Mahatma Gandhi And Cricket: The Untold Story

Mahatma Gandhi And Cricket: The Untold Story

Cover of Kausik Bandyopadhyay's book Mahatma on the Pitch

When Gandhi was fighting the cause of Indians in South Africa, one lower-caste Hindu named Palwankar Baloo was making an unusual effort to break the barriers of caste-ridden society on the field of cricket. Baloo was a chamar by caste; yet, he rose to play for the Hindus from the late 1890s and became a part of the first Indian team to visit England in 1911. Despite prejudices and oppositions from quarters of upper-caste Hindus, Baloo became an indispensable cricketer by his sheer merit. He had to face severe discrimination off the pitch in the early years of his struggle. Nationalist leaders like Ranade and Tilak praised him in public and many had already begun to consider him the best Indian bowler of the time. As Ramachandra Guha commented, 'By virtue solely of his deeds on the cricket field, Baloo had become a hero and inspiration to countless Untouchables.' Baloo's three younger brothers - Shivram, Vithal and Ganpat - were soon to join him to play for the Hindus in the Quadrangular cricket. The Palwankar brothers began to make headlines in Indian cricket from 1913 onwards. However, Baloo was denied captaincy by the Hindu Gymkhana time and again and at times dropped from the team for his low caste status. This was a time when Gandhi had just returned from South Africa, and was yet to raise his voice against untouchability.

The political situation of India became volatile by 1919. Gandhi followed up his successful campaigns at Champaran, Kheda and Ahmedabad with a more assertive satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre prompted Gandhi to launch his Non-Cooperation Movement which he integrated with the Khilafat Movement, leading to the strengthening of Hindu-Muslim unity and joint demonstrations by them. The Quadrangular of 1919 witnessed Baloo once again being deprived of a just captaincy. By the time the next Quadrangular started, Gandhi's stand against untouchability became pronounced: 'Untouchability is a crime against God and humanity.' Gandhi's attack on untouchability was steadily making an impact on the people: 'My conscience tells me that untouchability can never be a part of Hinduism. I do not think it too much to dedicate my whole life to removing the thick crust of sin with which Hindu society has covered itself for so long by stupidly regarding these people as untouchables.' Against this backdrop, Baloo was dropped from the team and D.B. Deodhar was preferred to Shivram and Vithal to substitute M.D. Pai as captain after the latter's illness forced his withdrawal from the first match. In protest, the Palwankar brothers resigned from the team. However, things were finally restored to honour after one match and the three brothers were recalled. Baloo, being appointed the vice-captain, was given a chance to lead the team in the absence of Pai during the second innings of the Parsis in the final. It was also around this time that Gandhi became more categorical about his critique of untouchability, linking it with the achievement of swaraj. As he asked, 'Do we hope to win swaraj while reviving the practice of untouchability at the same time?' Or he exclaimed: 'The effort to win swaraj while clinging to the sin of untouchability, a load of dirt, is like the attempt to throw dust up at the sky.' In such context, argues Ramachandra Guha, 'He (Gandhi) never watched Baloo bowl or Vithal bat, but his campaign against Untouchability emboldened the Palwankars and their followers to fight more openly for their rights.'

Excerpted with permission of Rupa Publications India from Mahatma on the Pitch by
Kausik Bandyopadhyay. Pre-order your copy here.

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