The blasphemous literature that shook Hindustan

The blasphemous literature that shook Hindustan

Amidst India’s struggle for independence, a group of young firebrand writers came out with a book of nine short stories and one play. The events that were to follow would shake and shape the Indian literary scene for generations to come.

By Abhinaba Maitra

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In 1908, a collection of short stories titled  Soz-e-Watan (The Dirge of the Nation), was published by an author named Nawab Rai. It was a time when literature was becoming a bit too seditious for Westminster’s liking. Soz-e-Watan was precise, hard-hitting, and defiant right down to its every letter. The British government wanted it banned; the problem for them, however, was that they couldn’t find any author named  Nawab Rai. It was a pseudonym. When they did manage to track down the actual author, it turned out to be a government employee by the name of Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava. He was subsequently banned from publishing any kind of literature without the prior permission of the authorities.

More than defiance, when Soz-e-Watan got published, it was the first time the Urdu literary scene got a taste of the short-story genre.

Fast forward to February 1933. While in most parts of the country the Civil Disobedience movement was raging on, in Lucknow, there was chaos in the small office of the Nizami press. Victoria Street near the chowk was swarming with police — a raid was underway.   A raid for publishing blasphemous literature.

The press owner, seeing the mayhem outside, agreed to give away all the unsold copies of the supposedly profane book to the authorities. But if history has taught us something, it is that banning a piece of literature has rarely ever served the desired objective of restricting counter views and opinions

The book, which was ironically called Angaare, loosely translating to ‘Burning Embers’, spread like wildfire. As if it was in its nature to scorch age-old orthodoxy and patriarchy in its wake while paving way for a literary movement unlike any of its kind before.

Angaare was an outpouring of emotions much like Soz-e-Watan that preceded it. Those unbridled emotions had slowly built over time, waiting for the opportune moment to erupt. In the years following the great war, buoyed by a nationalist fervour, Urdu literature in India had become more flamboyant, bold, and quite radical. As the cries of Inquilab Zindabad pierced the skies, some of the subcontinent’s young and gifted were trying to break away from the shackles of their own imprisoned mind.

Who were these people?

In 1931, the Lady Dufferin Hospital in Lucknow had a new doctor in their ranks — Rashid Jahan. Her father, Dr. Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent member of the Aligarh movement, was the founder of the Women’s school in Aligarh, a precursor to the women’s college. A young Rashid was drawn to the writings of Jane Austen, Charles Garvice and Rashid ul Khairi, a  prominent Urdu writer of his time. In 1922, while studying at Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, she came out with her first piece of writing, Salma, a short story in the college journal. Writing wasn’t her only passion though, her work as a medical practitioner and as a proponent in the theatre circle was important in equal measure.

During her graduation years in Delhi, in the corridors of the Lady Hardinge College, she was swayed by the worker’s movement. Returning to Lucknow with a degree in M.B.B.S, she got introduced to Awadh’s ever-evolving Urdu Literary stage. There she came across a group of young thinkers just like her — Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali and Mahmood-uz-Zafar.

Sajjad was like the poster boy of Lucknow — smart, young, studying at Oxford and son of the High Court judge; he could have easily indulged in a life of luxury and grandeur, but he chose to wield the power of the pen. At Oxford, Sajjad rubbed shoulders with the likes of Krishna Menon, Mulkraj Anand and communist ideologues such as Shapurji Saklatvala, who influenced him a great deal. Returning to Lucknow in 1931 after completing his degree in law, he started his own newspaper. Sajjad’s strong ideals and modern world views won him many admirers.

After Angaare was published, the backlash was severe. Sajjad and Rashid bore most of the brunt — Sajjad for being the main instigator and the book’s chief editor and Rashid for just being a woman of her time who dared to write. Rashid had written two short stories among the nine that made up the book: ‘Dilli ki Sair’ (Trip to Delhi) and ‘Pardey Ke Peechey’ (Behind the Veil). Her narratives were scathing and it showed how women were surrounded by different layers of patriarchy and how it strangled every inch of their body and mind.

At one point, one of her protagonists from ‘Pardey Ke Peechey’, tired of the number of children she bore and miscarriages she had,  said to the doctor who had come to check on her aliments –

As far as I am concerned, who cares if I go to hell or heaven! All that they care about is their pleasure and enjoyment. The wretched wife may live or die, all that men hunger after is their own lust’[4]

In the summer of 1931, Sajjad, having just returned from England met Ahmed Ali at a party. Ali was fascinated by the western world and  Sajjad was like an oasis in a desert to him.

