The Impact Of Mahatma Gandhi On Indian Cricket

Published: September 22, 2017 18:52 IST
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Mahatma Gandhi and cricket are two of India's biggest global emblems. While Gandhi remains India's most enduring global icon well into the twenty-first century, cricket, the country's most assertive national obsession, has become India's most celebrated global brand along with Bollywood since the last decades of the twentieth century. Both have attracted tons of writings over the years, but the connection between Gandhi and cricket has not been explored with much acumen.

At first sight, a straightforward narrative of Gandhi's life, drawing on his own autobiography and the hundreds of available biographies, points to the futility of forcing the man onto the sports/cricket field for the sake of writing a book. Yet, Gandhi's lack of interest in, and general indifference to, modern sports, and his absence from the games field do not in any way preclude the reciprocal impact - both real and virtual - that Gandhi and cricket have had upon themselves and upon the nation.

The life and afterlife of Gandhi coincides with cricket's evolution as an Indian game. While the real occasions of meeting between Gandhi and cricket alias sport were very few - he probably never played or watched the game beyond his schooldays - the connections in terms of reciprocal impact were more intimate. This was because politics and sports go hand in hand in modern India. The points of convergence and conflict between Gandhi and cricket, therefore, merit attention and exploration. Mahatma on the Pitch is an attempt to identify these points of convergence and conflict.

In this book, I set out some intriguing questions concerning the fascinating relationship between Gandhi and cricket: Did Gandhi ever play cricket? Did cricket ever figure in the Gandhian world of thought? What views did the most important man in the history of India's freedom struggle have on the game that dominates Indian national consciousness in the twenty-first century? Were there any connections between Gandhi and cricket during the high tide of the national movement? Did Gandhi or his ideas make any impact on the game? Did he ever oppose the cause of cricket? Did cricket ever invoke Gandhi and his ideology after his death?

These questions may seem as remote as Gandhi's tryst with cricket! Mahatma on the Pitch seeks answers to these apparently quirky questions by exploring the intriguing rendezvous between two of the most enduring phenomena of modern India: Mahatma Gandhi, probably the greatest Indian icon of the twentieth century and Indian cricket, arguably the most assertive Indian national emblem in the twenty-first-century world.

The story begins with Gandhi's sporting pursuit in his childhood/schooldays in Rajkot and goes on to explore the illusions of a sporting Gandhi, who played little but observed, told or wrote a bit about sports in general and cricket, in particular. Then it takes a look at cricket's evolution in India and its tryst with Gandhi and his ideas and actions, and shows how his anti-colonial mass politics, his unending fight against untouchability, and his lifelong struggle to restore communal amity affected Indian cricket on a serious note. 

The book takes a twist at Gandhi's most significant comment on cricket against the 'communal' Bombay Pentangular tournament in 1940 - akin to a political straight drive, amply reflecting his uncompromising stand on the question of communal amity in India on the one hand and the politicization of sport on the other. The public response and reaction to Gandhi's stand against the Pentangular generated remained an intriguing chapter in the history of politics, communalism and sport in India, which the book tries to unravel. While the abolition of the Pentangular might have vindicated Gandhi's verdict on it, its death was ensured by the virus of communal politics which made the Partition of India inevitable despite Gandhi's best efforts. The book winds up with cricket's status in the context of Gandhi's afterlife and memorialization. 

The ideas and impacts of the British imperial ethic, nationalism, racialism, politics, caste movement, untouchability, communalism, regionalism, urbanity, commercialism, and so on, come into play in weaving the threads of the story. In the process, rereading Gandhi's comments on Bombay Pentangular cricket in 1940, it brings into focus how the most important icon of our national movement viewed the most important sport of twenty-first century India.

Gandhi is arguably the most globalized icon of India, as is cricket among Indian sports. Yet, given his distinctive life, religion, ideas and actions, the Gandhian world is far removed from the world of Indian cricket which has come to imply commerce, politics, religion and life to more than a billion Indians, albeit in a completely different sense. The divine image of Gandhi has almost had a replication in the deification of Sachin Tendulkar as a cricketing God. Whatever be the connections between the Mahatma and the game during his lifetime or after, both are integral to reimagining the Indian nation in the new century. Had Gandhi been alive, he might have been the happiest person on this planet to see cricket's becoming of a great unifier of hearts in independent India, irrespective of class, caste, religion, language, ethnicity or region, albeit with an Indian revolution fundamentally transforming the world of cricket in the new century. Gandhi and cricket, thus, remain globally, two of India's most enduring images, phenomena and legacies that bind the nation strongly. And they are here to stay for years to come.

(Kausik Bandyopadhyay teaches History at West Bengal State University. His latest book is 'Mahatma On the Pitch'.)

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