According to a United Nations report on sports and peace, “sport can also be used to reduce tensions and prevent conflict on a broader, community-wide level. Violence has many causes, including a lack of opportunity arising from social and economic exclusion.” Recently The Citizen interviewed sportspersons from the Kashmir valley now living in other parts of India, to understand their perspective on sports.

Ishfaq Ahmed, an assistant coach for the Jamshedpur team in the Indian Super League, said “Football is the most loved game in Kashmir. The curfews have always been there. I think football is the only source of entertainment for the Kashmir division.”

Asked about the challenges he’s faced Ahmed replied, “Being a Kashmiri itself is a challenge.” He described how he had difficulty finding a place to rent, despite being a professional football player, due to his identity as a Kashmiri.

“Financial issues are also there - due to curfews most of the matches get postponed, that effect is already there. But despite that by Almighty’s grace I got somewhere, and I am proud of that.”

In the Valley, said Ahmed, “We have heavy winters, but we just have one indoor stadium, the CRPF’s Bakshi Stadium. The lack of infrastructure is the biggest question mark for the state. They never address these key issues. Kashmir is a conflict zone where sectors like sports are being ignored. It amazes me that even in 2019 we don’t have a single ground with lights for professional matches. One needs to understand that sports can help with unemployment.”

Nadia Nighat, the head coach for under-13s at the Football Leaders Academy in Mumbai, told The Citizen, “As a young girl, I was the only girl playing football in my area. I was often beaten up by my mother for playing with guys. But my dad supported me as he thought it’s just a hobby. They thought I wouldn’t be able to make out a career out of it.”

Nighat spoke about the importance of exposure to more challenging environments. “When I started playing football I thought I knew how to play, but after playing nationals in Jammu, I realised I don’t know anything.”

After doing a graduate course Nighat opened her own academy where she has trained about fifty students. The number of girls that joined was less as many of them had issues with their family.

The biggest challenge came from society, which didn’t give Nighat permission to play. “Often people would talk behind my back - everyone’s eyes were on me, and they would say that if our boys haven’t managed to do anything, how will this girl?”

In Mumbai, Nighat said, “the basics of football are being taught to eight year olds, so the football is of a high level, whereas in the Valley one doesn’t get proper training. Kashmir has a lot of talent among men and women both, but when it comes to females their parents don’t allow them to play. They expect you to be a doctor or an engineer.”

“Parents in Jammu still give chances to their kids,” she added, “but not in Kashmir.” She said that despite such setbacks people’s thinking was changing.

“When I needed support I couldn’t get it, but I hope to support all the women around me.”

Talib Rather, a former national level footballer from Jammu and Kashmir said, “I studied in the Army Public School as a kid. It was known for producing world class talents across the Valley but sadly they gave academics all the preference. And sadly, today other schools have overtaken them.”

“The difference between Delhi and Kashmir is simple: the opportunities,” said Rather. “Few tournaments are organised in Kashmir and only on a small scale, because all the money must come from the organiser’s pocket, while in Delhi there are sponsors for tournaments. Here, average players play in great tournaments. I believe if Kashmir had more investment and attention you would see some serious top players coming from there.”

“In a country dominated by cricket I understood the opportunities available, and I chose to make football my hobby or passion, not my profession. I could have played for the biggest clubs in Kashmir but that was never my dream,” Rather told The Citizen.

On the gender disparity in sports Rather added, “Most sports today demand physicality, and that’s why men and women can’t play together in the same game. Some games which don’t require this physical aspect have seen women grow into worldwide superstars.”

Given the backdrop of violence and conflict in Kashmir, the only way to make it is to have an alternative which is constructive, and provides opportunities, according to Rather. “Sports is not just physical activity. Your mind is the most important thing to excel in any sport.

“Sports can help divert the mind from conflicts and find it some shreds of happiness, because sports influences how you think and perceive situations. It builds your character.”