Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory on this day 112 years earlier was much more than a sporting milestone, it gave a colonised nation spine and pride

“You have now beaten the English on the sporting field. When will you help bring down the flag fluttering there?” asked a Brahmin clad all in white of Reverend Krishnamohan Chatterjee, one of the stars of the victory, pointing to the Union Jack fluttering over Fort William, the headquarters of the British garrison in Calcutta.

The 29th of July 1911, 112 years ago. The IFA Shield Final. The Calcutta maidan. Mohun Bagan vs East Yorkshire Regiment. Mohun Bagan lost the toss and was placed towards Eden Garden and East York towards Fort William. The atmosphere was electric. For days, there had been no conversation in Bengal other than the upcoming final. Thousands of people thronged from far away Patna, Purnia, Kishanganj, Assam, and Dhaka to watch the match. The East Indian Railway arranged special trains. Special steamers were arranged to bring people from Rayganj and Baranagar. There were traffic jams near the High Court and Strand Road. For the first time, tickets were sold in black. About 80,000 to 100,000 people arrived to watch the game. People watched from treetops, telegraph posts and terraces of houses.

For it was more than football that was being played that day. This was the culmination of the Swadeshi Movement that had engulfed Bengal since 1905, when Lord Curzon had partitioned Bengal, and against which decision Hindus and Muslims had fought side by side. The political climate of Bengal had effected a change in Bengali attitudes towards European sports like soccer. Initiated by Indian nationalists to protest the partition decision and to encourage the youth to turn self-sufficient, soccer assumed the form of a cultural weapon to reassert hurt Bengali masculinity and fight British imperialism.

Mohun Bagan’s captain was Shibdas Bhaduri, and East Yorkshire’s Sergeant Jackson. The match’s playing time was 50 minutes with a break of five minutes in between. The Bengali players played barefoot, while the British played with spurs. Bagan began the game aggressively, but could not score. In the 15th minute of the second half, Sergeant Jackson lobbed the ball to score the first goal. But five minutes later, Shibdas Bhaduri equalled. And eventually, after a relentless tug of war, Abhilash Ghosh scored after grabbing a quick pass from Shibdas with just two minutes left. The Shield was Bagan’s. The ground erupted. Calcutta erupted. Reuters noted in its cablegram of 30 July 1911 to England that ‘the scene beggared description, the Bengalees tearing off their shirts and waving them’. Mussalman wrote: ‘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 empire had to sit up and take note.

Mohun Bagan’s win is one of the most commented upon events in Indian sporting history. Now in its 112th year, almost every Indian sports enthusiast takes legitimate pride in reckoning that this sporting success was a historic milestone not only in the history of Indian sport, but in that of Indian nationalism as well. The victory fired the imagination of the whole nation. The Englishman’s comment on the win sums up its political importance: ‘Mohun Bagan has succeeded in what the Congress and the swadeshiwallas have failed to do so far to explode the myth that the Britishers are unbeatable in any sphere of life.’ Basumati, a leading Bengali journal, expressed similar sentiments: ‘The Congress playroom has been blown off by one blast like a house of cards. Revered leaders like Surendranath (Banerjee) have not been able to unite their adherents by the tie of unity. In a country where union takes place only to dissolve, where repulsion is more powerful than attraction, you have been able to knit together so many hearts.’ The victory destroyed the myth of British invincibility not only in the eyes of Bengalis, but in that of Indians in other provinces as well.

Contemporary newspapers made it a point to glorify the victory as a triumph of Indian physical prowess over that of Europeans. Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote that mental and physical strength was ‘an integral quality of the Bengalees’ and urged the Europeans not to consider them ‘non-martial’ anymore. Mussalman commented: ‘The victory…has demonstrated that Indians are second to none in all manly games.’ Nayak, yet another newspaper, pointed out that this victory would fill ‘every Indian with joy and pride to know that rice-eating, malaria-ridden bare-footed Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating, Herculean, booted John Bull in that peculiarly English sport’. The Times of India reported: ‘On Thursday and Friday. every Bengalee carried his head high and the one theme of conversation in the tramcars, in offices, and in those places where the babus congregate most, was the rout of the King’s soldiers in boots and shoes by barefooted Bengali lads.’

The victory inspired communal harmony as well. As the team’s victory procession was on its way to the Thanthania Kali Temple in North Calcutta, local Muslims rushed to Dharmatala with a band party to join the procession. In fact, they even led the rally beating drums and other musical instruments.

The commercial world too could not remain unaffected. Businessmen widely used the magic of the club’s name. The Standard Cycle Company (59, Harrison Road) distributed halftone photographs of the victorious team in collaboration with Amrita Bazar Patrika with copies of the newspaper on 31 July 1911. Messrs Hald & Chat (79, Ahiritolla Street), leading dealers in musical instruments in Calcutta, declared on the occasion of an Indian team’s Shield victory their offer of harmoniums at 10 per cent discount for two months. The most attractive commercial utilisation of Mohun Bagan’s victory was, however, accomplished by the Great National Theatre (9/3, Beadon Street) that advertised its latest production Baji Rao with the tagline: ‘Mohun Bagan has won the Shield! Baji Rao has gained the victory.’

Mohun Bagan’s victory contributed to football’s increased currency not only as a unique cultural identity, but also as a unitary social force, and transformed its status from a relatively unimportant leisure pastime to an important cultural institution with redefined socio-political meanings. Despite relative neglect, 1911 is an immortal event in the history of Indian sport, one that should, on the occasion of its 112th anniversary, be drawn upon to rejuvenate a dying footballing scenario in India today.

On 11 December 1911, the British Raj bowed to the Swadeshi Movement by rescinding the partition and shifting the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. And as for the flag fluttering over Fort William? The story went that it would come down only once Bagan won the Shield next. That too proved true. Bagan won the Shield next in 1947.

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