Why Gandhi said no to British India’s cricket series
NEW DELHI: Mahatma Gandhi and cricket sounds a bit odd to start with. The Mahatma, never of any keen athletic disposition, trying his hand at what was a colonial import to keep the empire together wasn’t the most logical thing to do. Yet, he did have his run-ins with the gentleman’s game from time to time, eventually playing a serious hand in the discontinuance of the Bombay Pentangular tournament, the foremost cricket tournament in colonial India, where teams were named after communities: Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Europeans and the Rest.
Kausik Bandyopadhyay in his work “Mahatma on the Pitch” puts it nicely, “It is interesting to explore the illusions of a sporting Gandhi, who played little but observed, told or wrote a bit about sports in general and cricket in particular.”
More than a player, young Gandhiji was a much-respected umpire, an aspect of his childhood highlighted by Pyarelal in his biography of the Mahatma published in 1965. “On moonlit nights, parties of Hindu and Muslim boys assembled there from different quarters of the city and played games for an hour or so after dinner. He (Gandhiji) did not participate in them but loved to officiate as umpire and saw to it that the rules of the game were very strictly observed by those who engaged in them.”
It was only when the Parsi headmaster of his school at Rajkot, Dorabji Edulji Gimi, made participation compulsory in cricket and gymnastics that Gandhiji was forced to play these sports. This is evident from his autobiography where he writes, “I never took part in any exercise, cricket or football, before they were made compulsory.” Later in his life he did agree that “physical training should have as much place in the curriculum as mental training.”
Gandhiji, however, did leave a lasting impression on Indian cricket when he weighed in on the Bombay Pentangular. On being met by a select delegation of the Hindu Gymkhana at Wardha in December 1940, Gandhi had remarked, “Numerous enquiries have been made as to my opinion on the proposed Pentangular cricket match in Bombay advertised to be played on the 14th. I have just been made aware of the movement to stop the match. I understand this as a mark of grief over the arrests and imprisonments of the satyagrahis, more especially the recent arrest of leaders.”
He went on to add, “I would discountenance such amusements at a time when the whole of the thinking world should be in mourning over a war that is threatening the stable life of Europe and its civilisation and which bids to overwhelm Asia. ... And holding this view I naturally welcome the movement for stopping the forthcoming match from the narrow standpoint I have mentioned above.’
It was only after this statement that he went on to condemn the communal organisation of the tournament, a denunciation given much publicity in the contemporary press. The Times of India carried a front page report on December 7, 1940, with the following headline: Mr Gandhi Against Pentangular.
Yet, there was no waning of interest in the Pentangular matches. Confirming this, the Times of India reported Gandhi’s statement the day after: “With Bombay’s great annual cricket festival only a few days ahead, the Pentangular fever is at its height, a height that has rarely been attained before. Large crowds watched all the three trial matches played over the weekend.”
When a resolution was tabled at the Hindu Gymkhana, calling for a withdrawal from the tournament, it had the support of only 70 members of the Gymkhana. The total membership of the Gymkhana stood at 900. This resolution was eventually passed by a small margin of 37 votes (280–243), particularly as a mark of regard for Gandhi. Within a couple of weeks of Gandhi’s pronouncement against the Pentangular, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, one of the key patrons of cricket in colonial India, declared that, “Mahatma Gandhi has expressed unequivocally on communal cricket.
He gave it as his considered opinion that communalism carried into the domain of sport is no happy augury for human growth. It is high time that we gave Pentangular cricket the burial it always deserved.” Other princes concurred. Following them, P Subbaraon, the BCCI president, declared, “Now that Mahatmaji has spoken, I feel free to say that the authorities will be doing the right thing if they abandon communal cricket.”
The Pentangular was eventually abolished in January 1946 making way for the Ranji Trophy as India’s foremost domestic tournament and this was possible to a large measure because of Gandhiji’s pronouncements against the Pentangular.
More recently in August 2015 the cricket boards of India and South Africa have named the trophy awarded for the India-South Africa bilateral series as the Gandhi-Mandela Trophy and it is fitting that the two countries are currently playing for this trophy as India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma.