When you try to understand the role sports play in a society like Kashmir, it is imperative to leave behind all kinds of preconceived notions one might have about the culture of the same in the rest of country. Forget politics within federations or corporate support that sports, in general, have started getting these days, forget elite level tournaments and performances and medals. Our understanding deals with none of those. Instead, we tend to focus on a more fundamental aspect which, if understood and executed correctly, has the potential to turn around the way the rest of the world perceives Kashmir.
Here’s one damning statistic to keep in mind before we move into any further discussion. 65% of this state’s population is what you would classify as “youth”. They’re also among the most vulnerable class of residents here mainly because they’re extremely easy to brainwash and sway into doing things that they may not necessarily have liked doing had they been informed of alternatives. Sports, here, becomes that alternative.
The rise of politically-motivated conflict and its obvious relevance in the day to day lives of the people here, naturally, escalates the tension in the Valley. This conflict can be in the form of racism, communalism- ultimately, they all end in the same way. Families are torn apart; lives are scarred forever. There comes a time when those affected take up arms of resistance in self-defence only to have this conflict intensify and then, they are blamed for being the root cause in the first place. Living in Kashmir, every single day is war. You never know how it is going to end, whether you will live to see the next day at all.
What we’ve been trying to do in Kashmir is to establish sports as a medium of soft power to explore how it connects people across regions and politics. It’s a unifying force across all the divisive factors- at least that’s our ultimate target when it comes to promoting a culture of sporting excellence. Let me try explaining it further. We have three regions here- each unique in their topographies, religion and politics. It’s Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Finding a unifying factor thus becomes a necessity if one is to coexist peacefully in such circumstances. The only institution that’s then emerging as a centre for inclusiveness is a playground. Fields are not only gender-inclusive, but the state teams have athletes across religions thus, in a way, bridging the massive gap that results out of other factors.
To achieve this target, there are a total of 52 sports disciplines that we have been working on. Football makes for an interesting case study here. In a typical conservative society where girls are instructed and scrutinised over every avenue of their lives- be it how to dress or walk or talk, what is proper and what is not- the confidence that a girl gets out of a small kick to a football is unparalleled. It’s something so empowering that she can finally tell herself, “This is a field where I am in charge of my body.” She can say to herself that she need not be defined by what she wears and how she carries herself in public. It brings with it freedom. In the most utopian sense of the term, we would love to create role-models irrespective of gender. And that is only possible when you provide other alternatives to them.
Next, let’s talk about the geographical aspect of it. There are roughly 6000 villages in this region- most of them so remote and inaccessible that the challenge then turned to how our efforts could effectively reach the grassroots before thoughts of violence and resistance can. Ideally, the most basic thing we could do is provide at least one playground in these places- a pillar that was often missing as we found out during our work. The logic is simple. There are only two spheres where young children can successfully go at an age when they’re not yet qualified for school. One is their place of worship and the second is a playing field. In the latter case, they at least get to interact with diversity because even our educational institutes are polarised. So, in these cases, are schools the right medium to educate a child and teach him or her to view his world from a broadened perspective?
Now coming to the most crucial part of the entire project and it is an uncomfortable truth that we often have trouble acknowledging. If you look at the demographics of violent extremism in the region, a troubling statistic that emerges is the fact that most of the agents, the foot soldiers doing the dirty work per se, are young people. They are the ones who are the ‘militants’ and the ‘terrorists’ and ultimately, they’re the ones who happily give up their lives because they’re fighting for a cause they genuinely believe is righteous. The youth drives violence and the perpetrators know this. So, that age group is our target. There’s a pattern in this intensity, and that is the pattern we have to break. And how do we do that?
The first step is talking to them. There are several methods one can undertake to reach out to the target populace. We began with political, educational and social institutions. But clearly, we have failed somewhere because the unrest shows no signs of stopping. Consequently, it is safe to conclude that there has been a gap somewhere in between intent and execution which can only be overcome with proper communication. To make this better, it is essential to understand their perspective. You see, the first thing that a person promises when they choose the path to militancy is their life. That is how little they value it because they are willing to sacrifice it at the drop of a hat- sometimes with good reason because, in most cases, they have grown up seeing how little their lives are valued by the opposition they spend their lives escaping from. So a person in this situation neither respects their lives nor their body. Before anything else, this is the respect that one must imbibe and participation in a sport automatically brings this respect with it. It brings a sense of self-love that cannot be cultivated through any other kind of education- not with this volatile an atmosphere.
This approach changes human engagements and also prompts the participants to at least acknowledge different solutions to larger conflicts- be it the conflict surrounding India and Pakistan, India and Kashmir, Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh, Hindu and Muslim or even males and females.
Our priority is to save a life, to channelise a youngster’s energy from violence to the non-violent, from something destructive to something constructive. In other words, the sporting culture is more important than international medals because, you see, context matters when you judge the role of sports in a particular region. First, it’s quantity, then comes quality and the Valley has excelled in the latter as well if you count the number of role models that have emerged from here- be it Parvez Rassol, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Ishfaq Ahmed and numerous others. A strong foundation is the first necessity. Then comes the rest.
There’s a lot of infrastructure in the region presently, and it has been possible only because we have been able to convince the State and Central Governments that this entire vision is a priority. The discussion on sports in the Valley is quite a recent one, but at least it is happening. Only when you attempt dialogue can you understand the right and wrong ways to go about things.