Was Gandhi a spoilsport, not readily enamoured by the mass social appeal of sport, choosing instead to concentrate on yoga and meditation? Or did
he astutely employ its wide reach during the churn that was the Independence struggle? On his death anniversary, we explore the little-known link between cricket and the Mahatma.
The Mahatma was a self-confessed "layman" who knew nothing "of such sports" and the "special rules governing them" . Yet, ironically, Gandhi's subversive non-violent rhetoric did permeate into the realm of cricket and the cricketer's life; emancipating some while making others see red mist. Illustrated below are some fascinating instances when Indian cricket couldn't duck Gandhi and how Gandhi sometimes, even if he tried to, couldn't duck cricket.
The prince-turned-pauper vs the pauper-turned prince
The Rajkumar College at Rajkot in 1880 was a training pitch for Indian princelings. Hailing from a humble background, KS Ranjit Singhji was sent to the college as an eight-year-old boy, by his wealthy adopted family. But much to their dismay, he turned out to be a backbencher, scoring more on the field than in the classroom. Ranji showed aptitude for both tennis and cricket but went on to take the latter more seriously. One of his fellow students was Gandhi.
When Gandhi first went to England as a student, "one of the three letters of introduction that he carried was to Ranji" . Cricket commentator Scyld Berry has remarked that the "eventual prince originated from a humbler background than the Mahatma, subsequent champion of the people" and that "both the prince and the self-made pauper were schooled in the sporting ethos of Rajkot and both probably went out to the world with ideas of British sportsmanship which they had internalized in College".
After Ranji and Gandhi passed out of the college, their paths crossed every now and then, although indirectly. Ranji was hostile to the Gandhian movement and when the political atmosphere started to heat up under Gandhi's influence he struggled to fend off the new spirit of nationalism. Thus he found himself marginalised.
In his Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy describes Ranji's game as an "art wholly independent of physical strength and dependent on human will and innovativeness" and he did so using his natural assets "magically born of insufficient training, physical vulnerability and what from the English point of view can only be described as effeminacy".
Although there were stark differences in their ideologies, Nandy indicates that there was a commonality between the way Gandhi and Ranji conducted themselves in their respective vocations. "Ranji's appeal and defiance of the textbooks of cricket were not different from Gandhi's appeal and Gandhian defiance of the textbooks of politics," points out Nandy. There is no surprise there, after all they went to the same school and passed out with similar orientations.
The bhadralok vs the sage of sevagram
In his lifetime, the Mahatma repeatedly hit a cul de sac when it came to charming the Bhadralok and the Marxists. While the Bhadralok didn't think highly of the support he had got from the masses, the Marxists considered him a traditionalist, vehemently dismissing his pronouncements on non-violence . Gandhi's greatest Bhadralok rival was, of course, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and by defeating the intent of his antagonist, it is widely believed, Gandhi helped cricket become the national game of India. "Had the British been thrown out of India in the violent, revolutionary way proposed by the Indian nationalist Subhas Bose rather than agreed to withdraw peacefully, football rather than cricket would have become the major game," writes Mihir Bose in A Maidan View: The Magic of Indian Cricket. As it happened, in the 1920s, when Gandhi moved the nerve-centre of Indian politics from Calcutta to western India and with the proximity of the Mahatma with the Parsis and the Gujarati capitalists, who were cricket-lovers , the game of football lost its No 1 status in India.
"The shift in political power also led to a shift in cultural influence. Hence, cricket became India's most avidly patronised sport," argues Bose. But there is another aspect to this. That the gradual damage may have been kick started a couple of years back and Gandhi might have only brought it to its fruition. In 1911, when Mohun Bagan defeated the East Yorkshire regiment in the famous IFA Shield victory, it was seen as a metaphor for a "victory of a particular style of play and of a way of a life too" and also "a reaffirmation of a moral universe in which the meek could inherit the earth," notes Nandy.
In the same year, the British shifted the Raj from Calcutta to Delhi which, some historians feel, was to avoid further humiliation at the hands of the "skillful footballers and bomb-wielding nationalists. The link between sporting prowess and militant anti-imperialism was thus undermined to be finally rent asunder by Gandhi and the Bombay capitalists," remarks Ramchandra Guha in An Anthropologist Among The Marxists.
But Vinay Lal, professor of history with the UCLA, adds a word of caution. "The observations about how the sport history of India would have been different had Subhas Bose prevailed over Gandhi should be viewed partly as a tongue-in-cheek remark and partly as a remark that deserves serious consideration since it implicitly delves into what we might call politics of knowledge. It's certainly true that Bengal is to soccer as Gujarat (or Maharashtra) is to cricket. But I still feel that it overplays the rivalry between Bose and Gandhi," he says.
Whether 1911 was actually the watershed year when cricket became a national game in India with the help of the Mahatma, or this is just a romantic notion enlarged by history stays a long-running and inconclusive debate that's has left connoisseurs of the game polarised about the exact year of the birth of cricket in India.
1917-1923 (Satyagraha, Swaraj and Cricket)
It was not until the summer of 1917 that the Mahatma began to find his political feet. Representing the tenants working on Indigo plantations, Gandhi unleashed his first satyagraha. After which he took up the cause of the farmers in Gujarat. Then, he successfully doused tensions between striking workers and textile mill owners. Owing to these small victories, Gandhi needed a larger stage. The movement also led to cordial exchanges between Hindus and Muslims and subsequently resulted in the Khilafat movement.
