Before an away match, Mohammed Hammad used to call his mother in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir and ask her to pray for the team, Real Kashmir, a football club in the city whose miraculous rise in three years has made football-mad Kashmiris proud.
On Saturday, the team was playing Goa FC at Kalyani stadium outside Kolkata for an important match but he didn’t call his mother. Or rather, he couldn’t.
“Because of the communications lockdown, I couldn’t call her for the prayer. Like everyone else, she is caged inside her home. I don’t even know if my family has enough food and medicines,” said Hammad. Inside the dressing room, the mood was jubilant. Amid loud music and high-fiving, the players congratulated themselves after a 0-0 draw on a pitch made swampy by torrential monsoon rains. The result took the team to the semi-finals of the Durand Cup, India’s oldest football tournament, where they would eventually lose to Mohun Bagan in a tight game a few days later.
Ever since they flew out of Kashmir on 5 August, they have had almost no contact with their families. That was the day a communications crackdown was imposed on landlines, mobiles and the internet shortly before New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special status, stripping away its autonomy.
For Khalid Qayoom, the lockdown meant his parents hadn’t even watched the matches. “It would have meant travelling to someone else’s home and my father was scared he might break the curfew. None of us likes what is happening there. It’s inhuman. But we are professionals and didn’t let it affect our concentration,” said Qayoom.
The rise of Real Kashmir is a fairytale. For the past three decades, few happy stories, let alone fairytales, have come out of the troubled region, scarred by an armed insurgency and a heavy Indian troop presence that has brought Kashmiri youths out on the streets hurling stones at the soldiers while demanding “azadi” or freedom from India.
Three years ago, Sandeep Chattoo, a Kashmiri Hindu, was talking to his Kashmiri Muslim friend Shamim Mehraj, about the endless violence and sense of hopelessness. They decided to buy 100 footballs and hand them out to the neighbourhood boys.
“We knew they had to find an outlet for their energy. We wanted them to play football instead of throwing stones, to find a new direction. We wanted to inspire them to build a better life for themselves,” said Chattoo who is co-owner of the club with Mehraj.
Soon, a team was born. The name is meant to show the ‘real’ face of Kashmir with boys playing football and families cheering them on instead of the usual images of violence in this conflict zone over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.
About the only thing supporting this grand ambition of creating Kashmir’s first professional football club was the passion for football. In most of India, cricket is the religion but not in Kashmir. All the other odds, however, were stacked against them. Thirty years of civil strife had left no football infrastructure. There was no ground. The team had to train at the grounds of a tourist centre which was an open field with fencing and not even a wash room.
There were days when the players had to work around shutdown, curfews, and grenade attacks to reach the centre. Their determination was intensified when Chattoo brought in Scottish player and coach David Robertson, after much persuasion.
He declined offers from China and Uganda to end up in a place where the harsh winters, with no central speaking, have been a trial. For days on end, there would be no internet, even before the current shutdown. “Now the team is my family. It’s been a fantastic journey. I am building something special here,” said Robertson.
For 90 minutes, Kashmiris experience what it is to feel happy and normal. When the roars from the stadium during a game reverberate across the snow-topped Zabarwan mountains encircling Srinagar, it is clear people have momentarily forgotten their troubles.
For player Danish Farooq, the support of the local people has been uplifting. “In the winters, with sub-zero temperatures, they come and watch us, with no cover, nothing. I guess people need something to look forward to and football gives them that,” said Farooq.
The team almost didn’t make it to Kalyani stadium for the Saturday fixture. It was only because Chattoo has developed almost extra-sensory perceptions having lived in Kashmir for so long that it managed to fly out of Srinagar in the nick of time.
In the days before the August 5 communications lockdown, Chattoo had been watching tens of thousands of extra troops being deployed. Tourists were being evacuated en masse from Kashmir. He sensed something was up. He told the players to leave their homes and reach a hotel near the airport.
That way, even if a curfew or travel restrictions were suddenly imposed in downtown Srinagar, the team would be close to the airport and could catch their flight out of Kashmir. Without his quick thinking, Real Kashmir would have missed the tournament.
The club’s story is getting attention. Adidas India announced a partnership with the club – the first with any club in India. BBC Scotland and Al Jazeera have made documentaries. Netflix is working on a film and so is Bollywood.
The accolades are merely spurring Chattoo on to push for greater things. “I want football to change life in Kashmir. Football makes people happy and Kashmir needs happiness.”