Editorial/Modesty blaze
Elegy on the Maidan
Letters to the Editor

Sheer exhilaration would perhaps be the initial reaction in those who are following, with growing distaste, the events in Kanpur since St Valentine�s Day last month. Earlier this week, Ms Rachna Bhatia and Ms Heena Koisar, together with 15 other college girls, let loose their martial arts skills on their students� union president, college principal and whoever else tried to stop them from attending a social event in campus because they were �improperly� dressed. The scenario could be imagined easily as the thrilling realization of a feminist fantasy of empowerment, of Amazon energies collectively unleashed against outrageous discrimination and repression. Coming after a sequence of public violence and humiliation, there is, undoubtedly, a sense of wild justice in this bizarre instance of spontaneous retaliation.

Yet, this first unconsidered exultation gives way to a disturbing sense of the unfortunate and then to anxieties, specific and general. Ms Bhatia and Ms Koisar have, after all, committed an act of aggression that has seriously injured the students� union head, Ms Priya Trivedi. The situation has now, with an ironic legitimacy, gone into the hands of the police and the city magistrate. Both had earlier condoned, passively and actively, the Valentine�s Day rampage. Ms Bhatia and Ms Koisar have brought upon themselves the possibility of heavy fines, expulsion and even formal charges of attempted murder. Resistance has turned into officially punishable aggression, and with that, a state apparatus already predisposed to bigotry can now close in with impunity upon the �offenders�. The girls have, in effect, jumped from the frying pan of cultural policing into the fire of an altogether uglier law and order machinery.

What becomes immediately clear is the magnitude and inevitability of what the students are actually contending against. The hooliganism and the various enforcements that followed are not random impositions of a lunatic fringe, but involve the concerted acquiescence and efforts of some of the most important institutions of civil society and of the state. Four colleges in Kanpur have now formalized the dress code insisted on by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, one of them even incorporating these regulations in its forthcoming prospectus. The ABVP is the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party and has the full support of the sangh parivar. New Delhi has remained virtually silent on the matter. Now that the situation has become a law and order problem, the Centre will � with well-rehearsed finesse � let the matter be handled by its keepers of peace. The students� families have been roped in as well for this task of moral vigilance. Thus, the family, police, law courts, colleges and state machinery have come together in a grand design of coordinated surveillance that conflates what the prime minister has been trying to keep rhetorically apart: the �socio-cultural� and the �political�. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he maintains, is a socio-cultural, and not a political, organization.

But this vast, ancient, complex structure � much larger than just the RSS or ABVP � has a steady human gaze. Its many eyes look intently at the bodies of women. The eyes survey, Argus-like, the hair, lips, breasts, arms, hips, legs and perhaps more of strangers, daughters, sisters, pupils, colleagues, friends and subjects. They contemplate the question of exactly how much of these body parts ought to remain covered in order to protect observers from what is usually called �provocation�. The nature and history of the covering is also important. Colonial coverings provoke more than native ones; Hindu coverings less than Islamic, or sometimes confusingly, the other way round. Obviously, relations between looking and wanting are potentially unmanageable and therefore require a great deal of organization � and some force � for society not to drive itself to distraction. Hence, most of these bodies experience their sexual identities within the field of this sinister and ubiquitous vision. The gazes usually interlock in civilizing control. Only occasionally is the �provocation� reversed. And that is when, sadly, the martial arts come in useful.    

Can there be an obituary for a race or a culture? This article assumes the answer to be in the affirmative and then proceeds to write one about a particular aspect of Bengali life and culture � sports. It might appear a strange time to do this since a Bengali is captain of the Indian cricket time and a former test player is the sheriff of Calcutta. Add to this the fact that another Bengali, though emphatically not a sports personality, is railways minister and it would appear that Bengalis have never had it so good.

The reasons for the lament lie, paradoxically, in the rejoicing itself. By celebrating the success of a cricketer, Bengalis, consciously or unconsciously, are surrendering what was rightfully their own sporting turf. Cricket is not a game at which Bengalis have ever been very good. Yes, cricket in India began in Calcutta but that was a historical accident since the British empire in India started from Calcutta. When Bengalis took to the game early in the 20th century, they were treated as poor cousins and open to various kinds of insult at the hands of the English. There are no instances of English players and Bengali cricketers meeting and playing as equals.

