Class war in Kolkata: Why East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan is more than a game

Football in the world's second most populous nation can attract enormous crowds, particularly when Kolkata's 'big two' are going toe to toe - as Rob Bright found out for the September 2007 issue of FourFourTwo

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Salt Lake Stadium is a huge, drab slab of concrete that sits, like some wayward Cold War relic, in a northern suburb of Kolkata rather grandly named Salt Lake City. It’s suburbs such as this where that Indian economic miracle you’ve been hearing about is beginning to assert itself, announced in the glittering glass towers and five-star hotels that join the stadium on the skyline like altogether more fashionable and affluent residents.

It’s a couple of hours before kick-off and the crowds are already gathering inside the stadium. Hindi songs crackle from the PA system, the sound of drums rises up through the thick, mosquito-infested air, and fans let off bangers so loud they rattle the spine. The spectrum of colour moves from red and yellow through to maroon and green; the former belonging to East Bengal, the latter to Mohun Bagan, both Kolkatan sides, and the oldest and greatest rivals in Indian football. 

If it had been something as significant as a cup semi-final, as it was in 1997, 131,000 would be crammed in here

Given that Salt Lake Stadium can hold about 120,000, their numbers look sparse amid the grey spartan stands, yet over 60,000 are expected here to watch what is an inconsequential league game, Mohun Bagan being well off the pace so far this season. If it had been something as significant as a cup semi-final, as it was in 1997, 131,000 would be crammed in here, and the noise, awesome even now with the stadium half-full, would have been deafening.

Just over 24 hours ago, flying into Kolkata from Delhi, neither I nor FourFourTwo’s photographer, local Bengali Anamit Sen, had managed to secure press accreditation, despite spending weeks wading through the quagmire that is Indian bureaucracy. As the plane began its descent over small tufts of tropical forest, the leaves of palm trees bursting skywards and the late-afternoon sun forming an orange disc on the horizon, reflected in the water of flooded rice fields, I dwelt on the fact that I might not have a story to do once I got here. 

A view of the Salt Lake Stadium

Football vs cricket

Comments down the years describe Kolkata as being 'a corpse on which the Indians feed like flies', 'a squalid sump-hole of filth and poverty' and 'a city pursued by nightmares'

For all that, the prospect of being in Kolkata itself was motivation enough for making the trip, and I was buoyed up by this surprisingly idyllic arrival. This is a city, after all, whose grim reputation is hardly the stuff of glossy travel brochures. Comments down the years describe it as being like “a corpse on which the Indians feed like flies”, a place full of “the hot stench of the slow-decaying poor”, “a squalid sump-hole of filth and poverty” and “a city pursued by nightmares”.

Winston Churchill said “I shall be glad to have seen it, namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again”, while people are ritually warned not to even think about going anywhere near the tap water – “Brush your teeth with cola if you have to,” they are told. It’s not exactly going to have you rushing down to Thomas Cook...

Yet beneath this wretched first impression, many visitors have discovered, as Anglo-American journalist and author Christopher Hitchens put it, a “fantastically interesting, brave, highly evolved and cultured city which has universities, film schools, theatres, bookshops, literary cafes and very vibrant politics.”

And, as Hitch failed to mention, a fanatical devotion to football. Kolkata was the first city in India to take up the sport, and it remains its emotional heartland, encapsulated by the derby match. When you first hear about this, it comes as something of a shock. Mention “India” in word association and people respond with “curry”, “Taj Mahal”, “Shilpa Shetty”, “cricket”... But football?!

India's love for football goes under the radar

Yet when India gained independence in 1947, most people expected football to become the national sport. It had already been thriving for the previous 50 years, it was cheap to play and it permeated all levels of India’s highly-stratified society, appealing to all classes. It would also have been a more appropriate vehicle to promote the new sense of nationhood, a chance for India to introduce itself to, and compete with, a greater number of countries than the cricket ever could.

And yet, the reasons why it didn’t happen are, in part, the same reasons why Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal still attracts so many fans; football here is still essentially about regional, rather than national pride. This extends to the governing bodies – the game’s history is awash with incidents of in-fighting between states that have prevented a coherent national agenda from ever emerging. 

The Indian Football Association, founded in 1892, was the first indigenous institution established for the sport. Its founder, Nagendra Prasad, is regarded as the father of subcontinental football. 

It’s to the IFA’s offices that we’re immediately heading. With little time to get things arranged, most Indians would have thrown in the towel by now. The local media normally has to set things in motion months before hand if it wants to get accreditation for a game like this. We have hours. 

I’m white and representing the UK press, phenomena that are about as common in Indian football as Thierry Henry warming the subs bench

But we have two advantages: I’m white and representing the UK press, phenomena that are about as common in Indian football as Thierry Henry warming the subs bench. Anamit remains confident that my presence alone will be enough. 

After making our way through the pressing heat of the central Kolkata crowds, shirts stuck to our backs, we arrive at the IFA HQ which, despite the illustrious heritage, is a ramshackle collection of poorly-lit rabbit warrens tucked down a backstreet not far from the giant park that dominates the city, known as the Maidan. 

We’re here to meet Shri Subrata Dutta, the Honourable Secretary of the IFA, who has yet to arrive, so we’re ushered into an empty office and told to wait. We do, for an hour. Given his status, Dutta can afford to be late. Indians love hierarchy and Dutta’s position makes him a demi-god in this world, a man with enough power to make the wheels turn that bit faster for a chosen few.

Eventually we’re called to another room where Dutta is sitting expansively behind a desk, his bald head shining beneath the fluorescent strip lighting. He apologises for being late and is enormously helpful, promising to make sure we received VIP passes for the game and the necessary IDs in order to take action photographs. “It’s a good job you were here,” says a relieved Anamit.

It’s a neat illustration of how the colonial past still impacts upon the present, often expressed as an exaggerated deference to Westerners. Yet it worked the other way in the past, the game giving the local population the first means by which they could compete with their ‘masters’ on equal terms, a chance to assert their opposition to occupation. “War by other means,” as George Orwell put it. 

How football came to India

The British brought the game here with the expansion of trade under the East India company. As the British capital at the time, what was then known as Calcutta was the first city to be exposed to football, games being played as early as 1854, teams made up mainly of the military classes or industrial workers. 

Despite the creation of the IFA in 1892, the football league was exclusively for British teams until 1914. Nevertheless, Indian teams were free to play in cup competitions, and it’s here that Mohun Bagan established their reputation as an emblem of national self-esteem, when in 1911 they beat a British side in the final of the IFA Shield, the first native team to do so. 

It 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

- A 1911 report on Mohun Bagan's triumph over a 'British' side

After the victory, the ecstatic indigenous press reported how “the Bengalees were tearing off their shirts and waving them around their heads”. If that sounds curiously contemporary, another report is even more so, stating “it 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”. It could almost be a blueprint for the notorious Norwegian commentary after their victory over the English in 1981 ‘Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill – your boys took one hell of a beating!’

NEXT: A taste of Brazil in Kolkata