He was resting, having just completed a practice session on the shotgun ranges at the Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range, but skeet shooter Usman Chand — the only Pakistani competitor at the 2021 ISSF World Cup in New Delhi — jumped up from his seat and broke into a huge smile when he saw a familiar friendly face peeking at him.
“Oh, big boss is here!” Chand called out to India’s Mairaj Khan. After an embrace, the veteran Indian shooter, who earned a quota for India at the Olympics, mock-questioned Chand. “Where’s my bat? You were supposed to bring me a bat from Pakistan,” Mairaj, who has played college cricket alongside Virender Sehwag, mock-grilled the man from Sialkot. Chand insisted he had tried and what followed was a bit of lighthearted banter on which country’s airport customs was more insufferable than the other.
Chand is greeted by Mairaj as a long-lost friend but he’s also seen as a bit of a curiosity. He’s the first Pakistani sport shooter to get a visa to compete here since the Indian government denied visas to two Pakistani shooters after border clashes in 2019. That incident had almost led to the IOC cancelling the status of the tournament as an Olympic qualification event. (Incidentally, a Pakistani equestrian team is also competing simultaenously in Noida at the International Tent Pegging Federation World Cup qualifiers).
Even this year, although Chand’s visa was approved, it came with a delay. “The visa got delayed because it came as a surprise to the couriers. They genuinely weren’t expecting that I would get it. Right now, the only visas being given by the Indian High Commission are for medical reasons or emergencies,” Chand says. That’s not always been the case — the 36-year-old has previously competed in New Delhi for the 2016 World Cup — but it’s certainly a fact now.
Chand, though, has been visiting India since a lot earlier — in a role separate from his sporting endeavours. He runs a business manufacturing specialty instruments for cardiovascular and dental surgery. “India was some 70 percent of my market. That market has been shut to me for the last few years now,” he says. While a visa to India is now considered noteworthy, Chand, by virtue of his medical-supplies business, says he used to have a multiple-entry visa. “I’ve travelled all over India. I’ve even held exhibitions in Bangalore. I’ve always loved coming here. When you come here from there, it’s hard to notice any real changes. Especially when you come to Punjab. Even the language is the same over there,” he says.
Remarkably, India was once a weekend destination for him. “I used to park my car at the Wagah Border on Thursday. One of my customers would come over from Jalandhar and pick me up. We would have our business meeting, then party and relax and I would go back to Pakistan on Sunday. This was just 6 or 7 years ago,” he says.
Now, the freezing of relations between the two countries has not just taken a toll on sporting ties but also on Chand’s own business. “The Indian market is mostly closed right now to Pakistani businesses now. I mostly export to China and Europe now. They could reroute the product to India but if you don’t list the country of origin on your package, that automatically results in a 200 percent duty,” he says.
And where a visit to India used to be a ‘weekend trip’, Chand had to carefully plan the logistics of his journey to India this time around. “Everything is a lot harder now. Of course, since I’m bringing a weapon, I can only come in through New Delhi Airport. Normally, Sialkot is an hour’s drive from Lahore and Delhi Airport is a 45-minute flight from Lahore on PIA. But since there are no direct flights, I have to first fly to Dubai, take an 18-hour layover there and then fly from Emirates to India. It is going to be the same when I go back to Pakistan. Pura ghum ke aana hai (I have to reach by going all the way around),” he says.
While ties between the two nations have waxed and waned, Chand’s friendships with Indian shooters have always been strong. He’d first met them in competitions in Italy and he’d usually run into them at World Cups and at the Asian Games.
At the 2018 Asian Shotgun Championships, Chand had cheered for Angad Bajwa — Top Don as he calls him — in the skeet final, where the Indian won gold. Mairaj and Bajwa returned the favour in 2018, when Chand finished fifth in his first Asian Games final. Chand doesnt find this surprising. “We are all really good friends. If my brother is in the final, I have to support him. If I am in the final, he and Mairaj will definitely support me,” he says.
Indeed, Chand, Khan and Bajwa were all competing at the 2019 Asian Shooting Championships for a place in the Olympics. Although all three reached the finals, the two Indians won the quota. The first person to congratulate them on winning the Olympic quota, Chand says, was himself.
Bajwa has a theory on why shotgun shooters find it easier to bond with rivals. “Shotgun sports are perhaps something that you pick up because it usually was a social thing. Maybe because it’s an outdoor sport, you can separate the competition from the individual,” he says. Chand has a more pithy answer to the question of why there is so much camaraderie between him and the Indian shooters. “Big bore, big heart,” he says.
Back in 2019 following his loss at the Asian Olympic qualifiers, Chand had thought then that his chance for Olympic qualification was over. He had planned to focus on his business until the next Olympic cycle but decided to give qualification another chance once the coronavirus pandemic caused the Games to be postponed.
It’s in the hopes of boosting his world ranking and earning a ranking-based Olympic quota that Chand decided to take a chance and compete in New Delhi. When he had told his Indian competitors of those plans, they had been entirely supportive. “They said, ‘Usman bhai (brother), if you need anything, ammo or anything, in India, let us know and we will arrange it for you’,” he says.
The only request from the Indian end was from Mairaj for a Pakistan-made bat. While overzealous officials wouldn’t let that come through, there wasnt any complaint from the Indian shooter. “All is well. Balla nahi aya (the bat didn’t come), but more importantly, tum aa gaye (you came),” Mairaj tells Chand.