Real Kashmir and the journey to pride and unity in a region ravaged by division

Real Kashmir and the journey to pride and unity in a region ravaged by division

It’s rightly said that football possesses the power to change lives. It brings people under the same flag, unites them for 90 minutes, and often puts a smile on their faces.

Kashmir is a region that has become infamous for violence. History has changed the direction of how it could and should have been, but despite the years of suffering, Kashmir is still one of the most beautiful areas of the world. It attracts thousands of tourists from across the world, as politically-motivated violence continues to disturb the short-lived idea of normalcy.

As India and Pakistan struggle for control of Kashmir, there is hope among people from both sides that one day, the ensuing violence will hit a cul-de-sac. But as political agendas continue to use the area as a means of gaining popularity, those days often seem lost. If there is anything, though, that has brought unity amongst the people of Kashmir, it is the spirit of football.

Three days before the turn of the year, following their 1-1 draw against East Bengal, Real Kashmir climbed to the top of the I-League standings. There was perhaps no better way to bring a New Year’s cheer to an area that saw violence rise to its highest in a decade in 2018, with at least 495 killed in military-related incidents on both sides of the India-Pakistan border.

This was also the first time at any point in Kashmir’s history that a football club from the region had climbed to the top of the I-League standings. It was something worth celebrating; a moment of pride in a tricky world.

Having only been around for two years, going top of the table was a monumental achievement for Real Kashmir, who only earned promotion to the top flight the season before. More than just putting a smile on locals’ faces, the club is striving to bring back the magic of football to the area.

It was in the late 19th century though that football made its way into Kashmir. Tyndale Biscoe, a British academic and missionary, is credited as being the man who brought it to the mountains from the hot plains of Mumbai. Born in Oxford, Biscoe had founded the famous Mission School in Srinagar and, being from a country that was witnessing the rise of professionalism during that period, Biscoe saw football as a symbol of masculinity.

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Biscoe’s academic ideas dealt less with intellect and wisdom and more with strength and character. Physicality was considered a major point of emphasis for the kind of teaching he wanted to impose at the Model School in Srinagar. Football was considered a way in which values such as bravery and courage could be transmitted to the students.

Although Biscoe went onto to establish six more schools, it was his contribution at Model School that established Kashmir’s footballing roots.

While Biscoe was intent on introducing football to the valley, a major drawback came soon enough. In those days, Brahmins were not allowed to touch leather due to their religious beliefs. Since a vast majority of students at Biscoe’s school were Brahmins, the decision to make them play football faced resentment from many. 

Since Biscoe was determined to implement the game in schools, he made sure that children were forced to play football. On one occasion, the leather ball hit the mouth of a Brahmin student. This caused panic amongst many, but Biscoe had a cheeky solution: he ordered the student to take a bath in the Jhelum river, cleansing himself of his wrongdoings.

While Boscoe was indeed canny, football’s accessibility made it popular. Unlike how cricket needed advanced equipment to be played, football just needed a round ball. That struck a chord with the masses of Kashmir. It helped in the creation of a vibrant footballing culture and carried on when Hari Singh ascended his uncle to the throne of the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir in 1925.

Hari Singh, also a fan of the beautiful game, hosted tournaments such as the Maharaja Gold Cup. He made sure that schools and colleges in the state played football, with the game placed into the curriculums of schools across Kashmir. This gave rise to many local clubs, including Friends Club, Suliman Club of Dalgate and J&K Police Club. Sri Pratap College became the first team from the state to play football overseas when they took part in a tournament in Rawalpindi, which was in India before 1947 but is now in modern-day Pakistan.

At the conclusion of the British rule in 1947, the subcontinent was split into India and Pakistan as the Britsh implemented a policy of divide and rule’ Hari Singh had a decision to make, with riots and violence plaguing the princely state. People who had organised demonstrations in favour of Kashmir becoming Pakistan were massacred as a bloody partition took place.

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Burton Stein’s book, History of India, states that Kashmir’s population at this point was 77 percent Muslim and 20 percent Hindu, favouring the region’s claim to becoming a part of Pakistan. Hari Singh signed a Standstill Agreement with Pakistan and made sure that there was a guaranteed exchange of goods and services with Pakistan while a decision was made. Sadly, the violence continued.

By 1966, after almost two decades of violence, a separate football body was founded. In an attempt to take the game forward and use the foundations of the culture that had existed in the state before the partition, the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association was set up, sparking a golden age in Kashmiri football. From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, 19 players in the national team hailed from Kashmir.

The senior and junior national finals were hosted in Kashmir multiple times during this decade-long phase. Abdul Majeed Kakroo was the valley’s first player to represent the national team, later becoming captain at the Nehru Cup in 1987. Perhaps it is the way Kakroo’s career was cut short that defines how Kashmir’s footballing legacy was brought to a stuttering halt by war.

Kakroo was 25 and in the prime of his career when he had to hang up his boots because of death threats from various militias. He had plied his trade with two of India’s greatest football clubs, Mohan Bagan and East Bengal, making 30 appearances for the national team. 

Kakroo was a player who defined a generation at a time when Kashmiri football was only beginning to be taken seriously. The son of a vegetable vendor had fallen in love with football when he had started playing with a crumpled ball. When the city of Srinagar used to fall asleep in the early 1970s as the clock struck 12, he and 24 others used to play football under the only street light in the city centre.