“Sajjad Zaheer was coming from that world, bringing with him news of it firsthand. And we found our tastes were common, a love of art, literature, music”[1]

Ali’s lineage was a stuff of legends. His family was one among five invited to India from Persia by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, each to perform some unique trade in the kingdom. Ali earned his laurels from Aligarh University where he crossed paths with a young Raja Rao. Rao had his eyes set on conquering the world while Ali on the other hand had to be more content with his local surroundings. In Aligarh, Ali was also acquainted with the Abdullahs (Rashid Jahan’s family) through one of the younger siblings, Mohsan.

Ali knew exactly what Sajjad intended to do with Angaare. The words were scandalous, the narrative fixated on bashing age-old dogmas and the writers themselves undaunted and ready to shock the world.

While working on the book, Rashid met Mahmood-uz-Zafar,  a descendant of the Rohillah Pathan Najib ad-Dawlah from the princely state of Rampur. He was an active member of the nationalist activities while studying in Oxford. When Mahmood returned to India, he forsook his European clothes and started wearing only Khadi, the mark of rebellion.

His story Jawãnmardi (Masculinity) was an account of a male protagonist with a massive ego that could dive into any limitless chasm to satisfy itself in a society unmoving and grotesque. If you held up a mirror against it, it might have cracked.

In March of 1933, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was slapped upon Angaare, banning the book for good. A law which continues to be used even today and quite frequently.

We move on to November of 1934. On a cold Saturday morning, a group of people were making their way through Denmark Street in central London. Music lovers might recognize Denmark Street as London’s version of the Tin Pan Alley. In the 1930’s however, this little thoroughfare between St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road was bustling with Chinese and Japanese food joints. The group stopped at number 4 ‘The Nanking’, their usual place. Led by Sajjad Zaheer and Mulkraj Anand, the group was greeted with muted applause as they made their way to Nanking’s cellar. Surrounded by the aroma of exotic cuisine and among a group of young eager listeners, the first drafted manifesto of Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was read out.

“Radical changes are taking place in the Indian society…We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today – the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction, and un-reason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive”[3]

A year later, the PWA convened their first official meeting inside the Rifa-e-Aam Club in Lucknow, a few blocks away from Victoria Street. Dhanpat Rai, who by now was going by his other pen name, Premchand, presided as the Association’s first president.

Where ‘The Nanking’ once stood now stands Regent Sounds, a music studio where the Rolling Stones put together their first album back in 1964.

Andrew Whitehead, a historian and a former BBC correspondent says:

‘When I last walked along Denmark Street, the basement of number 4 was empty. It would be such a pity if this historic location was lost.’

The Rifa-e-Aam Club has also lost its charm. Once a nationalist den, now it will hardly give you any sense of its fabled past. The last time I visited, its outer facade was crumbling. Its hall, which bore witness to historic pacts and some rousing speeches, now stays stoically dormant.

Did the progressives fare any better though?

Writers like Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander, Sadat Hasan Manto all joined the movement from time-to-time adding fuel to an already raging fire but the people who sparked it never got back together.

A bitterness had already grown between Ahmed Ali and Sajjad Zaheer by the time of the PWA’s first meeting in Lucknow. By Ali’s own admission the very idea of progress was what drew a line between the former friends!

“For Sajjad Zaheer, progress meant standing still, looking at things only from one very orthodox, narrow point of view. You cannot narrow progress”[1]

As for Rashid and Mahmood, they got married and joined the communist party. Though they kept on writing for some time, party and political work eventually became more important to them.

To a large extent, the PWA by itself and also through some of its offshoots did succeed in achieving its goal in introducing a new kind of literature. Various actors of the movement made their names particularly in the early post-independent decades of the Bombay film industry. Sahir Ludhianvi, Asrar ul Hassan Khan a.k.a Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaifi Azmi were household figures and their work in films like Naya Daur, Teesri Manzil, Apna Haath Jagannath proudly carried the tag of the progressives. In Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Saat Hindustani starring Utpal Dutt, A.K Hangal and a certain debutant Amitabh Bacchan, Kaifi wrote

Zulm hadd se badhyega toh ghatt jayega 

Apni talwar se aap kat jayega

(If oppression rises beyond limit, it will fall. By it’s sword, it will bleed.)

