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National test

The Maidan is a much diminished turf these days. Mohammedan Sporting, too, is a transformed entity: players from all religions have been donning the black and white jersey for years now

Uddalak Mukherjee Published 29.05.24, 07:19 AM
Spectators at the Mohammedan Sporting Club ground.

Spectators at the Mohammedan Sporting Club ground. Sourced by the Telegraph

Cricket and politics, the pundits agree, are the twin magnets that draw the attention of ordinary Indians. May and April, by this logic, would have been demanding months for the aam aadmi, with the general elections and the Indian Premier League competing for their eyeballs. It would thus be safe to assume that a tiny tempest in a teacup — the shape of a football field — may have eluded the attention and the commentary that it deserves.

Last month, Mohammedan Sporting, once a constituent of Calcutta football’s ‘Big Three’, was crowned the champion of the I-League, the second tier of the country’s football league system. This heartening triumph has now opened the doors of the Indian Super League, the sibling that now eclipses the I-League, for the club that had been struggling in the shadows for a while. Mohammedan Sporting went on to lift the trophy even though it lost its final match at the Salt Lake Stadium in Calcutta. However, what raised the aforementioned storm — based on footage of dubious veracity as it turned out — was the apparent ‘sighting’ of the Palestinian flag in the stands with at least one newspaper mentioning the ‘incident’. Things seemingly quietened down after the news report was redacted.


But curated — dodgy — information, as is often the case, has an afterlife on social media. So the chatter continued on a Reddit discussion board. The comments — hostile, toxic — made by an overwhelming number of participants on Reddit were illuminating in their conflation of the Palestinian flag and Mohammedan Sporting’s supporters with the Muslim identity. The general consensus was that ‘these people’ — presumably Muslims — would not come to India’s aid if the nation were to ever face a calamity like the one that is now confronting Palestine.

This seamless association of the Muslim identity and attendant anxieties with Mohammedan Sporting represents a continuum of sorts. Those growing up in the Seventies and the Eighties in the ‘Mecca’ of football — Calcutta — would perhaps remember that while there could be the occasional, rare finding of an East Bengal supporter in a ghoti clan or, conversely, a Mohun Bagan aficio­nado in a bangal family, support for Mohammedan Sporting amidst the city’s Hindu constituency, upper caste or subaltern, was negligible, if not non-existent. This is despite the fact that the team in black and white had begun drafting non-Muslim players in its squad from the 1960s. Ironically, in communist Bengal, neighbourhood discussions on sporting fixtures involving Mohammedan Sporting and its two other ‘Hindu’ rivals would often evoke condescending remarks concerning the lumpen traits in Mohammedan Sporting’s rank and file, the sneering symbolic of both class and religious prejudice.

This Othering, as has been noted by sports historians and scholars, cannot be delinked from the fractious, tumultuous, communal circumstances that accompanied Mohammedan Sporting’s birth and rise to prominence. As Ronojoy Sen notes in his book, Nation At Play, in the early years of the twentieth century, “The crowds that thronged to see Mohammedan Sporting were made up of young [Muslim] men as well as older maulvis and maulanas. One Jan Muhammad would occasionally yell ‘Allah-u-Akbar,’ thereby galvanising Mohammedan’s supporters.” Having defeated Mohun Bagan in a match in 1935, Calcutta’s Mohammedans, to paraphrase Sen’s text, made merry by lighting fireworks, releasing pigeons and floating balloons. This seemingly sectarian solidarity was, without a doubt, a response to the deepening communal chasms in the politics of Bengal and the nation as India inched towards Partition. Interestingly, while identity shaped — splintered — the followers of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, its impact on Mohammedan Sporting was different. This is because identity, in this instance, helped the then Muslim society, by no account a monolithic entity, coalesce around a football club, thereby bridging the fault lines inherent to the community. There is even a case to argue, as Sen does in his book, that the historiography of Indian football has not been immune to polarising sentiments. For instance, Mohun Bagan lifting the IFA Shield in 1911 is deservedly mentioned as a shining spectacle in the nationalist awakening. Yet, Mohammedan Sporting’s phenomenal run in the Calcutta League — it won the competition on five consecutive occasions in the Thirties with its cosmopolitan, albeit Muslim, recruits — a tournament that was arguably far more competitive than the IFA Shield, remains a footnote in the nationalist project.

Yet, it had been a different ball game just a few years back.

The Muslim community’s receptivity towards, indeed joyousness at, Mohun Bagan’s success in 1911 had been documented, Sen writes, by The Mussalman, a Muslim weekly: “The members of the Mohammedan Sporting Club were almost mad and rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren.” This only goes to show that attempts — old or new — to interpret Mohammedan Sporting’s history and accomplishments through the narrow prism of religious identity are reductive. The communalisation of India’s polity and social fabric, augmented by the Muslim League’s shenanigans, the Hindu right-wing’s reciprocal response, as well as the Congress’s failure to counter these engineered divisions left a long shadow on Calcutta’s Maidan.

The Maidan is a much diminished turf these days. Mohammedan Sporting, too, is a transformed entity: players from all religions have been donning the black and white jersey for years now. Yet, in a sense, the arc of history has come full circle with Mohammedan Sporting’s elevation to India’s premier domestic league. This is because the club’s resurgence coincides with a political project to furrow lines of division along the nation’s body politic. Some may argue that the ISL, the fief of corporates and market forces, is the great purgatory of identity-based club football. In fact, countless supporters of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are of the view that the indigenous roots and the rituals of these two footballing institutions — a yearning for local footballers, insularity, a provincial temperament, the fetishisation of identity, semi-professionalism are some of the hallmarks of the latter — have been vastly emaciated by the ISL. So it would not be long before the demands of commerce dent Mohammedan Sporting’s ability — willingness — to remain tethered to its core, minority identity.

Could it be that such a (guilty) line of reasoning is akin to insulating the soul from the pinch of conscience? A truly representative India, which has honoured its constitutional vision, would not lose sleep over the resurrection of a football club with a pronounced tilt towards the Muslim identity and history. But if it does lose sleep, the anxiety of the nation can surely be attributed to the zeitgeist.

Mohammedan Sporting’s performance in the ISL would be of secondary importance compared to India’s response to the club’s presence in the feted league. Would the club’s support base widen and diversify? Would it command a loyalty that transcends the confines of faith-based identity? This will be a test for the fractured nation, as much as for the club.

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