From earning a salary of 180 rupees a month to being the country’s highest-paid player in the mid-1980s, Kakroo came a long way in a game that had garnered much more love than cricket in Kashmir. He was once rejected by the national team scouts on the apprehension that his left foot wasn’t good enough. As a determined character, Kakroo began practicising with his left foot by putting a stone inside the sock of his right.

His impressive goalscoring record included back-to-back hat-tricks in the Santosh Trophy and 26 goals in a single Rovers Cup season. That finally helped him get a call-up to the national side. 

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From 1987 onwards, football in Kashmir came to a standstill. In fact, everything came to a standstill. Insurgency and violence replaced the state of normalcy that had been there for a transient period of about three decades. Kakroo may have quit football 25 years ago but he still oversees a lot that goes on in the game at Kashmir. Today, he coaches the Power Development Corporation Team.

A glimmer of hope that has brought life back to the footballing landscape in the state is Real Kashmir. While it was never initially meant to be a revolutionary institution to recover the lost charm of Kashmiri football, it has now become a symbol of renaissance – especially when they climbed to the top of the I-League table. 

The devastating floods in 2014 had added to the woes of the state in pitiable fashion, as they clamoured for support and help. Hundreds of people had died and the city of Srinagar lost so much, not least its vibrancy and hustle. The kids who would spend their time playing football were nowhere to be seen.

Seeing this, Shamim Meraj asked a friend of his to supply 1,000 footballs and distribute them across the city. Meraj tells These Football Times that it was initially as a means of making sure that the boys didn’t waste their time lazing around: “In 2014, Kashmir was devastated by floods. There was huge destruction everywhere. The Real Kashmir cofounders’ hotel was destroyed. In this mayhem, we realised that too many young boys were just lazing about and doing nothing. I tossed an idea of forming a small football team to Sandeep [the co-owner] and he agreed.”

Sandeep Chatoo says that the floods were the trigger to the founding of the club, but there were more troubling issues for Real Kashmir than just the political climate: “The biggest problem, to our own surprise, was not the political climate but the lack of infrastructure. We had to train at unbelievable places, including a friend’s house. A lack of infrastructure was by far the biggest impediment. The uncertainty would be a distant second.”

It took two years to get official permission to call themselves a “club”. In March 2016, Real Kashmir were founded and began competing in the second tier of the I-League.

The transformation from being a local club to being a national one was huge, not just in terms of altering its reputation but because it was a big burden on their finances and infrastructure. Many private donors and Meraj’s friends and family came up with donations to keep the club going, and their rise to the top tier of the I-League was nothing short of a miracle.

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Meraj believes that the founding of Real Kashmir shows that achieving peace in the valley is not an impossible task. It has galvanised the state, and while it was once only known for its scenic beauty, it is now also known for football. “If a Kashmiri Muslim and a Kashmiri Pundit can come together and bring joy, it shows that anything can be possible,” says Meraj.

“The love that the people of Kashmir have given to us is unprecedented. Until now, Kashmir was known for Dal Lake, apples, Wazwan and handicrafts, but now it is also known for Real Kashmir. Our aim is that our success should be the norm, not an aberration. We don’t want to be a one-year wonder. We want to be what Barcelona is to Spain and what Manchester United is to England.”

The number of stories this club has is why football is such a special game, not least amongst their players. Some are students at university, while others are full-time workers. In their march to promotion last season, 17 out of 28 players were from Kashmir. It is their manager David Robertson, though, who binds them together.

Left-back of the famous Rangers’ side that won the Scottish Premiership for nine seasons in a row in the 1990s, Robertson also played for Leeds and Aberdeen during a career that spanned two decades. He also made three appearances for the national side and managed Elgin City, Montrose and Phoenix FC in the United States. He tells These Football Times: “Our success has improved the exposure of football in Kashmir. Until now, Kashmir was a forgotten football state. Games on TV and in the national league have allowed Kashmiris to watch I-League football. In all home games there have been huge crowds who have a passionate support towards the team and have a lot of togetherness.”

He admits that interest in football is so big that local kids now dream of playing for Real Kashmir: “There is so much excitement for football now that we are in the I-League. In the second division, not many people were aware of us but the fact that Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers have been to Kashmir, the awareness now is huge. We now have young players dreaming to play for Real Kashmir and to be on TV. It has really opened doors for Kashmiri footballers. We had five Kashmiris playing in the final game of the second division and have three regularly playing in the league this season.”

There seems to be an aura of unity, equality and collectiveness about Real Kashmir. The hope is that through football, peace can also be triggered in Kashmir; it’s a dream that has long lingered in the minds of everyone on each side of the divide. Indian or Pakistani, they see themselves as Kashmiri.

Meraj admits that while the capacity of the Real Kashmir’s stadium, the TRC Turf Ground, is 15,000, around 26,000 often come for games. There has even been times when 6,000 more couldn’t get in, such is their popularity. It makes one thing crystal clear: no matter how much the valley is divided by religion, race or politics, there is one thing that will always bring people together – football.

By Kaustabh Pandey @Kaus_Pandey17

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