Friday, January 29, 2010

Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Cricket History Jamnagar Rajkot Gujarat

Was Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi more of a sport than we know?

Drawing room conversation among a few sports aficionados the other day became the springboard for this article. Discussion predictably veered towards the current imbroglio involving the (non) auction of Pakistan cricketers for this season's IPL, and whether timely political intervention would have helped or worsened the situation. As invariably happens on such occasions, in the absence of any clear answers, the issue acquired academic intensity and crossed back and forth over many decades in time.

"How would somebody like Mahatma Gandhi have reacted in such a situation?" asked someone. "He wouldn't have acted at all," came a rather vehement reply. "Throughout his political life, he never did anything to suggest that he cared, he was actually a spoilsport."

Grand gestures combining sport and politics are not uncommon as the following two contrasting examples spread over 60 years in the previous century would illustrate. In 1936 Hitler became an active votary of the Berlin Olympic Games because he wanted dearly to establish the superiority of the Aryan race and win legitimacy for the Nazi ideology. His chauvinism, however, was rebuffed by the brilliance of black American Jesse Owens who won four gold medals, and in a small way by the all-conquering Indian hockey team led by the wizard Dhyan Chand.

Nelson Mandela in 1995 followed an altogether opposite path from Hitler. A year after becoming president of South Africa, he agreed to attend the final of the rugby World Cup to be played between his country and New Zealand. There were influential sections within the ruling ANC who advised him against associating with a sport which had become symbolic of racism and suppression. But Mandela saw this as a golden opportunity for reconciliation, and went for the game wearing the Springbok team jersey. The gesture was not lost on the crowd, 95 per cent white, which broke into applause and sang the ANC song (which had by then become the national anthem), for Mandela. Sports had the power "to change the world ... to inspire ... to unite people," he was to say.

Gandhi was hardly shy of political grandstanding, but it must be admitted that he hardly ever furthered sports directly as a vehicle for influencing the masses. Between 1915, when he returned from South Africa, and 1936, India won the Olympic hockey gold medal thrice, but there is no mention of him having gone out of his way to meet the players.

It would be reasonable to conclude that Gandhi was not enamored of sport. Unlike Mandela, say, who was intrinsically a sportsman (he shadow- boxed, jogged, played soccer and did stomach crunches throughout his incarceration); Gandhi concentrated on diet, yoga and meditation to keep his frail body away from ill-health. But the truth value of the premise that Gandhi did not simply care for sport is suspect.

There are only scant references to sport in his life, more fascinatingly cricket, but which throw up such enigmatic posers that only a full-scale treatise could do justice to this. For instance, when he first went to England to study, one of the letters of introduction he was carrying was addressed to K S Ranjitsinhji, "a prince from Jamnagar City who had acquired fame as a cricketer" as his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi reveals in the book Mohandas - A True Story of A Man his People and And an Empire (p 25). Whether Gandhi ever met Ranji is not known, but clearly he knew something about cricket.

Indeed, as a youngster, he seemed to have been rather good at it, as Ramchandra Guha relates in his book, A Corner of A Foreign Field, quoting an article in a newspaper in 1958 by journalist Harish Booch who had met one of Gandhi's Alfred High schoolmate from Rajkot City. "Ratilal Ghelabhai Mehta remembered Gandhi as a 'dashing cricketer' ," narrates Guha "who evinced keen interest in the game as a school student." He was, it seems, good at both batting and bowling, and had an uncanny understanding of the game's uncertainties. Apparently, as Mehta was to reveal, they watched a match together as schoolboys played between Rajkot city and Rajkot cantonment when Gandhiji said a particular player would be out and hey presto, that batsman was really out."

Clearly Gandhi's cricketing career was short-lived, and when he returned to India from South Africa (where he was once photographed in 1914 with a touring team from India), he had traded whatever interest he may have had in the bat for the lathi. Subsequent references to cricket in Gandhi's life emerge more in the form of protests that were to become such a strong metaphor in his political life.

In 1921, when the Prince of Wales was touring India it is believed, he wanted the Quadrangular match featuring the European team to be played at Mumbai stopped because it would be paying obeisance to the colonial power. In any case, he was strongly against the Quadrangular and Pentagulars because they were based on communalism (see main story).

In contrast, Jinnah, riding high on the success of Muslim teams in the Pentagular in the previous decade, was to tell an assemblage of students in Bombay in 1941 that "the discipline which sports teach must be harnessed for the benefit of the Muslim community as a whole." The difference in approach between Gandhi and Jinnah does not so much reflect the extent of their passion for sport as perhaps their utterly divergent political views at that point in time.

In a sense, though, this has perhaps contributed to Gandhi being considered as something of a wet blanket where establishing a sporting culture in a people is concerned. But Guha, renowned cricket and Gandhi historian, contests that vehemently.

"It would be hugely unfair to make that charge of Gandhi," argues Guha. "Why should he or any other politician or social worker be obliged to promote sport? Would you blame Ela Bhatt for the sorry state of cricket in Gujarat? Actually, as I show in A Corner of A Foreign Field, Gandhi's politics indirectly contributed massively to cricket, through the contributions of the Dalit Palwankar brothers and through the emergence of CK Nayudu as a nationalist icon."

There are no further references to cricket in Gandhi's life after 1941. By then, of course, he had moved on to play the end game of the biggest match of his life - winning freedom for his country. Perhaps he was a kind of a sporting person after all.

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