Kashmir's young future is in stadiums

New Delhi, May 26 (IANS): A new Kashmir is being born in sports fields and stadiums, in the dreams and aspirations of a growing tribe of young women and men aiming to be "faster, higher and stronger".

Stones have given way to football, guns for cycles and cry for jihad is today unbridled, exciting call for a match point or a missed goal. The young ones in Kashmir are turning to sports like never before, winning laurels and bringing hope to the strife torn lives.

Afshan Ashiq stands out as an icon of this change. Trained at the prestigious National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Afshan is known throughout the valley for her passion for football. She told a newspaper once that: "When I started to dribble with football, extremists used to tease me and pass lewd comments but I didn't pay heed to them."

Her family was strongly opposed to her football. Her brother took a long time to be convinced. So did her father. But she persisted and today, Afshan is an icon of sports in the valley, teaching football to young girls while busy completing her bachelor's degree.

The story of Afshan is also the story of how young women in Kashmir are fighting against family, social mores and tradition to carve out a new path for themselves, a path of peace and glory.

These women have to struggle hard in sports that are traditionally male-dominated and hence riddled with patriarchy and derision for girls to step in. Yet, they have persisted, these young women aspirants have shown their mettle at national and international championships. Star among them is Sadia Tariq who recently won the gold in Wushu championship at Moscow.

Sadia, like other women players, cannot forget the days of depression and disillusionment in the recent past. She told the media that "the Kashmir we had earlier was depressed, unstable, unpredictable and unfavourable for developmental activities, especially sports". But now things have changed. The infrastructure of various fields are being developed, whether it is tourism, education, agriculture or sports. "I would say that the New Sports Policy has given a boost to sports activities, and that is the reason that every year many sports players from J&K compete on the national and international level and make our country feel proud."

Like the Wushu champion, Simran Kaur of Jammu is making strides towards becoming a world champion. She was recently selected for the World School Games to be held at Normandy, France.

She is a gymnast and is hopeful of making it to the top in the coming years, given the fresh wave of encouragement and assistance the new administration has set in place.

Haroon Chaudhary represents another facet of this sporting transformation. He is a powerlifter, an ace at winning medals at the national as well as international competitions. The latest glory he achieved was winning a silver medal in the World Bench Press Championship at Kazakhstan. The medal adds to the cupboard full of medals and cups the young powerlifter has collected in recent years.

The most dramatic sign of Kashmir's transformation as a sporting region has been the selection of 22-year old Umran Malik in the T20 International Cricket series against South Africa. He has electrified the stadiums and the minds of youngsters in Kashmir with his pace and accuracy in bowling. His father, Abdul Malik, a fruit and vegetables seller, knows his boy's journey from a street cricketer to the nationals. Worried about his son's nocturnal practice sessions, father would follow him and hide to see whether Malik was taking drugs or really playing. Umran told his father once that the only "nasha" or high he had was to play cricket.

Today's "high" for Kashmiri boys and girls is not jihad or gun or stones but sports. These men and women are slowly transforming a once-violence ridden region into a nursery of world champions.



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