NEW DELHI: On the night of August 25, there was the dreaded knock on the doors of Baramula resident Abdul Rashid Mir. When he opened the door, Mir was faced with a group of armymen holding his daughter’s photograph.
“Is she your daughter?” asked one of them loudly.
“Yes,” a frightened Mir managed to stammer.
The armymen then looked at each other and laughed. Rashid didn’t know what to expect.
“Aapki beti Indian wheelchair basketball team mein select ho gayi hai. Mubarak ho! Aapko Chennai jana hai. (Congratulations! Your daughter has been selected for the Indian wheelchair basketball team. You have to go to Chennai),” one of the jawans told Mir. Fear soon turned into jubilation.
The disruption in telephone and internet connectivity in Kashmir that accompanied the abrogation of Article 370 had left the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India with no means to contact Ishrat Akhter. The 24-year-old needed to be informed that she had made the cut for the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship and had to attend a national camp in Chennai from August 27.
The championship, be held in Thailand in November-December this year, is a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
With just two days left, fate intervened. A chance conversation between two friends gave a new twist to the story. Louis George , a former Navy officer and coach of the Indian women’s wheelchair basketball team, happened to call his school friend Colonel Isenhower (retired), who had also served in the Intelligence Bureau. During the conversation, George mentioned Ishrat.
“It was a random call on August 25 and Kashmir obviously came up for discussion (it was just 20 days since the state was stripped of its special status). Then I told him that one of my players hasn’t come in from Kashmir and we were trying hard to reach her,” George said. “Isenhower then asked a couple of questions about her. He asked for her photo, and through his sources he informed the Jammu & Kashmir police in Srinagar and then informed the Indian army,” he added.
Ishrat’s coach didn’t have her exact address. But Isehnower’s efforts saw a group of armymen start a search. It traced Ishrat to a small village called Bangdara in Baramulla. Inputs about her address came in from the Voluntary Medicare Society in Srinagar, where she was introduced to wheelchair basketball after an accident left her with a spinal cord injury in 2016. The armymen then went door to door and reached Mir’s house on August 25 itself. “When there was a knock, we were all frightened. But after I heard the news (of selection), I hugged my father. I was so happy,” said Ishrat.
“Isenhower did an amazing job. Due to him, the army escorted Ishrat to Srinagar airport and sent her to Chennai. Isenhower did all the arrangements (tickets etc) for her,” the coach said.
“On 27th (August) morning, a group of army and police personnel came to take me to the airport. The entire village had gathered to applaud me. The jawans dropped me off at the airport. From there I reached Delhi and then Chennai. The army helped a lot. I was scared because this was the first time I was travelling alone,” said Ishrat. “But now, I’m no longer scared.”