NEW DELHI: After article 370 which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status was revoked, phone and internet connections in the state were badly hit. Around that time the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) was trying to get in touch with one of their players - Ishrat Akhter. The 24-year-old had made the cut for the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship in Thailand, to be played in November-December this year. The tournament is a qualifier tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
However, the Wheelchair basketball Federation of India had no way of getting in touch with Ishrat to let her know that she had been selected and that she had to go to Chennai for a National camp. And that's when fate intervened and a chance conversation between two old friends changed the story.
Former Navy officer Louis George is the coach of the Indian women’s wheelchair basketball team. He was talking to one of his old school friends Colonel (retired) Isenhower, who also served in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), when he mentioned Ishrat to him.
“Isenhower and I were classmates. On 25th August (20 days after article 370 was revoked), I just called him randomly for fun. We were talking normally as usual. I casually asked him and discussed about Kashmir. Then I also told him that one of my players (Ishrat) hasn’t come in from Kashmir and we are trying hard to reach her. He asked a couple of things about her. He asked for her photo and through his sources in Kashmir, he informed the Jammu and Kashmir police in Srinagar and then informed the Indian army,” Louis told TimesofIndia.com.
Ishrat's coach didn't have her exact address. But Isehnower's efforts saw a group of Army men start a search mission, as they found out that Ishrat lives in a small village called Bangdara in Baramulla from the Voluntary Medicare Society in Srinagar, where Ishrat was introduced to wheelchair basketball. They then went door to door in Bangdara to find Ishrat. Incredibly, the mission was completed on the same day (August 25), since Ishrat had to reach Chennai by August 27.
On the night of August 25 Ishrat was with her father Abdul Rashid Mir at her home in Bangdara in Baramula when she heard someone knocking at the door. Her father opened the door and saw a group of army jawans holding her daughter’s photo and asking for her. Rashid was quite afraid, especially because article 370 had been revoked and there was a lock down in place.
The Army personal, who was holding Ishrat’s photograph asked loudly - "Is she your daughter?"
A frightened Rashid stammered ‘Yes’.
The Army men looked at each other and laughed. Rashid was surprised.
" Aapki beti Indian wheelchair basketball team mein select ho gayi hai. Mubarak ho!. Aapko Chennai jana hai. (Congratulations! Your daughter has been selected in the Indian wheelchair basketball team. You have to go to Chennai) the army jawan told the surprised Rashid.
Fear turned into jubilation. An elated Rashid thanked the army men for what they had done for his daughter.
“When there was a knock on the door, my father, my family and I were frightened as there were lots of things that were going on in Kashmir. After I heard the news (of India selection), I hugged my father. I was so happy,” Ishrat told Timesofindia.com in an exclusive interview.
The men who had put all this in motion was Ishrat's coach Louis George and his old friend Colonel (retired) Isenhower.
“Isenhower did an amazing job. Due to him, the Indian army escorted her (Ishrat) to the Srinagar airport and sent her to Chennai. Isenhower did all the arrangements (tickets etc) for her,” the coach told TimesofIndia.com.
Ishrat is set to represent India in the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship from November 27 to December 8, to be held in Thailand and the credit goes to the Indian Army for making this possible.
"On 27th (August) morning, a group of army men and police came around 6 am to pick me and took me to the airport. The day I was leaving for the airport, the entire village gathered and applauded me. They (Army jawans) dropped me at Srinagar Airport. From there I reached Delhi and then Chennai. I traveled all alone. The Indian army helped a lot in this journey. I was scared also because this was the first time I was travelling alone and that too with a lot of security," Ishrat, who injured her spinal cord in an accident in 2016, said.
"We all know what the condition in Kashmir is. I never imagined I will be traveling out (of Kashmir) on a wheelchair. I was scared initially but not now," Ishrat said.
Ishrat also met Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju. She was taken to meet the Minister by the Secretary General of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India Kalyani Rajaraman.
"After being selected, my federation (WBFI) had taken an appointment to meet the Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju. He has assured me of all the help I need in my sports journey. I didn’t have a sports wheelchair. He has promised to arrange one for me. I have played basketball with a normal wheelchair or a borrowed wheelchair till date. When I played the Nationals, the WBFI arranged a sports wheelchair for me," Ishrat told TimesofIndia.com.
Talented Miss Ishrat Akhtar from Baramulla in Kashmir Valley has been selected to represent India at the Asia-Ocean… https://t.co/pCvqvqfq33
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) 1567671217000
"Every wheelchair basketball player should have a sports wheelchair. It is made for the sport. You can play with other wheelchairs too but that causes a lot of discomfort and difficulties. It is very challenging to own a sports wheelchair though. The reason is their limited availability, since they not manufactured in India, but in the UK. One can have a basic sports wheelchair as well which costs around Rs. 40,000. This you can use just for practice. We have asked the Sports Ministry for a personalised high-end sports wheelchair for her. It will cost around Rs. 4 lakh. Rijiju sir was very nice and listened to us properly. Big thanks to him that he gave us the time. He has promised to support Ishrat and the Federation." Kalyani told TimesofIndia.com.
Ishrat injured her spinal cord in an accident in 2016. After the accident, she was bedridden for eight months. She eventually joined the Voluntary Medicare Society in Srinagar where she was introduced to wheelchair basketball. From there on she found her purpose in life.
Ishrat, whose father Rashid works in the Water department in PHE (Public Health Engineering Department), has a step mother and two sisters. Ishrat's mother died due to kidney failure when Ishrat was in the 10th standard.
"My parents have supported me a lot. They never stopped me from playing basketball. In fact, they encouraged and supported me at every step. People in my locality and village know me with by my name and what I do. They call me Ishrat, the basketball player," the 24-year-old said.
"My father has played a big role. He used to take me to the training centre in Srinagar from Baramula by bus which would take two hours to reach. Whatever I am today is due to my father. I want to dedicate every medal I will win for my country to him," an emotional and proud Ishrat signed off.