In 2019, Kashmir was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370 was revoked and the state was put under lockdown. Why the Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir police were tracking down Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player, is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons, especially para-sports players, from Kashmir
On August 25, 2019, Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player from Bangdara village in Baramulla district, about 54 kms from Srinagar, was holed up in her house. The state was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, was revoked on August 5 and the state was put under lockdown.
There was a knock at the door. Akhtar’s father Abdul Rashid Mir, who works in the water department in the Public Health Engineering Department in Baramulla, froze when he opened the door and saw Army and police personnel standing outside. A policeman was holding his daughter’s photograph. He asked Rashid if Akhtar was his daughter. Rashid nodded. What happened next was the most thrilling experience of twenty-four-year-old Akhtar’s life.
Why the security personnel were tracking Akhtar is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons from Kashmir, who have to deal with situations that are beyond their control. For Akhtar, who represents India on the world stage in wheelchair basketball, life has been full of challenges from the moment she met with a life-altering accident in 2016 and decided to give wheelchair basketball a try a year later.
The accident, recovery, and taking up basketball
Akhtar’s life changed forever in 2016, an uneasy year for the Kashmir valley. In a freak accident, she fell from the ledge of the second floor of her house. The fall was so bad that she injured her spine and had to be taken to the district hospital in Baramulla, and later, had to be shifted to the Bone and Joint Hospital in Jammu. Shifting her from one hospital to the other was a task for her family as the Kashmir valley was in a state of turmoil at that time and it was affecting her treatment. She was operated upon six days after her fall, but even after the surgery, she could not feel her legs. Her world came crashing down when she overheard the doctor telling her father that she was paralyzed because of the spinal cord injury and she would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. After returning home, she was bedridden for eight months.
“I had never seen a wheelchair before and the fact that I had to get used to it was making me depressed,” she said. A few months after the fall, she visited the Voluntary Medicare Society in Bemina, Srinagar. The center helps in the rehabilitation of physically and mentally challenged individuals. “I was here for about a year. Initially, I would exercise, and thanks to the physiotherapy sessions, I could at least sit. The boys over there would practice wheelchair basketball. One day, I decided to join them,” said Akhtar. That moment changed her life.
“I didn’t even know I could play basketball, but I was good at it. I attended my first camp at the Srinagar Indoor Stadium in 2018. My performance was good and I was selected for the nationals that were organized in Tamil Nadu. I was the only girl from Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, I visited Mohali for the second nationals. I made it to the Indian team as my performance was good,” she said.
When the Army and police came knocking
“In August 2019, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India was trying to get in touch with me, but the phone and Internet connections in the valley were badly hit, and so it couldn’t,” said Akhtar. The Federation wanted to inform Akhtar that she had got selected for the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship, scheduled to be held in Thailand in November-December that year, and had to go to Chennai to attend a national camp. It was an important championship as it was also the qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
How Akhtar was eventually tracked and how she made it to the camp in Chennai is the most thrilling experience of her life. “Former Navy officer Louis George is the coach of the India women’s wheelchair basketball team. He was casually talking to his friend Colonel (retired) Isenhower. George sir mentioned that he was not able to get in touch with me. Isenhower sir asked for my photo and my address. George sir didn’t know my exact address, but he knew that I lived in Bangdara village,” she said over the phone, her voice beaming with excitement.
She added: “Isenhower sir first got in touch with the Army. The Army contacted the Jammu and Kashmir police in Baramulla. The Army men posted there, along with some police personnel, reached Bangdara village. They didn’t know my exact address, so they knocked on each and every door and that was how they found me! I am grateful to the police and the Army for tracking me down,” said Akhtar.
It was for the first time that Akhtar was stepping out of her house when the situation in the valley was so tensed. Plus, she was escorted by the police and Army personnel, who had made arrangements for her to fly to Chennai for the national camp, which made her nervous. But when the entire village came to cheer for her while she was leaving, that motivated her. “When I reached the camp in Chennai, everyone was so happy and also very surprised that I had made it,” said Akhtar.
“There is no dearth of talent”
After attending the camp in Chennai, Ishrat also got an opportunity to meet Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports. “He was very kind and promised all the help. He also said that he will provide me with a sports wheelchair,” said Akhtar. The wheelchair did arrive almost a year later, at a time when Ishrat was dealing with another lockdown. This time it was the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown.
When asked how has she been practicing during this lockdown, Ishrat said: “I had to attend a camp in Surat. My tickets were booked. But I had to cancel that because of coronavirus. It was disappointing. But I am happy that I got the wheelchair, which was promised to me. It will help my game considerably. It’s difficult to practice in a regular wheelchair. But because I could not go to my academy because of the lockdown, I would practice at home. There are many talented players in Kashmir, but they don’t get opportunities as there are no facilities. It’s even more difficult for para players like me. The government should look into this,” she said.
When asked if the two subsequent and prolonged lockdowns in Kashmir and the intermittent episodes of disturbances have affected her game, she said: “Yes, but these things are beyond anyone’s control. I have to get used to the problems. For instance, the academy where I train is 75 kms from my place. It takes me 1.5 hours to reach the academy. Now, they send a vehicle, but earlier, my father would take me and bring me back. I owe my success to him and I want to win medals for him.”