The film won the national award for best lyrics.

The flame ignited by a group of young daring writers way back in 1932 still lingers on, even in our times. In different quarters of society, universities, cafes, libraries, books shops, you might hear whispers or animated discourses on  them as their inflammable words continue to inspire people.

Like an ember that burns in perpetuity.

Sincere gratitude to Mr Andrew Whitehead for answering our queries regarding ‘The Nanking’ which played a very pivotal part in the formation of the PWA.

  1. Ali, Ahmed, and JSAL. “INTERVIEW : AHMED ALI: 3 AUGUST 1975 ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN.” Journal of South Asian Literature 33/34, no. 1/2 (1998): 117-94. Accessed September 7, 2021.
  2. Alam, M. (2020, July 31). The ‘DEMISE’ of Nawab Rai and the birth OF Munshi Premchand. The Wire. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from
  3. Ahmed, T. (2018). Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Writers’ Movement in South Asia, 1932-1956. (dissertation). ProQuest. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from
  4. Chauhan, V. S., & Dalvi , K. (Trans.). (n.d.). Buy angarey: Nine stories and a play book online at low prices in India: ANGAREY: Nine stories and a Play reviews & ratings. Buy Angarey: Nine Stories and a Play Book Online at Low Prices in India | Angarey: Nine Stories and a Play Reviews & Ratings – Retrieved September 11, 2021, from
  5. SAIDUZZAFAR, HAMIDA. “JSAL Interviews DR. HAMIDA SAIDUZZAFAR: A Conversation with Rashid Jahan’s Sister-in-law, Aligarh, 1973.” Journal of South Asian Literature 22, no. 1 (1987): 158-65. Accessed September 7, 2021.
  6. Whitehead, A. (2016). Downstairs at the NANKING restaurant. ANDREW WHITEHEAD. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from

Miss Dior: The rebel who inspired a perfume

Miss Dior

The rebel who inspired a perfume

The infamous backdrop of the Second World War has numerous nerve-wracking, influential incidents but there’s only one of them that inspired the invention of one of the most iconic perfumes of the world that continues to amaze fashionistas around the globe.

By Subhajit Sengupta

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In the World of fashion, Christian Dior is a name enlisted amongst the elites. Known for his artistic vision that revolutionized women’s fashion, post the Second World War. There’s hardly anybody who’s not familiar with Christian Dior’s fashion house but very few know that behind this successful brand, there’s a hidden tale of a lady whose courage and sacrifice is unparalleled in history.

When asked about Christian Dior’s work, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was Dior’s predecessor in women’s fashion and one of the leading  critics in the industry, said, “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them.[1] However, Coco too was unaware of the woman who was the source of inspiration behind Dior’s creations. To commemorate the inspirational woman behind his work, in 1947, he debuted into the world of fragrances with one of the most iconic perfumes ever created, “Miss Dior”. As far as the folklore goes, the name came accidentally but as one gets to know more about Miss Catherine Dior, the name would hardly seem accidental.

Born on 2nd August 1917, Ginette Dior (who later changed her name to Catherine), was the younger sister of Christian Dior and the youngest family member in the Dior household at Callian, near Grasse in Provence. Although Catherine had four siblings, she was closest to Christian. So much so that it is rumored that since Christian’s favorite day of the year was St Catherine’s Day, Ginette changed her name to Catherine.

Shakespeare once wrote –

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.[2]

Catherine Dior, though fairly justifies her name in most if not all aspects. She took the name from St Catherine of Alexandria, who once counselled Joan of Arc, and as far as the comparison goes, Catherine was not far behind in terms of the strength of character.

During  November of 1941, a 24-year-old Catherine was out to buy a good radio at Cannes’ market. As she was scouting through different shops, she accidentally bumped into Hervé des Charbonneries, one of the founding members of the “French Resistance”, the Polish intelligence unit based in France. It was love at first sight for her. Hervé, who was 36 at that time and already a father of three children, quickly realized that Catherine was no ordinary girl. She had a strong personality and there was a strange stubbornness about her that could be channelled to achieve great things. He influenced her heavily and made her realize the importance of the intelligence unit during the war and thus a month later, Catherine became an official member of the French Resistance.

