This Sunday evening, football will temporarily reclaim the lion’s share in Bengali chit-chats as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the two most-decorated football clubs of the country lock horns in Siliguri in a potential title-deciding I-League clash.
This intriguing sporting rivalry, inarguably the biggest involving two Indian sides, have divided the Bengali population on sub-regional fault-lines for the last 92 years and continue to do so, even though the fanfare around this tie has dwindled to an extent.
The seeds of this long-standing rivalry was sown way back in 1920. Sailesh Basu, a renowned player hailing from the Vikrampur region of Dacca (now known as Dhaka), was excluded from the starting XI of Jorabagan Club in a key Coochbehar Cup tie, allegedly because of his ethnicity. This triggered him to set up a new club, which will represent the interests of the immigrants coming from East Bengal, whose prominence in football and other public spheres were derided by a section of old settlers of the region.
East Bengal’s birth and subsequent rivalry
The birth of the East Bengal club was a result of this initiative. The Bangals, as the immigrants were called, finally had an entity to express their ethnic choices in a hostile environment miles away from their home. Mohun Bagan, the club that had given birth to a nationalist movement in 1911 with their famous IFA Shield victory, on the other hand, was run and supported by Ghotis, the West Bengalis. A rivalry was always on the cards.
Contrary to the popular beliefs that probably put too much weightage on the socio-economic back-drop, the first time these two teams found themselves at loggerheads was regarding a key footballing decision. Even though the Mariners’ Shield victory strengthened local teams’ claim to have more slots in the premier competitions, only two Indian teams were allowed in the first division of the league, with Mohun Bagan and Aryan being the regular occupants during the first years of the 1920’s.
Something interesting happened in the second division league of 1924. Police AC finished as the champions but with the freedom movement getting more intense every passing day, they decided that playing in the top division will be too big a distraction for the force. Second placed Cameron’s B was not to be promoted because their A team was already part of the top flight league. This meant that the Red and Golds were to be promoted, becoming the third Indian club in the first division. This, of course, required an amendment to the constitution of Indian Football Association (IFA).
While the governing body gave East Bengal the go-ahead with all English teams supporting the move, they had to reverse the decision only a week later under intense pressure from Mohun Bagan and Aryan. Protesting this U-turn, the European sides threatened to pull out of the competition.
This remains one of the weirdest moments of Indian football history, where the inclusion of a 5-year old Indian team in the top-tier league was protested vehemently by fellow Bengalis while the Europeans were hell-bent on giving them a chance.
While East Bengal was finally accorded a place in the league, this crack between the two teams was never to be papered over. Very soon, the new club asked for a ground of their own and Charles Tegart, the infamous police officer of the city, asked them to share Mohun Bagan’s ground, irking the Green and Maroons even more.
When the two teams met for the first time later in 1925, it marked the commencement of a sporting rivalry which still draws lakhs to the ground. In the late 19th century and the early years of the 1900’s, Mohun Bagan versus Calcutta Football Club used to be the marquee clash of Indian football due to its nationalist undertone, but the new sub-regional rivalry between ‘Bangals’ and ‘Ghotis’ surpassed it soon, becoming the bedrock of Indian football.
An ever-changing rivalry
After partition, with millions of Hindus migrating from what was then named as East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), East Bengal received a massive boost to their fan-base. Millions of immigrants, who were striving for economic stability and were reeling from the grief of losing their homes, found in the club an avenue to have their voices heard in the public sphere.
The political parties also got entangled in this footballing war, with the Communists’ support for the refugees making them popular among the Red and Golds while many Green and Maroon supporters were part of Congress Party’s core vote-bank.
As football historian Kaushik Bandhopadhyay had noted, it was quite unlikely to find a communist party worker in the seventies who supported Mohun Bagan openly. All this inimitable fanfare started waning after the turn of the century.
As marriages between Bangal and Ghotis became increasingly common, the difference in dialect, rituals and food habits shrunk.
The overall deterioration of footballing standards in the country, the two clubs’ inability to grapple with commercialization of sports, popularity of European leagues and fanaticism around cricket courtesy Sourav Ganguly’s success – all these sporting reasons also played a role in local football losing its prominence in Bengali psyche.
With many other pillars of Bengali identity also facing grave existential crisis nowadays, the Kolkata derby this weekend will once again serve as a reminder on how the community can cling on to its ethnic inheritance.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.