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From curfew to competition

Kabra Altaf, the young athlete from Kashmir, fought more than her opponents to secure a bronze medal in judo during the 2020 Khelo India games

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AFTER August 5, the day Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status granted under the provisions of Article 370, streets were shrunk, shops shut and people prisoned inside the four walls of their houses. Amid all this Kabra, a 20-year-old Srinagar-based sportswoman was unsure if she would go out and practice judo, the sport she has loved since her school life.

Considering the social pressures in India, playing sports might be a challenge for women but pursuing a career in it, that too in a turmoil-hit place, is a different story altogether. Kabra personifies this rarity and was driven towards sports by her father, who still possesses the body of an athlete.

Before making a career in judo, a Japanese martial art form that has evolved into a combat and Olympic sport, Kabra tried her luck at various other games, even found success. However, it is judo that excites her the most. “I used to practice mixed martial-arts with my father and I always wanted to pursue a career in sports. I fell in love with sports, considering how it makes a person strong both mentally as well as physically,” she said.

“My father trained me, gave me the much-needed inspiration to choose judo as a career,” she adds. For Kabra, as was the case for most Kashmiris, the year 2019 was moving along smoothly. She would start her day by hitting the gym. After a rigorous workout, she spent time in skill-enhancement training. Later, in the evening, her coach, Shafkat Shafi, a renowned judo trainer, would join her at Sher-e-Kashmir Indoor Sports Complex, which is often termed as the home of Kashmiri athletes.

As judo requires an athlete to practice specific drills, concentrating on grip and balance, the two conducted ‘Randori’ (a term in judo which means free-fight). The sessions sometimes were long but Kabra kept going with the aim of getting better every new day.

“I used to hold morning and evening sessions everyday (before August 5). In order to excel in judo one has to undergo calculated drill sessions and keep working to develop the skill-set. And I was trying my level best to improve my game,” Kabra explained.

However, when the central government on August 5 split Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and took away its special status, Kabra’s everyday schedule was disrupted. Now, from morning to evening, the young woman sits watching the clock ticking away. There are no gym sessions, no practice and even the maintenance of a balanced diet is difficult.

It was not only the restrictions on movement but also the communication blockade that threw people like Kabra into despair. With the stadiums locked and public transport missing, practising a sport looked like an impossible task.

“Although I consider sports an entirely different area, which is least affected by what is happening in the political world, the post-August 5 conditions impacted all institutions and everyone of us here.” Kabra recalled, taking a long breath.

As fitness plays a vital role in every sport, especially in the modern era, the prolonged curfew made the young woman lose her confidence, given she had no option but to use her house’s backyard to move her legs and arms, which certainly wasn’t enough. “I was not able to practice under the supervision of my coach due to curfew and communication blackout. It affected technical and tactical aspects of my game. My fitness and confidence took a back seat,” she stated.

“I was very much worried as it takes a lot of time to develop your skills. Even a one week-gap results in the loss of strength for an athlete, imagine how disturbing a non-stop months-long break would feel?” When there were no signs of normalcy even after months of uncertainty, Kabra, who hails from the famed tourist destination Nishat area of Srinagar, felt it was all over. “I just felt that I lost my game in this imprisoned paradise,” she said.

Once post-paid phones started ringing and an uneasy normalcy prevailed, the athlete was jubilant. Bur hitting the restart button was not at all easy. “Sports isn’t something that one stops and restarts after months without any problem. It was really cumbersome to get things going,” Kabra asserted. “The most troubling thing was that I had lost a lot of precious time. One can recapture everything by hard work and dedication but the lost time is irreplaceable” she adds.

After regaining some momentum, Kabra was all set to hit the matts, but another shock was waiting for her. In absence of communication lines, Kashmir University decided not to play its team in the All-India Inter-University games,

“Due to being incommunicado, we had no information about the schedules of the event, adding to the sorrow, Kashmir University cancelled our participation in this important fixture,” a disheartened Kabra said.

Braving all odds, the much-awaited happy moment finally arrived at Kabra’s door. She was nominated to play in the highly hailed Khelo India Games 2020. “After knowing (of the opportunity to participate in the Khelo India Games), I was boosted. But another challenge was waiting for me as I had to participate in the 7-kg category despite being a 6-kg contender.” Altaf said.

Coming all the way from Jammu and Kashmir to Guwahati, where the event was held, Kabra was welcomed with smiles by her counterparts, who were unaware of the struggles she had to face before hitting the mats. Talking of how other athletes interacted with her during the event, Kabra said, “It seemed like they had no idea of what had happened in Kashmir. Maybe it was due to the internet gag.”

Now, the 20-year-old had just one goal — to return home with a medal. The best athletes from across the country had come to participate in the championship. However, unmoved by how better-prepared and well-trained her competitors were, Kabra only concentrated on what she knew best — to drag her opponents down.

She kept up the pace. Pinning down opponents, one after another, she finished third in the judo championship, becoming the only athlete from Kashmir to win a medal in the Khelo India University Games 2020. But that wasn’t enough for her. “With the grace of Almighty, I bagged bronze for J&K (in Khelo India Games). However, my desire was to win the gold. A little more practice in future will surely convert the bronze to gold,” an elated Kabra, who has won as many as seven national medals, said.

The feeling of touching that bronze medal made her forget all the complications she had to face to reach there. But to her dismay, even some of her friends weren’t able to know about this achievement, thanks to the world’s longest internet clampdown in the Valley.

“Although a few newspapers carried the news (of her winning the bronze), unfortunately, it couldn’t reach all,” Kabra responded when asked if she feels her achievement was underrated. In her message to fellow sportswomen of Kashmir, a confident Kabra said, “Being a sportswoman, you should possess the enthusiasm and courage to face everything that comes your way.”                    ■