Catherine was put in charge of the “Massif Central” section of the F2 network, a British-funded Resistance intelligence unit which was originally set up by the Polish government-in-exile to operate in France. Her primary responsibility was to transmit covert information regarding German movements and artillery to the British government in London. She was on top of her job and to expand her network, she used to chair secret meetings at Christian’s apartment in Paris. However, she never involved her dear brother or any of her family members into her business as their safety was also of paramount importance to her. Besides, Christian was already a revered fashion designer by then and had received threats from the Nazis to shut down his business altogether.

Her stint in the intelligence agency came to an end on 6th July 1944 when she was arrested by the Gestapo along with 26 fellow comrades. Catherine was in the Gestapo’s radar for a long time as her network was considered to be the most dynamic in entire Europe. As a result of that, she was interrogated and tortured repeatedly by the notorious security-service unit. Despite their best efforts, the Gestapo officers failed to extract any information from her. Back in Paris, Christian was trying his best to arrange her release with the help of the Nazi contacts he had made during his business tours. When that didn’t work, he reached out to his good friend Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul-general for help. Nordling pulled some strings inside the Nazi offices and somehow managed to persuade them to place Catherine under the supervision of the Swedish state. But it was too little too late for her as by the time the letter had reached its intended recipient, she was already deported along with 1,654 men and 542 women on a prison train leaving Paris towards the women concentration camp at Ravensbrück, 50 miles north of Belin under the supervision of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, one of the main architects of the Holocaust.

From there, it was a one-way road to suffering for Catherine. She along with her fellow comrades were identified as political prisoners hence their verdict would be extermination through work which, in simple terms, meant slave labour. It was the start of her suffering; she was stripped of her clothes, given grimy rags to wear, beaten regularly throughout her working hours, and was not allowed to sleep. Soon she was transferred to the military prison of Torgau and posted to the all-female “Anton Kommando” to work on the production of explosives in a disused potassium mine. The Nazis denied all her human dignities and yet they failed to break her stubbornness. Going above and beyond all her debility, she tried to disrupt the weapon manufacturing; first at Torgau then at Abberode, a satellite camp inside one of Buchenwald concentration camps. As the winter came closer, Catherine’s head was shaved, and she was severely beaten after being stripped of her remaining clothes and then transferred to an aviation factory at Leipzig-Markkleeberg in a train. The journey from Abberode to Leipzig took several days and during this time she was inside a freezing cattle truck without any supply of food or water. Catherine was suffering from pneumonia, dysentery, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. As she reached the factory in Leipzig, the exhausting workload made her increasingly weak.

Just when it seemed that death would be a mercy, she took one last leap of faith. On 13th April 1945, all the prisoners were assembled and asked to leave the camp. The journey was later referred to as “The Death March”[3]. Everyone was ordered to keep walking barefoot in freezing temperatures, without any food or water, under the supervision of SS officers who would shoot to kill anyone who would attempt to flee. Catherine did though. She managed to slip away as the march reached the destroyed city of Dresden. She stayed hidden amidst the chaos and ruins for several days, waiting for a miracle to happen.

Back in Paris, Christian had no clue about his dear sister’s whereabouts. He made several futile attempts to seek information on her. Even his mentor and guide Madame Delahaye[4] who helped Christian establish himself in the fashion industry was of little help. Finally, on 19th April 1945, the Allied force captured the camp in Leipzig, and Christian was informed that his sister’s name was found in the list of the prisoners. However, amongst thousands of prisoners, it was impossible to identify if she was alive at all. Eight days later, he received a phone call from Leipzig that his sister had been deported in a train bound for Paris along with other prisoners and would reach the next day. When he finally met his sister, the graceful lady was barely recognizable. She continued to suffer from trauma, panic attacks and anxiety issues long after returning home.

But, who could possibly cherish the beauty of life more than the one who has lived the horror of war? Catherine, who now had a second life, realized it better than most. She sought solace and found it in flowers. She worked for 12 years as a flower commissioner at the Halles de Paris, trading flowers from the south of France and the French colonies. Her passion for flowers influenced Christian deeply and thus the World was gifted with one of the finest fragrances ever created – “Miss Dior”.

