CHENNAI: “I missed my board exams to play the national rugby meet, hoping to bring fame to my state, travelling four days in train from north pole to south pole, with no proper food. I’m playing in 38 degrees, which we’ve never seen in life.”
This is the experience of Habib Arshad. The six-foot muscle-man is part of the Jammu & Kashmir team in the under-18 national sevens tournament. Other than pursuing excellence in sports, they are also striving to change notions. Lack of facilities and funds along with opportunities, there are many obstacles. But once on the field of play, there is motivation to prove a point.
“All Kashmiris are not terrorists, nor do they have that mindset of criminals. We love India and we play for Kashmir. We don’t play for certificates,” says Habib. One can see his weary eyes to figure out how tired he must be, travelling 2,400 kms to Chennai, to play in meet that will select players to represent India in July and September.
They are not physically exhausted, but mentally too. Broadly, they face two problems. Playing in Kashmir amid unexpected curfews and shutdowns is one. There is also apprehension that because of the prevailing political scenario, their talent may go unrewarded.
“Playing anything in Kashmir makes people pass comments like ‘yahaan peh log mar rahe hai, aur tu khel raha hai’ (here people are dying and you’re playing). Then players will be randomly checked at grounds by army men for guns or other weapons,” the team members say. “We carry pride with us, not guns,” adds Sajeel Masoodi, one of the bunch. After a point these things don’t affect the youngsters. Their focus is on improving as sportsmen.
Despite instability, they are not afraid to express their passion for this physically demanding sport. They try promoting rugby in a state where boys and girls like playing, but don’t get opportunities. Their girls’ team is also here for the event.
Boys who have played for a few years have started visiting nearby schools to teach kids rugby for free. But it is a half-baked cake, when they know they have the talent, but face difficulties in graduating to the next level. “Response is great at the school level. Lot of children are interested. Some have taken it seriously and started playing club matches. But a lot remains to be done,” says Habib.
The meet which saw only nine-state participation last year, now has 21 states in the race. Thanks to the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU). All they now hope is to have a league for rugby, sooner than later, that will encourage people to take the sport to the next level.