In the second interview of our series on young, exciting women achievers from Kashmir, Global Order's Aayushi Sharma spoke to Ishrat Akhtar, the international wheelchair basketball player from Baramulla in Kashmir. This is part of our work in highlighting stories of change from Kashmir, once one of the world's most troubled hotspots with raging separatist movement, but which now has thrilling young stars in all kinds of sports from cricket and judo to basketball.
Aayushi Sharma: Hello Ishrat! Thank you for speaking with me. First of all I would like to ask, where are you staying right now?
Ishrat Akhtar: I am in Baramulla, Kashmir.
AS: So you are famous for playing basketball as a profession and I would like to ask, how did you start your journey as a professional basketball player?
IA: Okay, so in 2016 I fell from the second floor of a building after which my spinal cord was completely damaged. I was immediately taken to a hospital in Baramullah. I was later referred to Srinagar where I had surgery after three days of the incident. I stayed in the hospital for a month after surgery. When I got discharged and I came home I did not really understand what had happened. After almost six months, there was no improvement in my condition. I used to be in bed all the time, my family members used to feed me.
After one year I got a call and I was told there was a camp happening in my district where they are providing wheelchairs to people like me. My sister persuaded me to go to the camp. When I went there, there were doctors who did my checkup and they said that I should come to their hospital and get trained in using a wheelchair. I went to that hospital in Srinagar where they provided me with the facilities and the training that I needed in becoming self-sufficient. They taught me how to use a wheelchair and do my tasks on my own. It took me one year to learn all this. This helped me cure my depression as it is very difficult to be confined in one room, one bed for more than a year.
It was during this time that I came across some boys who were playing wheelchair basketball. I approached them and asked if I could play with them, they agreed. They told me about the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India happening in Srinagar and a national level team would be selected for Wheelchair Basketball. I asked them to also inform me when that camp happens because I wanted to go there and keep myself busy so I could deal with my depression better. I went to that camp and I played with many boys and girls who were like me and I got selected at the National level. It was very surprising because I had never played basketball in my life before. I did not play any games before my accident as well. This way, basketball also became a therapy for me.
The first national game I played was in Tamil Nadu and I had to represent Delhi as there was no women's team in Jammu and Kashmir at that time. There I saw so many boys and girls who were in wheelchairs like me and I felt that I was not alone. After coming back from there I was determined to make a women's wheelchair basketball team to represent Jammu and Kashmir. Through social media I also reached out to various NGOs and finally made a team of women wheelchair basketball players. We trained and played our second Nationals in Mohali where we represented Jammu and Kashmir. After coming back from Mohali in August 2019, there were communication breakdowns in Kashmir that created some problems in staying connected and training regularly. It was during this time that I was visited by some army officers and policemen who started asking about me. They told me about the selection camp for the national team for the wheelchair basketball tournament. This team would represent India at the international level. They told me that my name was on the list. Various arrangements were made for me to travel to Srinagar and to other places. I was worried about how I could travel long distances and also train. I would be alone and the phone lines were also cut at that time. I was then motivated by my family members who told me that this was a great opportunity and not people get this kind of a chance to do something big. I then decided that I would be a part of this camp.
After my selection in the Indian national team, I have recently represented India in Thailand for the International Tournament. I became the first woman to represent India at the international level for the wheelchair basketball tournament. After that I got invitations from various states to speak at events and share my stories. I received many awards and accolades after this, even the Lieutenant Governor of Kashmir awarded me with various honors. I also started playing wheelchair cricket and wheelchair table tennis. I participated in a State level Wheelchair Race where I competed against boys and bagged the first position.
In this whole journey, I give a lot of credit to the Indian Army and the Jammu- Kashmir police who found me that day and approached me in my home in Baramullah. The head coach of the Indian Team at that time, Louis George also helped and guided me a lot. Most of all, the credit of my journey goes to the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India because they organised such events and camps for us. At present also I am preparing for another camp where the selection of the National and International level team of Wheelchair Basketball Players will be held.
AS: Thank you so much Ishrat for telling me about your journey in detail. Now you have received so much recognition and appreciation from around the world, but I am wondering what it must have been like when you were dealing with the struggles of this journey.
IA: It was very difficult at the beginning because I was the first female sportsperson in a Wheelchair. There was no Basketball court in my district. Also as you know, when you have a spinal cord injury you lose your sense of balance. During those times, I used to travel 100 km daily with my brother-in-law on a bike. Even now that I have played at the International level, there is still no basketball court in my district for practice. I have approached the administration countless times asking them to build better infrastructure and facilities for sports in this district. I was asked to write many applications and I did so. But still there has been no improvement in this case. There were other types of struggles as well, I had to deal with the opinions of other people as well. They used to ask me as to why I'm playing when I am in a wheelchair, why am I going out of the house for long hours when I am a woman but my family always supported me in my dreams and I started forgetting what people used to say.