The story behind the perfume’s name was found inside the Dior’s archive in a written account by one of Dior’s close friends. It says that Christian Dior, along with Dior House’s director Mitzah Bricard, were brainstorming on Dior’s debut perfume when Catherine suddenly entered the room unannounced. “Ah, here’s Miss Dior![6] – Bricard said welcoming her presence; “Miss Dior: now there’s a name for my perfume![7] – replied Christian. His own version of the inspiration behind the perfume also reveals his desire to cherish his sister – “I created this perfume to wrap each woman in exquisite femininity, as if each of my designs were emerging from the bottle, one by one[8] – he announced during the unveiling of the perfume. Christian Dior also framed his sister’s love for flowers in his 1949 Summer/Spring collection of Miss Dior gown which was decorated with 1000 elegantly embroidered silk flowers.


Seven years after her release, in 1952, Catherine testified against 14 Nazi officers who were running the Gestapo office in Paris. The justice was delayed but not denied. For her bravery and heroics, Catherine Dior was awarded the Croix de Guerre (A medal that’s reserved for armed forces), the Combatant’s Cross, the Combatant Volunteer Cross of the Resistance, the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, and later named a Chevalière of the Legion of Honour. Her final reward came eight years after her death, not in the form of any silverware though, but as an act that would have made her proud to think how she became a role model for the generations to come. On 24th June 2016, a public school[5] was renamed after her in Normandy, Dior’s hometown, where the legend of Catherine Dior continues to live on as an inspiration.

It is said that a perfume not only holds a combination of signature aromatic notes but also reveals the character of the person who wore it. If that is to be believed, then Miss Catherine Dior remains an epitome of grit, resilience and indomitable power.


[1] Vernose, Vienna. “The History of the Chanel Tweed Suit – The rich history behind what made one of the most legendary fashion pieces of all-time” from crfashionbook. CR Fashion Book. Accessed January 5, 2020.

[2] Levenson, Jill L. Romeo and Juliet. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

[3][8] Picardie, Justine. “THE SECRET MISS DIOR Justine Picardie uncovers the remarkable story of Christian Dior’s sister Catherine, a French Resistance agent and concentration-camp survivor” from Harper’s Bazar (UK). pressreader. Accessed March 1, 2019.

[4] Spencer, Mimosa. “Dior Milestone: Christian Dior’s Mystical Leanings” from WWD. Women’s Wear Daily. Accessed September 26, 2017.

[5] “L’école publique devient l’école Catherine Dior”. Ouest France. Accessed June 23, 2016.

[6][7] Pithers, Ellie. “Who was the original Miss Dior?” from Telegraph Beauty (UK). Telegraph UK. Accessed November 12, 2013.

Cricket’s Avant Garde whom the game chose to forget

Cricket’s Avant Garde whom the game chose to forget

The tale of the first ever tour of the British Isles by an overseas cricket team, nearly a decade before the first official England / Australia test match was played. The team, chaperoned by an Englishman, consisted of 13 Australian Aboriginals who for a period of more than six months, captured the imagination of the British public and earned their respect.

By Trinanjan Chakraborty

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8th February, 1868. Sydney harbor, Australia. The sailing ship, the Parramata,  loaded with its traditional cargo of wool, was about to embark on a three-month journey to  the British Isles. But  apart from the wool, the fully rigged sailing ship carried a  far more interesting cargo,  in the form of 13 men who would soon become the topic of conversation in every club and public house  in England. They were pioneers, but their story has somehow  been lost in obscurity. For these 13 formed the first ever Australian side to visit a foreign country to play cricket matches. And this is their incredible tale.  

Mid-nineteenth century Australia. The discovery of gold in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1851 dramatically altered the landscape of the colony. It is estimated that the lure of gold motivated around two percent of the population of Great Britain and Ireland to immigrate to Australia in the years following Bathurst. However, the frenetic hunt for gold brought the western colonialists in contact with the original inhabitants of the island continent – the aboriginal tribes, dubbed “Blacks” by the white man. These were sometimes curious outreaches or even friendly overtures. But occasionally, it took an ominous form. In 1861, a group of aborigines stormed a pastoral camp^ in central Queensland and brutally killed 19 of the 25 camp members. 

Three years after this tragedy, cricket matches between colonial settlers and aborigines had become quite popular in Victoria. In 1866, Tom Wills, the captain of Victoria, accepted an offer to become captain/coach of an aboriginal side. Having grown up in the “bush”,1 travelling with his pastoral father’s stations , Tom Wills was well versed with the language and customs of the aboriginal Australian tribes. As such, there were few better suited than him to mentor an Aboriginal side. Yet, Tom Wills was one of the six survivors of the horrible massacre of 1861, the worst ever in Australian history perpetrated by aborigines. In fact, the camp was owned by his father Horatio Wills, and his entire family perished in it. 