The cricketing arena was shot through with racism. The British dominated and the Bengalis cowered and hankered after some word of approval or praise from the likes of R.B.Lagden and T.C.Longfield. A pathetic, if poignant, dimension of this encounter was articulated in Bengali cricket fans giving Bengali names to powerful English cricketers. Thus Rash Behari Lagden, Tulsi Charan Longfield, Amrita Lal Hosie and so on. It is important to remember that Bengal�s first victory in the Ranji Trophy, of which Bengali cricket lovers are still proud, was only nominally a Bengali victory since the bulk of the team consisted of white players.

Seen in the perspective of the 20th century, Bengal�s chosen game was football. It was on the football field that Bengali young men showed their skills against odds. Till the Thirties very few of them wore boots; shooting and dribbling on the slushy Maidan could not have been easy especially as the opposing white teams were all shod in boots. It is not surprising that Bengal�s first moment of glory on the sporting field is related to football. This was, of course, that remarkable victory on July 29, 1911 when Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment to lift the IFA Shield. This victory has become a defining moment in the relationship between sports and nationalism in India.

My friend Ramachandra Guha in a recent article (�Cricket and politics in colonial India,� Past and Present, Nov. 1998) has argued in favour of viewing sports �as a relational idiom, [as] a sphere of activity which expresses, in concentrated form, the values, prejudices, divisions and unifying symbols of a society�. Following this line of thinking, that victory of Mohun Bagan � coming a year after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had penned Hind Swaraj � can be seen as being imbued with some significance. The Mohun Bagan XI was by any reckoning the weaker side. Moreover, 10 out of the 11 players (only Reverend Sudhir Chatterjee wore boots ) played barefoot against a team of soldiers all of whom had boots on. It could not have been easy playing barefoot on the Calcutta maidan at the height of the monsoon. Shot-taking and passing were difficult and the chances of injuries were also greater. Both skill and courage were involved in the win.

The victory seems, in retrospect, to have been a triumph of the moral force which Gandhi extolled and advocated in Hind Swaraj. For Bengalis who had seen only a few years ago their land partitioned and their young men and women imprisoned and punished during the Swadeshi movement, the win over a white team in football seemed a moment of national pride. It appeared as some sort of recovery of dignity and self-respect in the year that Calcutta was to lose its status as the capital. It was the inherent inequality of the encounter in which the apparently weak trounced the obviously strong that made Mohun Bagan�s victory the stuff of legends.

The word legend is used somewhat advisedly. Nationalism may have been a retrospective addition to Mohun Bagan�s win. It is likely that very few of the players were imbued with a nationalistic spirit. They were all keen and good footballers who played to win irrespective of the opponent. It is not surprising to find that the youngest member of the Mohun Bagan side, Kanu Roy who played as the right winger and was then a student of Presidency College later became a deputy inspector general of the police and was notorious for torturing men and women arrested for nationalist activity.

It is significant that till the Forties virtually all the sporting heroes of Bengalis were footballers � the Bhaduri brothers, Abhilash Ghosh, Goshtho Pal, Umapati Kumar, Samad, Bolai Chatterjee, Rashid and so forth. Matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and, in the late Thirties, between either of these two teams and Mohammedan Sporting had become occasions for frenzied partisanship. Cricket came second by a long long distance. In the years just prior to independence, Nirmal Chatterjee had his brief moment of glory. In the Fifties there was Pankaj Roy who was followed by a long drought, despite the occasional and miserable appearances of Subrata Guha, Amber Roy et al.

Football legends, on the other hand, remained a part of Bengali life. Think of the affection received by players like (and this is a random list) Badru Banerjee, Sailen Manna, P.K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Arun Ghosh, Parimal Dey and so on. Equally important is another phenomenon which is an indicator of the place that football occupied in Bengali hearts. Non-Bengali footballers who won their laurels on the Maidan had a very very special niche in the hearts of Bengali football lovers. In fact, for all practical purposes, players like Venkatesh, Appa Rao, Dhanraj, Ahmed, Saleh (the famous five of East Bengal) and then Mewalal and Balaram had as big a fan following as Bengali players of their time. There was no chauvinism in the choice of football heroes.

