August 9, 2019 / 5:04 PM / 4 months ago

Kashmiri soccer players anxious over communications crackdown, lose touch with families

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - For the Real Kashmir Football Club, known as the Snow Leopards, this has been a tough week, which is saying something for a team based in one of the most militiarised regions of the world where stone pelting and the sound of gunfire are regular occurrences.

Real Kashmir Football Club players attend a training session as an armed security personnel keeps guard at Kalyani in Nadia district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Subrata Nag Choudhury

Kashmiri members of the team, which plays in India’s top men’s league, have lost contact with their families since leaving Srinagar on Monday to head to Kolkata to play in the Durand Cup, the oldest football tournament in Asia.

Their departure coincided with a major crackdown by the Indian government, including the arrival of tens of thousands more troops in Kashmir, the detention of hundreds of local leaders and activists, the severing of phone and internet links, and a curfew-like ban on most movement by local residents.

The clampdown was intended to prevent security problems, such as rioting, as the government announced on Monday that it would move to end Jammu and Kashmir state’s right to set some of its own laws. That means outsiders will now be allowed to buy property there and residents will lose their rights to state government jobs and college places.

“Once we landed, we tried frantically to talk to our homes but none of the Kashmiri players have been able to do that till now,” said Mohammed Hammad, a defender in the team.They have been stuck like many Kashmiris, both in and outside the region, with no means to check in on loved ones living in Kashmir at a particularly sensitive time, just before the Eid-al-Adha holiday on Monday. The blackout has now lasted almost five days.

The anxiety was so great that the owner of the team, Sandeep Chattoo, returned to Kashmir on Thursday to reassure their families and to ask for the army’s help in getting some phone or Internet links with the players set up.

“We are taking care to ensure that the family members of the players are given curfew passes in Kashmir and their welfare looked after,” said Chattoo. “This will help restore the players’ confidence in the team management.”

The team’s squad only has five Kashmiri players, plus six foreign players and several from other parts of India. Much of the management and backroom team are from Kashmir, though the coach David Robertson is from Scotland.

As to their performance on the field, that has been good despite the concerns about what was happening back home.

They beat I-League champions Chennai City 1-0 in their first Group C game on Wednesday. Next up on Saturday in the four-team group are Army Green, one of the Indian army’s teams. The top team in each of the four groups goes into the semi-finals.

Reporting by Subrata Nag Choudhury in Kolkata; Edited by Martin Howell and Ken Ferris

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