It is not known how Tom Wills’ personal feelings towards the aborigines changed after the massacre. But he certainly put his heart and mind into training them and on Boxing Day, 1866, led the Aboriginal side to take on Melbourne Cricket Club at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Although Wills’ side lost, the performance of the aboriginal players was roundly praised and soon the team was touring and playing matches all over Victoria. It was during this time that an offer to tour England was made by a certain Captain Gurnett. But Wills had a fallout with Gurnett, and left the tour. In February of 1867, the aboriginal side landed in Sydney hoping to travel to England but came to know that Gurnett had embezzled funds raised for the tour which was now in jeopardy. Separated from their captain and mentor, the Aboriginal players were now stranded in Sydney. That’s when Charles Lawrence came to the rescue.

An Englishman who had played the game for English, Irish and Scottish sides, Lawrence put up the side in his own hotel and went about trying to arrange matches in New South Wales in order to raise funds for the team to return to their native places in Victoria. As he travelled and trained with the team, the idea of the tour to England revived. Lawrence found backers in the form of Sydney lawyer George Graham and the latter’s cousin George Smith as well as a third gentleman named William Hayman. After a two-month training camp, Charles Lawrence selected 13 Aboriginal players for the English tour. 

However, when all seemed set, the Central Board for Protection of Aborigines in Victoria intervened. During the tour of New South Wales with Lawrence, four members of the original squad had died from diseases. The Board was worried that the cold and damp English weather would not suit the aborigines and refused to allow them to travel. A desperate Lawrence kept his players hidden and finally managed to smuggle them aboard the Parramatta which was carrying wool to England. 

After more than three months, on 13th May, 1868, the ship docked at Gravesend. The arrival of Charles Lawrence’s side created much buzz and excitement in the Isles. However, little of it was centered on their cricketing abilities. In fact, the Englishmen (and women) were most keen to see these near savages and some of the more learned ones were happy to conclude that here was a living and walking proof of the validity of Darwin’s theories of evolution. 

For most matches, usually of two- or three-days duration, another day was added where the Aboriginal players showed off other skills like boomerang throwing, spear throwing, cricket ball throwing among others. . In fact, in a cricket ball throwing contest, the aborigines were beaten by a 20-year-old Englishman who was touted as the “next big thing” of the game; his name: William Gilbert Grace. One of the most fascinating sights was the game of dodging. The aborigines challenged the locals to throw cricket balls at them which they dodged with their traditional shields and clubs. 

Although they were written off as  serious cricketers (The Times called the tour “a travesty upon cricketing at Lord’s”), the team soon started making an impact. After losing their first six games, they started turning things around. Over their 126 days of stay, the side played 47 games, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing the other 19. Their cricketing skills and general behaviour were widely praised. Their native names being too difficult for the English tongue, the players became better known by their sobriquets. Unarrimin, the side’s best player became famous as Johnny Mullagh, Jungunjinanuke, the master at the art of dodging, came to be known as Dick-a-Dick and Grougarrong, who entertained crowds by walking on a narrow bar, was called Jimmy Mosquito. 

Johnny Mullagh scored 1698 runs and took 245 wickets on the tour, including a hattrick. George Tarrant, a leading fast bowler of the time, later said that he had never bowled to a better batsman than Mullagh. However, the hectic tour (the players were on the field for 99 out of the 126 days) took its toll. Bripumyarrimin a.k.a. King Cole, the best fielder in the touring party, fell ill with a chest congestion and died from complications linked to tuberculosis and pneumonia on 24th June, 1868. Two others from the touring party, unwell and grieving from Cole’s death, left the tour and travelled back home, leaving just eleven players (including captain Lawrence) to complete the engagements. 

The tour was a financial success, generating profits in excess of £2100. However, it is unlikely that the Aboriginal players were given a penny. The side arrived in Sydney in February of 1869. Johnny Mullagh was signed by Melbourne Cricket Club as a professional. Murrumgunarriman a.k.a. Twopenny settled in NSW and played for the colony side against Victoria in 1870 – and is today believed to be the first aborigine to play first class cricket. However, some met worse fates. Zellanach a.k.a. Johnny Cuzens, who was heralded in England as a fearsome fast bowler, died a year after the landmark tour from acute dysentery. Two other members went missing and were never seen again.  

