7 February 2019

The victory of eleven Bengali boys against the East Yorkshire Regiment of the British Raj that boosted the zeal for independence.


On the morning of the IFA Shield Final in 1911, the players of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club began their preparations in unlikely settings. The all Indian club spent that morning seeking the blessings of Hindu goddess Kali inside the serenity of the Kalighat Temple. They called upon the goddess of Time, Creation, Destruction and Power for divine protection, seen as the one who bestows liberation. For, their opponents that day were no more than their colonial masters.


Alongside the cultural imports of violence and subjugation, the 19th century witnessed Great Britain´s rapid expansion of power thrust football upon the Indian subcontinent. Popularised through British Regimental and Missionary teams, by the early twentieth century the phenomenon had become a common feature of social intercourse between rulers and ruled.


Akin to many colonial practices, football was drenched in discrimination. The first Indian Football Federation in the state of Bengal barred Indians altogether until the 1920s, while the Shield was dominated by British army teams, with participation amongst Indians decided amidst the discretion of the ruling class. More crushing than defeat, prior to the 1911 tournament, the losses of Indian teams seemed to reaffirm the colonial constructions of Indian inferiority and only added to the brunt of British discrimination.


However, in 1911, under the disciplinarian methods of coach Sailen Basu, Kolkata’s oldest Indian club Mohun Bagan gained a well-established reputation. The Shield provided an opportunity for a club carrying the revolutionary cause of an oppressed nation, to momentarily liberate themselves from the physical and psychological humiliation at the hands of the British.


The tournament saw the Bengali boys embark upon an incredible run. Exceeding expectations, they gained momentum by defeating heavyweights of the day such as St. Xavier, Rangers, Rifle Brigade and the Middlesex Regiment to reach the final.


While Bengali youths rode rejuvenated waves with undaunted spirits all the way to the final, fearing further embarrassment, the British were not amused. The significance, contemplated local newspaper The Nayak, of an improbable victory would fill “every Indian with joy and pride to know that the rice-eating, malaria-ridden bare-footed Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating, Herculean, booted John Bull in that peculiarly English sport “.


On the 29th of July thousands of spectators fled to The Calcutta Maidan from far away Patna, Purnia, Kishanganj, Assam and Dhaka to watch the match. The East Indian Railway commissioned special steamer trains to bring spectators from as far and wide as Rayganj to Baranagar. Jubilant passengers blocked the highways causing city-wide traffic jams, as trams from Shyambajar and Chitpur were filled to the brim. Meanwhile on the streets, touts attempted to sell India’s first black market tickets to the wanting public. Amongst the swathes of spectators in the stadium, said to reach 100,000, Calcutta Babus stood opposite colonial elites in anticipation. Those unable to sit, perched themselves on surrounding trees or terraced rooftops, making use of any inch of space.


The Mohun players stepped onto the pitch, once again clad in make-shift folded dhotis, each marked individually with a Red Tilaka on their forehead, the The Immortal 11 Hindu sign traditionally worn for rites of passage. More than a game, this was the culmination of the Indian Independence Swadeshi Movement that had engulfed Bengal since Lord Curzon partitioned the region six years prior. It was a chance for both Muslims and Hindus to unite in overcoming the British Empire.


The game underway, the barefooted Bagan matched the booted men from Yorkshire upon the hard and dry turf. Long balls from the Yorkshire men prompted cordial clapping from the English ladies while counter attacks from Mohun reigned thunderous roars from the side’s twelfth man.


15 minutes into the second half, a free kick from Sergeant Jackson sent the regiment into the lead and the raucous crowds into silent dismay. The Bagan´s however, responded almost immediately. Captain Shibdas Bhaduri made honours even five minutes later to keep hopes alive.


In the dying embers of the game’s final exchanges, Mohun’s Abhilasha Ghosh pounced onto his captain’s through ball and directed a powerful shot, producing a moment of euphoria. Thunderbolt like crackers filled the then Calcutta sky, as shirts, sticks and shoes littered the pitch. The victory was sealed and the shield was Bagan’s.


The hasty exit of the Englishmen was sound-tracked by a chorus of “Mohun Bagan ki Jay” (Hail Mohun Bagan). In its cablegram to England, Reuters News Agency reported that “the scene beggared description, the Bengalees tearing their shirts and waving them”.


Upon exiting the field, star of the victory Krishnamohan Chatterjee was asked by Hindu Brahmin: “You have now beaten the English on the sporting field. When will you help bring down the flag fluttering there?” pointing toward the Union Jack flying over the headquarters of the British garrison in Calcutta. The response: the flag would come down once Bagan repeated the incredible triumph.


The victory left every Bengalee carrying his head high in the knowledge the barefooted Bengali footballers had overcome the booted soldiers of the King. The once relatively unimportant pastime came to be viewed as a uniting social force, symbolising a common language amongst Indians, irrespective of class, creed, community or religion, while injecting confidence into the cause of Independence by disproving the invincibility of the British.


By December that year, the Raj bowed to increased pressure to reverse the partitioning of Bengal, subsequently relocating its capital from Calcutta to New Delhi to retain a grip on its waning power. The victory remains one of India´s most celebrated sporting moments. As for the Union Jack, it would remain until 1947, the year Mohun Bagan would regain their hands on the coveted shield.


This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 9/January 2019. Read more stories from the field of football for good here


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