Indian Pencak Silat team in Asiad cause for celebration in J&K

Srinagar-based Mohammad Iqbal is India’s national coach for the Indonesian Martial-Art sport, about which very little is known in the country’s sporting fraternity.

Pencak Silat is a full-body fighting sport, which includes grappling and throwing, in addition to the use of weaponry. (Representational Image)   -  Getty Images

For most, it was a bolt from the blue, quite a few even scoffed at it, but for one man in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir, Pencak Silat’s inclusion in the Indian Asian Games contingent was the perfect culmination of a long journey he started eight years ago in Korea.

Srinagar-based Mohammad Iqbal is India’s national coach for the Indonesian Martial-Art sport, about which very little is known in the country’s sporting fraternity. But, the 38-year-old isn’t bothered by the surprise that has greeted Pencak Silat’s Asiad inclusion.

“My children (national campers) are so happy, they are receiving calls from everywhere. They asked me if this news is negative or positive. I told them it’s good. People will know about our sport now,” a jubilant Iqbal said in an interview.

“The Sports ministry monitored our results and gave us a chance to participate in the Asian Games. We don’t want to break their trust, we want to perform and win medals for India, so people know about us and remember the players got medals in the sport,” he added.

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Pencak Silat is a full-body fighting sport, which includes grappling and throwing, in addition to the use of weaponry. The sport is indigenous to Indonesia, the host of August’s Asian Games.

But, interestingly, India had finished ahead of the South East Asians in the regional Pencak Silat Championships in 2016 with two silver and five bronze medals.

And, perhaps it was on the basis of such results that the Indian Olympic Association went against the popular mood for football to give the little-known sport a chance at the Games.

Iqbal has been among the founders of the Indian Pencak Silat Federation, which is based in Jammu and Kashmir. As for how he got there, Iqbal’s affair with martial arts started when he was nine, “forced” by the bullying kids in his neighbourhood.

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“The first day I saw people stretching in class, I ran away, fearing I would break my legs. But, my father was persistent, he said ‘If you know this, no one will hit you’,” he recalled.

After stints in Karate and Taekwondo, Iqbal took up Thant-ta, a Manipuri martial-art form, which also includes the use of swords. He enjoyed Thank-ta and soon martial-arts became an obsession. However, his life changed when he went to Korea in 2010 for an annual martial-arts festival.

“It was there that I saw Pencak Silat for the first time. I saw the moves and weapons and got very excited. I decided I should give it a go. And, once I started practising it, the officials asked me to start promoting the game in India,” he said.

In 2012, Iqbal, along with a few others, started the Indian Pencak Silat Federation in Srinagar. Since then, it has been an arduous journey to popularise the sport, starting from hiring foreign coaches at personal expense, forcing local newspapers to publish press notes to sponsoring children who cannot afford the expense of the sport. The Sports Ministry gave recognition to the sport last year.

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“We introduced Silat at the division level, here. We taught the children the game. They got interested because there is no face contact in this sport. We used to call people from outside to give demonstrations."

Iqbal’s inspiration to develop the sport in India came from the struggles and hardships he himself had to face as a martial art athlete.

“I have no interest in being an office-bearer; I just want to train the kids. I share my experience and provide motivation to the children because I have seen a lot of hardships in my life,” said the coach, who also runs a hotel.

He recalled how, during a state championship in Jammu, he and his wards had to sleep on the roof of a bus as snakes had invaded their dormitory. “In another state championships, we had spent an entire night swatting mosquitoes,” he said.

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But, that is all in the past, for now, the coach is basking in the glory of having started another chapter in the growth of the sport.

“Right now we have around 10,000 kids with us in the Kashmir Valley alone. There is a lot of craze around this sport in the far-flung border areas of Kupwara and the villages,” Iqbal said.

“Kashmir has been in turmoil for so many years...Sports is one medium that can prepare kids for everything and children from Jammu and Kashmir give preference to Martial arts. We can’t compare with cricket, but martial-arts is more popular than football in the state,” he added.