The point being made here is not that these players played world-class football. (They probably did play better soccer than what is on display on the Maidan today.) But that they and their achievements had a more intimate connection with Bengali life than cricket. There are reasons for this. One is the lack of absence of good cricketers from Bengal: between Pankaj Roy and Sourav Ganguly there is a gap of three decades. There is, however, a deeper sociological answer.

Love for sports in Calcutta and among Bengalis was essentially a middle class � or to use the native word, bhadralok � affair. Since cricket was white dominated, the Bengali middle class turned instinctively to football. There was an element of nationalism in this preference especially following Mohun Bagan�s 1911 triumph. This middle class turned to cricket in a big way in the Fifties and Sixties.

Coincidentally, this is also the period when football acquired a real mass following and football matches between the arch rivals of the Maidan witnessed spectator violence. Eden Gardens, on the other hand, till January 1, 1967, appeared to be an oasis of peace, elegance and civility. The wheel has come full circle. Eden Gardens now sees outbreaks of violence and there is possibly a retreat of the middle class from the cricket ground to the drawing rooms and in front of television screens.

Football, a game about which Bengalis could at a time be genuinely proud and a game in which Bengalis were at the forefront at the national and Asian level, is in terminal decline on the Maidan. It has neither skill nor following. Cricket on the Maidan is also in a similar state. But there is Sourav Ganguly. He is the solitary buoy to which the sinking Bengali ego clings. Yet we rejoice.

Let there be an epitaph for football in Calcutta. That could serve as an obituary for the Bengalis as well.    


It only works if you cash �n carry

Sir � The galaxy in Bollywood should know one can�t have one�s cake and eat it too (�Security umbrella for Bollywood bigwigs�, Feb 28). It is utterly selfish on part of the industry and those who live off it to use underworld money to produce crowdpullers and then decide not to pay back the shadowy world its due. Producers are still not cash rich enough to finance films entirely shot abroad, featuring starlets who demand millions and require a change of dress with every romp around the tree. Hrithik Roshan might insist the show goes on, but discounting the helping hand of the underworld dadas is and will remain difficult for the dream merchants.

Yours faithfully,
Rahul Singhania, Calcutta

What the books foretell

Sir � It is not surprising that books written by the notorious extremist, Masood Azhar, should now be freely available in many south West Bengal districts (�Masood booklets seized�, Feb 2). This might only be the tip of the iceberg of Islamic fundamentalism in the state. One must remember that Calcutta has a bustling Muslim population. The community has a galloping growth record in other regions, particularly in the border areas. The muscle and money power of this section is evident in the increasing number of mosques and madrassas. The community receives support from the ruling party. All this makes West Bengal a perfect place for the germination of Islamic militancy.

Also, a large part of the support base of the ruling bhadraloks in the state now lies among the minority community. Hence, despite theological centres being used to undermine national interest, the ruling elite is afraid to intervene. The media, too, is fighting shy of giving a true picture of the situation.

It should be borne in mind that people suffering from intolerable poverty and caste oppression will be tempted to convert to any religion that promises a better life. So, to prevent conversion and the eventual manipulation of converts against national interests, the government and social organizations should work seriously for the economic development of the downtrodden by ensuring education, healthcare, employment and the removal of caste barriers. Otherwise, the situation in the state is bound to get worse.

Yours faithfully,
Som Dutt, Calcutta

Sir � Masood Azhar�s booklets on Islam might not have been so harmful had they not been written in Urdu. For unversed Muslims and the illiterate poor of West Bengal�s districts, this leaves enough scope for exploitation by the mullahs. Had it not been for these intermediaries, Hindu and Muslim communities would have had better chances of coexisting peacefully.

Yours faithfully,
M. Patra, Calcutta

Lingua fracas

Sir � Mamata Banerjee�s �rajyabhasha coach� might be another political stunt. But there is no denying she is the first non-Hindi speaking minister to have shown some concern for the language. Ministers from the south could follow suit and do a Banerjee for national integration.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Sir � The Haryana state government has decided to use Hindi in all official correspondence. Sadly, in West Bengal, in spite of the �amra Bangali� syndrome, English is still the language of official letters and gram panchayat pradhans� certificates.

Yours faithfully,
Prahlad Agarwala, Nadia

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