AS: Sports is often seen as a field dominated primarily by men. I did want to ask you that as a woman and dealing with the physical challenges what else did you have to deal with?
IA: It was very stressful. When I had just started playing , I made my profile on social media for the first time. When I posted for the very first time, there were so many cruel and horrible comments from people. So I started being reluctant to post my photos. On the positive side, I also found some people who reached out to me and motivated me to tell me that I had to be strong and face these challenges. I also found some recognition on social media and the people who used to curse me often for being a Muslim, a Kashmiri Muslim and a woman sportsperson stopped bothering me. Another struggle I had to deal with was continuing with my studies. After recovering from the accident I decided to continue with my studies and it was only recently that I passed my 12th standard final examinations. Being confined to the wheelchair, I also had to deal with the problem of lack of accessibility to many facilities. Even in my school or other places I used to visit, I had to face a lot of problems going to the washrooms and there were no ramps alongside the stairs or lifts.
AS: Absolutely, the lack of disabled friendly facilities is a grave problem. This must have added to the challenges you were already facing.
IA: Yes of course. Even our own administration here invited me to their office and when I went there I saw that there were no facilities of lifts or ramps there as well.
AS: So you have elaborated a lot on your struggles and challenges but despite all of that you have worked a lot for the benefit of the physically challenged. How, in your opinion, has your work helped other women like you ?
IA: When I joined the Wheelchair Basketball camp, I was the only woman there. Now, there are so many women who are approaching and contacting me saying that they want to play like me. Not even women, many physically challenged men have approached me and said that they get motivated by seeing me play. It feels very good to see people get inspired by my story.
AS: My next question is somewhat related to this, you have also been working as a Motivational Speaker lately so I want to ask how did you make this journey from being a Basketball player to a Motivational Speaker?
IA: I had received an invitation from a school in our district and I was asked to give a speech. That was the first time I had shared my story with people like that. The response was something I had never imagined. So many people and especially little girls started coming to me and asking me to help them become like me. This motivated me a lot and I decided that I would attempt to inspire people by sharing my story. That is how I started speaking at events and giving motivational speeches. My aim was that even if there is one girl out there like me, she could come forward and not be scared to follow her dreams. There were girls whose families did not support them so I used to go myself and talk to their families. I wanted to give them the motivation that I got from my family. Today, I very proudly say that I am a wheelchair basketball player. My family members and even the people in my district who did not support me before are now very proud of me.
AS: What is the situation in Kashmir now when it comes to sports related infrastructure?
IA: Over the years I have met so many people who want to join sports, not just the ones physically challenged like me. The only problem is that there are no facilities. I did not have a basketball court and if I had not traveled long hours every day, I could not have played at the International level. I had to manage by carrying two wheelchairs to my practice everyday. If there had been a court here in this district, it would have been easier for other people, other women and even men to come forward and play to represent at the National and International level.
AS: I agree. How do you think the recurring conflict in Kashmir has affected you or your work as a sportsperson?
IA: See I don't indulge with what is happening with the conflict, I focus on my game. I had got a lot of support from the Indian Army and the Police as well. The army battalion here helped locate me in Baramullah and that is how my whole journey started.
AS: So you had mentioned earlier that there was a phase of depression after your injury. You also said that basketball became a therapy for you. My last question to you would be, what do you think the role of sports is for the physically challenged?
IA: I will tell you about my case. If I had not joined sports when I did, I would probably have taken a wrong step with my life. When I started playing Basketball, I started staying busy with the practices and doing things on my own, the suicidal thoughts started going away by themselves. I can't imagine what would have happened if I had not joined sports, I would probably not have been alive even. Now I am playing three sports at once, I am playing wheelchair cricket, wheelchair table tennis and even wheelchair racing. I was even awarded by the National Commission for Women of India. I would never have achieved all this without sports. So I owe a lot to sports personally.
AS: So Ishrat, many congratulations for all these achievements! You also told me that you recently completed your 12th Standard [class, in school] as well, congratulations for all of this! This is all the fruit of your own hard work.
IA: Thank you very much. Thank you.
AS: What lies ahead for you?
IA: I will be joining the next trials for the selection of the new team at the International level team to represent India once again. So I will be busy with those trials.
AS: Fantastic. Thank you so much for taking time out for this interview Ishrat! I know your schedule has been very busy.
IA: No problem. Thank you very much.