For once, the Kolkata derby — a century old rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and the most anticipated fixture in Indian football — took centre stage not because of what transpired on the pitch, but a clear statement made by the fans of both clubs. It was a display that reminded us why this is a sport of and for the masses, for reasons that are grounded in history and politics more than some abstract notion of “passion for the game”.
The match, played at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan (or Salt Lake Stadium) in the West Bengal capital, became a venue for the capacity crowd of over 63,000 fans to come together and register their protest against legislation, policies and future programmes of the BJP government at the centre. The two groups of fans normally behave like warring factions. The divide is as wide as the Padma River and uncrossable, metaphorically, in normal times. But then, despite what you may hear from the seat of power, these are anything but ordinary times.
Protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the (NRC) National Register of Citizens provided the backdrop for the match with a section of East Bengal fans unfurling tifos, showcasing their stance against the discriminatory and anti-constitutional policies of the central government.
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“Rakta diye kina mati, kagaz diye noy (a paper cannot replace a land acquired through blood),” read a banner written in Bengali.
More banners were unfurled much before the match began. One featured a popular Bengali comic strip character — Batul the Great — protesting against NRC and CAA. “‘Pala, pala, pala NRC asche (go away the NRC is coming)’, it said. In another display: “You Bangal, where are the NRC papers”, a character says, while Batul responds “go away”.
Mohun Bagan fans were also equally creative in expressing their protest. “When we were here, there were no documents,” read one of the banners.
The message from Bagan’s fans was to serve as a reminder that the club played a proud role in India’s movement for independence from British rule. The 1911 victory over the all-white East Yorkshire Regiment team in the IFA Shield was a watershed moment in the history of Indian football. It was the first time a club with Indian players defeated a British side. “Saffron Brits beware! We taught India to fight the British. Never forget,” read the banner.
East Bengal, as a club, has its history rooted in an immigrant population, post partition, and the fight against descrimination and struggle to gain their rights, including the right to play. The fans believe that the struggle is still on, 73 years on.
“Traditionally the majority of the fan base of East Bengal comes from the immigrant population from Bangladesh who were forced to leave their home during the partition of 1947. Time and again we are mocked saying we will be among the first to show the papers for NRC. There is a lot of cyberbullying around this as we are called Bangladeshis and asked to get out of social media platforms,” one of the EB fans was quoted by the Indian Express.
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“This banner is our answer and sign of strength to all those who question our love for this nation,” he added. “Our peaceful gesture was also appreciated by Mohun Bagan fans because it truly touched everyone’s hearts.”
For the record, Bagan defeated East Bengal 2-1 in the derby, which was significant in footballing terms too. This would be the second last time the two clubs face each other in the I-League. Bagan has merged with ATK and will be playing in the new and cash-driven Indian Super League (ISL) from next season, while East Bengal is also looking for sponsors to make it into what is now the top tier of Indian domestic football. This would mark an end of an era in Indian football. It is widely considered that the joining of the legacy clubs — Bagan and EB — into the franchise league system of the ISL, will dilute the values, history and legacy that these community establishments stand for.
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