The Sub Regional Sentiment in Football in Colonial Bengal- Part 3

Football In Colonial Calcutta

In my last article on ‘Football as an Instrument of Nationalism in Colonial Bengal’, I discussed how the game of football was converted into an instrument of nationalism in colonial Bengal. In this article, I shall focus on how this nationalistic sentiment in football in Bengal was replaced by a ‘sub-regional’ sentiment.

The historic success of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield in 1911 motivated the Bengali community to stand united against the decision of partition. It made them believe that the mighty British could also be defeated. However, a new trend was emerged within the Bengali community in the first decade of the 20th century which created a ‘sub-regional’ sentiment. The sub regional sentiment divided the Bengali community into two groups- – Ghoti, the residents of westerly districts of Bengal, and Bangaal, people of the eastern districts of Bengal. The cultural difference was evident between these two groups. The Bangaals were known for their simple and spontaneous behaviour. A majority of this group was displaced from their root and was forced to live in Calcutta as ‘outsiders’. The Ghotis, on the other contrary, were considered by many as soft- spoken, art loving ‘insiders’ of Calcutta. Rabindranath Tagore, in his short stories, described this cultural difference between the urban Ghoti and rural Bangaal communities as:

“We were from the country and had not learnt to scoff at everything with precocious levity of the boys of Calcutta and therefore our faith was unshakable. The persons of our association delivered speeches and we bagged for subscriptions from door to door, caring nothing for the midday sun nor for meals, distributed handbills in the streets, arranged chairs and benches for the meetings and rolling up our shirt sleeves got ready to fight it out with anybody who said a word against our leaders. The city boys duly noted these characteristics and ragged us as East Bengal fools.”

The landed properties were the main source of income of the rural gentry who were residing in the eastern districts of Bengal. The upper caste Hindu Brahmin, Vaidy and Kayastha were the landlords, while the Muslims and lower caste Hindus were the peasants. Except a few, like the zamindars of Bhagyakul, Nawab of Dacca, most of the landowners had small landed properties. These small landowners were adversely affected due to the rise of population and pro-tenancy legislation since 1859. These resulted in further fragmentation of land and increasing pressure of population on fragmented land, due to which there was a fluctuation in rental income. This was evident in the latter years of the 19th century. This was combined with a price hike of the essential commodities which took place in the beginning of the 20th century. Due to these adverse economic conditions, an intense migration took place from the eastern districts of Bengal to Calcutta. These migrated people were looking for service and professional jobs in British bureaucratic set up. However, they were unable to find their fortune in Calcutta. They were forced to live in crowded mess- houses and were involved in low paying clerical jobs and legal assignments. They observed the sophistication of the ‘wealthy’ Calcutta, but were completely detached from it. They were in search for an identity in an unknown city.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 made the rural gentry of the eastern districts insecure and as a result they participated in Swadeshi and other political movements. Prior to that, organized politics was controlled by the urban politicians who mainly focused on urban-centric issues. The district politics was evolved around the local issues which had no place in the organized urban politics.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 established a link between these two types of politics which reduced the gap between organized urban politics and localised districts politics. This gap was further reduced with a constitutional reform in 1919 which introduced electoral politics and forced the urban-centric leaders to understand the local issues. To win the minds of the rural people of eastern Bengal, these leaders put stress on the ‘sub-regional’ sentiment and football became a medium for achieving this purpose. The Ghotis started rallying behind Mohun Bagan while the Bangaals found their ‘sub-regional’ sentiment in East Bengal. This was further encouraged by the political leaders who started supporting either of these two clubs based on their origins.

Therefore, it can be said that the social, economical and political factors created a ‘sub-regional’ sentiment in football in colonial Calcutta which replaced the nationalistic sentiment created with the success of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield in 1911.

East Bengal Club was set up due to a controversy in a match between Jorabagan Club and Mohun Bagan Club in the Coach Behar Cup Football Tournament in 1920. In that match, Shri Sailesh Bose, a prominent player of Jorabagn and a resident of East Bengal, was dropped. In reply to this, Shri Bose decided to leave the club. Shri Suresh Chowdhury, the Vice- President of Jorabagn and the Zamindar of Nagerpur, also decided to resign from his post in protest. Shri Chowdhury then convinced the influential people of eastern districts of Bengal, residing in Calcutta, to set up a club which would provide an identity to the people of the eastern part of Bengal. With the initiatives of Shri Chowdhury and with the support of Professor Sarada Ranjan Roy, Raj Bahadur Tarit Bhusan Roy of Bhagyakul, the East Bengal Club was established on 1st August 1920. The Club provided a ‘sub- regional’ identity to the Bangaal community and gradually established their supremacy in the game of football in colonial Calcutta.

In the year of inception, East Bengal emerged as the winner of the Hercules Cup, a six-a-side tournament which was held at the Shyam Park. However, the club struggled to find a place in the Calcutta Football League due to the strict rules imposed on the entry of the Indian teams into the league. In a ‘sub-regional’ gesture, Shri Gopal Roy, Raja of Tajhat, withdrew his team and shifted his players to East Bengal to provide the latter an opportunity to participate in the second division of the Calcutta Football League. East Bengal secured third place in the second division. The club gained popularity by defeating Mohun Bagan in the Khagendra Shield Tournament and Aryans in the final of the Sachin Shield. In the first year, East Bengal proved its worth by winning seven trophies in different tournaments.

In 1925, East Bengal played in the first division of the Calcutta Football League as the third Indian club. The club became the only club to receive an invitation to participate in the Durand Cup held in Simla. The success of the club attracted the influential people, like the Raja of Santosh, Manmatha Roy, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, to extend their support to the club. It can also be said that the club gradually reduced the monopoly created by Mohun Bagan in the game of football in colonial Calcutta.

East Bengal, which was set up in protest of the discriminatory policy taken against the players from eastern Bengal in a club of Calcutta, gave birth to a great rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal which was a reflection of the sub-regional sentiments of the Ghotis and Bangaals.

The nationalistic sentiment which was created with the success of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield in 1911 was replaced by a ‘sub-regional’ sentiment which emerged with the setting up of East Bengal in 1920. The people of eastern districts of Bengal, who earned their livelihood from their landed properties, were forced to migrate to the ‘sophisticated’ Calcutta due to economic pressure. However, they failed to find a comfortable living in Calcutta and were confined to low-paying clerical and legal jobs. They were searching for an identity in an unknown city. East Bengal, which was set up in protest of discriminatory behaviour against the players of eastern districts of Bengal in the Jorabagan club, provided a ‘sub-regional’ identity to these migrated people. The cultural difference between the people of wealthy western districts of Bengal, known as ‘Ghoti’, and the people of eastern districts of Bengal, known as ‘Bangaal’, was reflected in the game of football in the form of the rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. This rivalry still prevails and is a reason for the popularity of football in Bengal as well as in India.

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