On a Tuesday afternoon in late April, as the sun came out after days of unpredictable spring drizzle, there was a bustle of activity at Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre ground by the Jhelum river. The Kashmiri women’s football team, whose players range in age from 12 to 22, bounded across the bright green grass during a practice session, under the watchful eyes of their 21-year-old coach, Afshan Ashiq.

Ashiq, who trained at the prestigious National Institute of Sports in Patiala, is admired in the Valley for her passion for the beautiful game, which she balances adeptly with her studies for a bachelor’s degree. For the year that she has been coaching the women’s team, she has earned praise both for her wards and for herself.

But over the last fortnight, the promising footballer has been given a rather different tag – stone-pelter. A photograph of Ashiq hurling a stone at security forces during street protests in Srinagar on April 24 has gone viral. To many, the image taken by a Reuters photographer of the young woman in a blue salwar kameez, her dupatta covering the lower half of her face as the ends of it flutter in the wind, is emblematic of of the frustration and despair that has gripped people in the Valley, especially the young.

It is ironic. Until April 24, Ashiq was dead set against stone-pelting, warning her friends time and again not to use violence as a means of protest. She would explain to them why armed hostility could not possibly help Kashmir solve its problems. “In your desire for an Azad Kashmir, you are also creating a backward Kashmir,” she would tell them.

But the events of a single afternoon induced her to act against her long-held belief.

Making a choice

At around 2.30 pm on April 24, Ashiq was escorting a group of 10 to 15 girls from the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Kothi Bagh to the Tourist Reception Centre practice ground, a 15-minute walk they had undertaken many times before. When protests broke out on Exchange Road nearby, Ashiq did not know what or who was behind them. She had witnessed many demonstrations such as this one and wasn’t unduly bothered. She decided to take a roundabout route to the sports complex through Pratap Park, a square on a side lane only a few hundred meters from the school. But then, the Jammu and Kashmir Police began to fire teargas shells at the demonstraters, many of whom were so young, they were wearing school uniforms.

In the midst of the mounting chaos, a policeman started to abuse Ashiq’s group. He then slapped one of the girls. Ashiq protested, only to be met with more abuse. She was outraged. “We might be women, but we are not weak,” she said. What was particularly hurtful, she said, was that the offending policeman was a fellow Kashmiri Muslim.

As the dispute grew more heated, the girls in Ashiq’s team wanted to join the street protests. Some of her friends who happened to be at the scene tried to convince them to leave. Ashiq said she had to make a choice – she could either walk away and set an example of weakness for her students or she could stand up to injustice. “We cannot slap you because you are in uniform,” she said, “but we will show you what we can do.” She remembered thinking, “Now come on the road, I will show you what I can do.”

She picked up a stone and hurled it at the policemen.

A member of Afshan Ashiq's football team.

Not for violence or azadi

The way Ashiq sees it, the thing Kashmiris most aspire to have is the freedom to step out of their homes without being assailed by phone calls from anxious family members asking, “Where are you? Are you safe? Have you reached home?”

More than the security forces who provoked her to commit an act she had always opposed, Ashiq blames Kashmiri separatists for the rash of stone-pelting incidents in the Valley. She accuses them of putting children in harm’s way by urging them to pick up stones. “They are our elders, but still they don’t stop to consider that the children they are encouraging to join the movement are someone’s sons, somebody’s brothers,” Ashiq said. “If something happens to them, how will their father, mother or sister console themselves?”

Despite her actions that day, Ashiq maintained that “stone-pelting was never going to sort out any issue if it has not in 28 years of insurgency”. Instead, she contended that practical strategies can help make a difference in the short term – for instance, giving communities the freedom to express themselves and the space to diffuse tension on their own terms instead of suppressing them with brute force.

In this regard, she believes sports can be an effective weapon against violence. The People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government’s initiatives to support sporting opportunities for Kashmiri youth are a step in that direction, she claims.

Ashiq does not support independence for Kashmir. She feels the kind of development the Indian government has brought to the state would not have been possible under a Pakistani regime. “They don’t want us, they just want our land,” she said. “People do not understand this yet.”

As for her own dream, it is simple: “I want to play for India.”

In the year she has been coaching the women's football team, Afshan Ashiq has won praise both for her wards and herself.

Photographs courtesy the authors.