The Religious Sentiment in Football in Colonial Calcutta- Part 4

Football In Colonial Calcutta

In my last three articles, I wrote on the gradual growth of football in colonial Calcutta since 1858 when the first recorded football match was played in Calcutta. It may be said that the game of football emerged in Calcutta as an elitist sport which was often the exclusive preserve of the ruling class. However, a racial policy was adopted by the British rulers at a later stage to discriminate Indians from them in football. A nationalistic approach was introduced against this racial policy, which took a prominent shape with the epochal success of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield in 1911. This nationalistic sentiment was replaced by a ‘sub-regional’ sentiment with the setting up of East Bengal, which divided the Bengali community in two sections- Ghoti and Bangaal.

In this article, we look into another driving force of football in colonial Calcutta which created a ‘religious’ sentiment in this game.

A religious identity was introduced in football in colonial Calcutta with the inception of Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1891. The club provided an identity to the Muslim community of colonial Calcutta and was supported by all sections of people of this religion. The upper class of the Muslim community extended their support to the club to demonstrate the unity of the community, which was essential to fulfill their political desire. The lower section of the community supported the club as it emerged as a medium to establish their religious supremacy over the others.

In 19th Century, the Muslim community of Bengal was divided into two groups- Ashraf and Atraf. The upper section of the community was known as the Ashraf which was recognized for their ‘historical importance’ and was considered as the ‘leader’ of the community. This section was largely dependent on the patronage of the British rulers. Ashrafs were divided into three sub-groups- upper Ashraf, middle Ashraf and lower Ashraf. The upper Ashrafs represented the urban elite who were linked to the rulers of Oudh, Mysore, Murshidabad and were based in Calcutta. Urdu was the language of the upper Ashraf. The Urdu- Bengali speaking middle Ashrafs were the descendants of elite Muslim administrators and military. They earned their livelihoods on landed properties. The Bengali speaking Ashrafs comprised of the small landholders and Ulemas of rural Bengal. This lower section of the Muslim community mainly consisted of local converts to Islam.

These two groups of Muslim community, Ashraf and Atraf, were entirely different in terms of their social, cultural, political and economical status. Ashrafs were relatively small in number, but were the dominating force of the Muslim community, while Atrafs were large in number, but were not the driving force.

In 20th Century, the emergence of the middle class section within the Muslim community played a significant role in reducing the gap between the Ashraf and Atraf. This middle class section of the Muslim community comprised small landlords, government servants and professionals from various fields. The Muslims of rural Bengal, who were benefitted economically due to the  introduction of jute as a ‘cash crop’ and due to various policies adopted by the Government to secure their landed properties, were the major component of this emerging middle class. The setting up of the Dacca University helped them to gain in literacy. This progressive middle class of the Muslim community of Bengal started challenging the Hindu Bengalis for professional prosperity. Appeals were made to the Muslim community, irrespective of Ashraf and Atraf, to distinguish them from Bengali Hindus who were portrayed as the exploiter of the Muslim community. Thus, the Muslim community of colonial Bengal became united against the Bengali Hindus and the basis of the unity was religion. This conflict, based on religion, took a political shape with the formation of the Muslim League which played an instrumental role in uniting Ashraf and Atraf.

The conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities was introduced in football in colonial Calcutta with the setting up of Mohammedan Sporting Club which provided an identity to the Muslim community of Bengal in the game of football. However, a separate identity for the Muslim community in football in colonial Calcutta was created in 1887 with the formation of Jubilee Club. In 1889, another Muslim club, the Crescent Club, was set up, the name of which was changed to Hamidia Club at a later stage. Finally, the Mohammedan Sporting Club, the Muslim identity in football in colonial Bengal, was established in 1891.

In the initial phase, Mohammedan Sporting Club shared the support of Muslim community with two other clubs- the Oriental Club and the Muslim Club. The Club came under the spotlight during the period of 1924- 1929 after a change in its Executive Committee. The rise was furthered in 1934 when the Club qualified to participate in the First Division of the Calcutta Football League. The Club remained the Champion of the League for the next five years till 1938. It was considered as the ‘Golden Age’ of Mohammedan Sporting.

The Club received patronage not only from the elite Muslim Aashrafs, but also from the British Governors. The Muslim politicians, such as Khwaja Nazimuddin, extended their active support to the Club to fulfill their political objectives. The Club enjoyed support from all sections of the Muslim community.

Despite its success in 1930s, Mohammedan Sporting Club never made an attempt to establish itself as a nationalist club by replacing Mohun Bagan. It emerged as a club for Muslim community and never changed its identity.

The game of football was started in colonial Calcutta as a past time leisurely activity of the colonial rulers which was gradually taken up by the elite class of Bengal due to the lure of demonstration effect. It became an instrument of nationalism with the epochal success of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield in 1911. The inception of East Bengal created a sub-regional sentiment in the game while the setting up of Mohammedan Sporting evoked a religious sentiment. Therefore, the growth of football in colonial Calcutta took place due to the consequences of social- political, socio- cultural, socio- economical and religious situations of colonial Calcutta. However, during this period, no comprehensive initiative was taken to adopt a structure for improving the quality of the game or the quality of the players. Hence, the success of the football clubs of Calcutta, in the pre-independence period, was limited to a few competitions that took place in Bengal or in other parts of the country, but it never reached beyond the boundaries of India.

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