The life-altering political developments of these years, notes Guha, "were to cast a shadow over the cricket fields of Bombay." The Quadrangular of 1919 was played against a more tense background. That year PJ Hindu Gymkhana lifted the coveted trophy by defeating the Muslims. But due to the heated political atmosphere, there were subdued celebrations by the Hindus. "In the wake of the Khilafat campaign, Hindus and Muslims were like brothers: never before and - it has to be said - never since were the two communities on such terms of happy amity," claims Guha in A Corner of a Foreign Field.
In the months leading up to the 1920 Quadrangular, Gandhi raised his voice against untouchability. Mahatma's campaign gave a big boost to those fighting for just recognition of the Palwankar brothers - a family of Dalit cricketers - constituting Baloo, Vithal and Shivram. When the Hindu team was announced with MD Pai as captain, although Vithal and Shivram had been included in the playing eleven, their elder bother Baloo - considered the first great left-arm slow bowler of India - was dropped. In protest, Vithal and Shivram too stepped down citing the "Hindu selection committee's decision as partial with a bias in favour of caste".
Gandhians initiated a movement to gather funds for the Palwankar brothers but the Hindus played their first match against the Muslims without the brothers. However, in the second match against the Parsees, the committee included all brothers, naming Baloo vice-captain. The 1920 Quadrangular was their most substantial social victory. In the wake of Gandhi's movement, the cricket-loving public had generously supported the revolt of Vithal and Shivram.
In 1922, the Mahatma was arrested by the Raj on suspicion of inciting violence. He was sent to Yeravada jail near Poona where that year's Quadrangular was played. Poona and its Brahmins were not too receptive of Gandhi's untouchability campaign. SM Dalvi was named the captain of Poona Hindus, Vithal and Shivram challenged the prejudice once again to no avail. Predictably, the Hindus lost in the Quadrangular that year. And when the tournament came back to Bombay next year, the PJ Hindu Gymkhana committee decided to include the Palwankar brothers. Vithal played a captain's knock in the final to help his team clinch the Quadrangular and on his way back to the pavilion "was carried on the shoulders of the Hindus belonging to the so-called higher castes" .
1929-1946 (Civil disobedience movement vs the quadrangular = defeat of Gandhi)
After a relatively lull period, Vallabhbhai Patel, on the direction of Gandhi, launched a no-tax campaign. Amidst the rising anti-British feeling, the Quadrangular was still played in 1929. But in 1930, as Gandhi picked up a fistful of salt to "shake the foundations of British empire," the MCC tour of India and the Quadrangular was called off. In fact, till 1933 no Quadrangular was held due to the Civil Disobedience movement. In 1932, yielding to BR Ambedkar's demands and against Gandhi's wishes, the British announced a "Communal Award whereby untouchables would be chosen for the legislature from a separate electorate composed only of themselves." Gandhi decided to fast unto death in protest. With Ambedkar sticking to his stand and Gandhi's health deteriorating, Baloo, the former cricketer-turned-leader of the Dalits successfully mediated between the two leaders.
After the Quadrangular resumed in 1934 after a five-year gap, there were fervent calls from Gandhians to stop the tournament. Their argument was that if the Muslims had a separate cricket team, it justified their demand for a separate nation. While the Gandhians clamoured for inclusive nationalism, the Bombay Quadrangular turned into a Pentagular in 1937 with the inclusion of the Rest consisting of Indian Christians, Buddhists and the Jews. But the tournament's organisers couldn't escape the pressures of the world for too long. With the growing divide between the Congress and Muslim League and World War II, they had to pay attention to off-field events.
The Congress reiterated its stand on the 1940 Pentagular while the League lent its full support for the annual carnival to go on. CK Nayudu, the Hindu player, and 21 others called "for the tournament to be stopped for this year only" . In a dilemma over whether to participate in the tournament or not, three delegates from the PJ Hindu Gymkhana decided to travel to the ashram in Wardha to seek the advice of the Mahatma. It was described as Gandhi's "most direct, considerate and consequential intervention in the world of cricket" . The Mahatma released a statement: "I would discountenance such amusements at a time when the whole of the thinking world should be mourning over a war." He said that it was beyond his comprehension to have communal elevens in a cricket tournament. The Hindus withdrew from the tournament that year while the rest of the teams played. The Hindus changed their mind the following year. The Mahatma didn't. He reiterated his stand: "I retain the same opinion as before. I'm utterly opposed to communalism in everything but much more so in sport."
But the pro-Pentagular versus the anti-Pentagular tuss
le was a fight among equals; full of oscillating advantage, punch and counter-punch. And in 1941, the pro-Pentagular cohort won it hands down. Not so next year, though, when Gandhi after the breakdown of the Cripps mission passed a resolution for the British to Quit India. It was to 'spoil the fun' for the last time as Gandhi failed to play 'spoilsport' ever again and the tournament continued until before partition. As Guha puts it succinctly: "Neither cricket nor Gandhi could stop it" : the creation of Pakistan.