Mohun Bagan and the fight for Indian independence

Mohun Bagan and the fight for Indian independence

In 1911, Mohun Bagan, an all-Indian team from Kolkata, captured the hearts of the nation when they won the IFA Shield. The IFA Shield was a football tournament created for English troops stationed in India and Mohun’s victory became proof that the English colonialists were no more human than they. In a strange interplay between football and politics, the IFA Shield became a battleground for the hearts of the Indian people.

Mohun’s victory was about freedom; it was about liberation and most importantly it was about pride. It was payback to colonial rulers who had, in the eyes of Indian nationalists, mistreated, abused and ignored the pleas of the Indian people.

Since the early 18th century, Indians had been rebelling against English influence in their homeland and by 1911 tensions were beginning to erupt. Nationalist movements had sprung up around the colony, with scathing tomes being written about the evils of English imperialism which imposed European standards to a land with greatly different values.

Despite the growing mistrust and outright hatred of English rule, Indian nationalists had quickly familiarized themselves with football, which had been brought by English troops to the colony in the mid-1860s. Indeed by the 1880s, the game was being presented by Indian nationalists as a means of improving their physical prowess, reasserting their masculinity and fighting colonialism.

Stemming from the game’s increasing popularity, effects were made in the latter half of the 19th century to create a football club run by and for Indian footballers. It was seen by many as the first step to effectively challenge the imperialists at their own game and in line with these aspirations, 1889 saw Mohun Bagan, the first Asian football club, established in Kolkata.

The first decade of Mohun’s existence saw the club slowly expand its membership and influence in the Kolkata region. Creating a club from scratch was laborious work and although Mohun experienced some success in local tournaments, they often struggled to attract star players. They were self-funded and self-organized but most importantly, they were self-motivated. Mohun was no mere social club; it was a vehicle for Indian nationalism. The hundreds of man hours put into the club was testament to Mohun’s elevated status amongst her members.

At the dawn of the 20th century, it became clear that the hard work was paying off. In 1904, the club won its first trophy, the Cooch Behar Cup. The following year, in 1905, it successfully defended the trophy and even picked up victories in the Trades Cup and Gladstone Cup. Soon, English administrators based in India began to take notice of Mohun.

In 1906, Mohun were invited to play in the IFA Shield, signifying a remarkable progression for the club. The IFA Shield had been created in India in 1893 to allow English teams to compete against each other and was a strictly English affair. Mohun’s invitation represented a seminal moment in the history of Indian football. Indian teams were beginning to gain respect from the English sports’ bodies.

Unfortunately for Mohun, however, success against Indian teams did not equate to success against the English.

The transition to the IFA Shield proved much more difficult than anyone would have envisioned. Mohun first five years in the Shield saw them suffer defeat after defeat giving rise to claims that Indian footballers would never be able to match the English. Questions began to be raised about whether Mohun should compete in the Shield at all. Sensing that the tide was turning against them, Mohun reached out for help.

In 1911, the club approached Shibdas Bhaduri with the difficult task of organizing a team capable of winning the IFA Shield. Bhaduri himself was an almost mythical player in India, known for his incredible vision and ability to beat opposition defenders with ease. It was no coincidence Bhaduri’s nickname was Pichol Babu or ‘The Slippery Man’. When Bhaduri agreed to join the Mohun movement, the club knew that its fortunes were improving.

The IFA Shield began on July 10, 1911, and unsurprisingly given their past performances, no one expected much from Mohun. Opinion soon began to change.

Despite the lack of support from English and Indian fans alike, Mohun’s first match in the Shield saw them defeat St. Xavier’s College 3-0, a victory that was soon followed by a 2-1 win over Rangers Football Club. The win over Rangers marked a sea change in opinion. Indian fans were beginning to realise that Mohun were no longer the whipping boys of the tournament.

It wasn’t so much the scoreline but the nature of Mohun’s victory over Rangers that saw support flock in from around the country for the Kolkata side. During the match, Rangers had been awarded three penalties but amazingly, Bagan goalie Hiralal Mukherjee had saved them all. Mukherjee was depicted as a hero, and Mohun as a team gaining great momentum. Two shock victories saw Bagan on their way to the quarter-finals of the IFA Shield and no one could quite believe it.

When Bagan dispatched a highly fancied Riffle Brigade team 1-0 in the quarters, it became clear that something special was unfolding. Mohun’s fine run of form was nearly halted in the semi-finals when the 1st Middlesex Regiment held the Kolkata side to a 1-1 draw. During the game, Mohun had struggled to match the physicality and skill of the English side and when the teams lined out for the replay a few days later, little hope was held out for Mohun.

Few could believe it, then, when Mohun beat the English side 3-0 to secure their first ever appearance in the finals. Driven on by Shibdas Bhaduri and the roars of the home crowd, Mohun had begun the match at a frantic pace, dogged in attack and defence. When the referee put a close to the match at ninety minutes, the general consensus was that Mohun could have scored even more goals.

Coverage of Mohun in the local papers now depicted them as a fighting unit in India’s struggle for freedom. Their clashes against English sides were a rallying cry for ‘Vande Mataram’, the Motherland. When the day of the IFA Final came on July 29, 1911, Mohun’s support had reached a fever pitch.

Over 60,000 football fans squeezed into the Calcutta Maidan stadium to see Mohun Bagan face off against the East Yorkshire Regiment. The Indians lined out in bare feet and shabby clothes. The English came out in clean shirts, clean shorts and clean boots. The contrast between the sides was almost farcical.

Within the first few moments of the match, Jackson had put the English side ahead with a curling free kick into the top corner. A silence fell across the crowd. Remarkably Mohun seemed to rally almost immediately. Within five minutes, Bhaduri had levelled the game.

The next 50 minutes saw both Mohun and the East Yorkshire Regiment slug it out in a desperate attempt to secure a winning goal. Neither side could break through leading to increasingly erratic passes, shots and crosses. The Indians were fighting for their nation, the English for the status quo.

Two minutes from time, Bhaduri broke down the field and with the Yorkshire team on the back foot, delivered a sweet cross to Abhilas Ghosh who thundered the ball into the back of the English net. Mohun 2, Yorkshire 1. When the referee blew his whistle, the stadium erupted in celebration.

English newspaper, Reuters noted: “When it was known that the East Yorkshire Regiment had been defeated by two goals to one the scene beggared description, the Bengalees began tearing off their shirts and waving them. The members of the Muslim Sporting Club were almost mad and rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren.”

The Englishman said: “Mohan Bagan has succeeded in what the Congress and the Swadeshiwallas have failed to do so far to explode the myth that the British are unbeatable in any sphere of life.”

If Mohun’s victory was greeted with jubilation amongst Indian fans, it was met with dejection in European circles. A humourist in the Hitavadi, writing under the nom-de-plume of ‘an old man’ reported that:

“On the semi-final day, when an Englishman and a native Christian were traveling together in the same railway compartment, the latter, in all innocence, enquired of his companion the result of the day’s contest, to which the only reply he received was a slap on the cheek.”

Mohun’s victory was about so much more than football. It was a victory for Indian nationalism and is still remembered fondly to this day. Every July 29 is Mohun Bagan Day in India; a day football fans from across the country remember the heroics of Shibdas Bhaduri and his bare-footed compatriots.

By Conor Heffernan @PhysCstudy

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