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Football and politics - the Kashmir mix

Zahid Rafiq reports from Srinagar on how football gets caught up in the demands for independence in the troubled region of Indian-administered Kashmir.

Football match in Srinagar
Soccer has a long history in Kashmir (Photos: Shuaib Masoodi)

The stands are full, the crowd ecstatic. Thousands of Kashmiri spectators are supporting the local team in a recent match.

For the first time in more than 20 years, Kashmir have made it into the quarter finals of India's leading football tournament, the Santosh Trophy.

Every dribble by a Kashmiri player is cheered, every shot applauded. Every save is followed by a Mexican wave in the stands.

But suddenly, a shot from the striker in the Punjab team finds the net.

The crowd goes silent.

The Punjab striker slides to the ground, punches the air with his fist and gestures to the crowd.

Some spectators run on to the pitch. Players flee to the dugout. Police bludgeon two spectators in the middle of the pitch. The crowd howls in protest and soon a full pitch invasion is under way.

Discouraging

The fans pelt police and paramilitary troopers with stones, burn banners, overturn score boards and uproot flag posts.

They shout anti-India slogans with a vengeance and demand independence for Kashmir.

A football match has become a political rally.

The police call for reinforcements. A heavy baton charge leaves more than 40 people injured. Dozens are arrested.

The match is cancelled.

A disrupted football match in Srinagar
The match between Kashmir and Punjab was disrupted

Soccer has a long history in Kashmir and the game has reflected some of the tumultuous politics of this disputed Himalayan region.

Before the recent vicious conflict that started in the late 1980s, Kashmir had more than 20 teams representing different government departments. Today there are just four.

It's hard to make a living out of the game. "This is discouraging for the players. And the last 17 years have been dreadful for football as well," says Majid Kakroo, local l star and coach of the Kashmir team.

But as the separatist violence has declined in recent years, football is regaining its popularity in Kashmir. However, you can't keep politics out of it.

"Football has always been one front of our freedom movement," says 85-year-old Agha Ashraf Ali, a noted Kashmiri educationist and an ardent football fan.

He narrates a story going back to the days of the British empire, when Kashmir was ruled by the unpopular Hindu Dogra royal family.

When a local Kashmiri team, the Friends Club, defeated the Dogra royal police team the crowd hailed the local players and jeered the royal players.

Crowds at a football match in Kashmir
The game has always been intertwined with Kashmir's tumultuous politics

The royal players could not take the defeat. They got the Kashmiri tonga wallas (horse carriage drivers) to take them to cantonment area where the police were stationed.

Once inside they refused to pay the carriage drivers and instead beat them up. The drivers went home in rags, empty handed, beaten and bleeding.

When Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the Kashmiri leader who later led a revolt against the royals and became the first prime minister of Kashmir, heard of the incident, he and a few others armed themselves with hockey sticks and attacked a group of royal soldiers.

"That was the birth of the rebellious Kashmir," says Mr Agha.

Expression of freedom

Football was introduced in Kashmir by CE Tyndale Biscoe, a British missionary who founded Srinagar's historic Biscoe School in the autumn of 1891.

A football match in Kashmir
Kashmir made it to the quarter finals of the Santosh Trophy

It was then an affordable game for underprivileged Kashmiris living under the autocratic rule of Hindu royals.

A British football team was then formed in Kashmir by Young Hardow, proprietor of the Hardow Carpet Factory.

British officials working in the telegraph office in Srinagar were included in the team. British soldiers posted at Rawalpindi were brought to play matches in Srinagar and showed Kashmiri players how they needed to develop their skills.

Political angst

Slowly the game began to gain popularity - as too did the political unrest in Kashmir.

"When in 1941, the Kashmir team defeated Jalandhar by 7-0, Srinagar's top undergraduate college declared a holiday for three days. It was victory for Kashmir", says Mr Agha.

The came the violence of the insurgency.

Security forces in Kashmir
The militancy in Kashmir came as a setback to the game

"The war in Kashmir changed everything," says former local star Farooq Ahmad Bhat.

"At four in the evening we used to lock our homes. Who could play soccer amid the bullets, curfews and the suffering? Our standards are lagging behind by 50 years."

But now, with hopes for peace, the game is back and the stands are full. But the connection with politics is still there.

"Just get one goal in the Indian net," an old man, fists-clenched, biting on a cigarette, uttered in agitation at the Kashmir-Punjab match.

That is why when the home team defeated Delhi in the Santosh Trophy competition, a banner displayed, "Kashmir defeats India".

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