Shabnam and her sister, Rookaiya, had a dream: they wanted to play kabaddi. But when the women from a dusty village in riot-hit Muzaffarnagar asked their father for permission, he was in a dilemma.
Tensions were still high after last year’s deadly riots between Muslims and Hindu Jats, and his family was dead against allowing his daughters to play. “After the tension last year, I had to face a lot of resistance within the family,” say Lal Mohammad, a labourer in the sleepy Uttar Pradesh hamlet of Tawli.
He eventually gave in after 19-year-old Shabnam pleaded with him. “Abbu, please allow us to play. They (Jat teammates) are good friends, nothing will happen to us,” she said desperately.
Today, the sisters are part of the Muzaffarnagar district team that has just one religion: kabaddi. United by their passion for the sport, women from across communities bridge social and religious barriers to play in harmony under the watchful eye of two Jat trainers. “Nothing has changed between us and I’m happy I haven’t lost a friend. Those were scary days, many in the village were against us but my father said, ‘go and enjoy your game’,” said Shabnam, a former junior India probable.
Shabnam is not the only one. Across riot-affected villages in Muzaffarnagar district, sport is the sole bridge between communities in the midst of lingering bitterness, fear and anger among people. Muzaffarnagar was hit by the deadliest religious violence in about a decade last August and September that left about 65 people dead and forced many Muslims to abandon their homes.
Sport is helping some of them to return to their villages – even if temporarily. Illias, a contractor from Mukundpur village, was forced to abandon his home after the riots, but has been coming back every day because of his 16-year-old wrestler son, Shehnawaz, and his Jat coach. “He brings Shehnawaz everyday to the akhara from Tawli (where the family migrated after the riots),” said Kalu Singh ‘Khaleefa’, a well-known coach.
The Baghra stadium near Mukundpur is in a state of disrepair, but remains a witness to the camaraderie between Muslim and Jat wrestlers. “We have about 25 resident trainees, but there are only four rooms, so we share them. This is a different world and they are like a bunch of friends,” said Dharmendra, the Jat head coach and a former national kabaddi player.
Sportspeople say religious tension has no place in their world and they want to live in peace. “It (the riots) happened because of politics. Everyone wants to live in peace, like we do here (in the akhara),” said Ankit Chaudhary, a wrestler.
It’s a sentiment shared by cricketers at Chaudhary Charan Singh Stadium in the middle of Muzaffarnagar. In his 20 years as a cricket coach, Vikas Sharma, has been seen several ups and downs in the town, but he can’t remember a single time when his centre was affected by communal tension.
“Communal tension has no place here. There is a good ratio of Muslims and Jats but nothing has happened in the stadium. Their friendship extends beyond the boundaries (of the stadium),” he said with a sense of pride.