With less than 24 hours until the start of the relay, it is now unclear
who will watch it apart from the estimated 15,000 security personnel to
be deployed along the route.

They include Delhi police, army troops, paramilitary forces and snipers
posted on surrounding buildings. Helicopters will patrol overhead and
the nearest Metro stations will be closed, along with all roads to the
city centre.

Some 400 Delhi police commandos, dressed in blue tracksuits emblazoned
with DP, will be closest to the torch as it proceeds along Rajpath. But
India has also allowed 20 Chinese paramilitary security guards to
accompany the torch despite the controversy over their legal status on
previous legs – not to mention bitter memories of India’s 1962 border
war with China.

The Tibetan parliament-in-exile is organising an alternative torch relay
in eastern Delhi tomorrow morning and says it expects about 3,000 people
to take part. It says it will not try to disrupt the Rajpath procession
as the Dalai Lama, who fled to India from Tibet in 1959, is not calling
for a boycott of the relay or the Beijing Games.

But the radical Tibetan Youth Congress and other groups say they will
try to protest around the Chinese Embassy, India Gate and other areas of
Delhi tomorrow.

About 30 TYC members staged a short protest on Rajpath today, carrying a
mock Olympic torch along most of the planned route before being bundled
away by Indian police.

Another 100 Tibetans protested outside the heavily guarded Chinese
Embassy this morning, wearing “Free Tibet” headbands, shouting “No
Olympics in China” and waving posters saying “No torch in India”.

Indian police quickly broke up the protest, dragging about two dozen
Tibetans onto waiting vans, but several escaped and pledged to stage
bigger protests tomorrow.

“We want a free Tibet,” said Dasang, a 26-year-old member of TYC, which
advocates independence for Tibet and reserves the right to use violence.

“We’re here to stop the killing in Tibet. Innocent people are dying,
including monks and nuns.”
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