In 1869, the Central Board of Aborigines ruled that it would be illegal to remove a person of aboriginal origin outside the boundaries of Victoria colony, thus effectively ending cricketing prospects for most of the aboriginal talent. Johnny Mullagh, whose all-round abilities impressed all comers, had his contract with Melbourne Cricket Club terminated on health grounds after just a season, when he was on the verge of being selected for the colonial side. The sudden dismissal reeked of bias against the native communities. Mullagh’s stance on this matter would not have helped. He repeatedly refused to live a confined life in the state-owned reserves2. During a cricket match, as the players went into lunch, Mullagh’s captain asked him to eat in the kitchen, away from his white teammates and opponents. Mullagh refused lunch and went and sat outside on the streets in protest. 

The injustice meted out to aboriginal cricketers continued. A Bundjalung who carried the sobriquet of Jack Marsh was rated as arguably the best fast bowler in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. His career was cut short after a handful of games for NSW as he was repeatedly called for chucking3, denying him the chance of playing for the national side.  In the 1930s, Sir Donald Bradman rated Eddie Gilbert faster than even his nemesis Harold Larwood. But he also never played for the national side. Till date, only three Aboriginal cricketers have represented Australia in test cricket – Jason Gillespie (men’s) and Faith Thomas & Ashleigh Gardner (women’s). All three are of mixed parentage (one aboriginal parent). The wait for Australia’s first truly indigenous cricketer still continues. 

In 2019, Cricket Australia bestowed a very belated honor on the trailblazing Johnny Mullagh, announcing the Mullagh Medal for the player of the match in the annual Boxing Day test. But, even today, the amazing story  of Mullagh and his merry men remains shrouded in obscurity. 


^ Family remembers 155-year-old massacre and turning point in Australian history 

1 – “The bush” is a term mostly used in the English vernacular of Australia and New Zealand where it is largely synonymous with backwoods or hinterland, referring to a natural undeveloped area. Growing up in “the bush” implies someone who spent his/her childhood in such an area 

2 – An Aboriginal reserve, also called ‘reserve’, was a government-run settlement for Aboriginal Australians, created under various state and federal legislation. Along with missions and other institutions, they were used from the 19th century to the 1960s to keep Aboriginal people separate from the white Australian population, for various reasons perceived by the government of the day. The Aboriginal reserve laws gave governments much power over all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives

3 – In the sport of cricket, throwing, commonly referred to as chucking, is an illegal bowling action which occurs when a bowler straightens the bowling arm when delivering the ball



The Little Blue House by the river Jalongi

The Little Blue House by the Jalongi River

A mere two hour drive from Kolkata lies Maheshganj. The center of attraction of this sleepy little town is Balakhana, a heritage home stay which had once served as an indigo house. This is a small account about its curious and puzzling history.

By Abhinaba Maitra

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“Ah! There it is,” said our host as he pointed to an odd looking plant a few steps away. I had not seen anything like it before.

As I watched, my mind wandered. How such a seemingly harmless thing could have once been a medium of immense oppression and tyranny?

 It was an indigofera tinctoria  commonly known as neel (indigo) in these areas.

“The Plants are leguminous in nature so it increases nitrogen levels in the soil thus improving subsequent crop yields, that’s the science behind it” explained our host while still pointing to the indigo plant in front of us. The painful fact however was that between the 18th and 19th century when the natural dye was still the rage and was produced in large quantities across parts of America and South Asia, cultivators were forced to grow it. Indigo has a notorious history of association with slavery and forced labour and there came a time when things rather came to the boil.

In 1858, months after the Company (East India Company) ruthlessly crushed the sepoy mutiny[1], their control over the Indian subcontinent was snatched away and gobbled up by Her Majesty’s ever expanding empire. Company Raj became the British Raj and with it came some administrative changes though the subjugation mostly stayed the same. Another rebellion was just around the corner.


Indigo and opium were the main profit makers for the company, thus, the Empire had no notion of changing it. Areas around undivided Nadia, Murshidabad, parts of Malda, Nabadwip, Kulberia, Jessore (now in Bangladesh) in the undivided Bengal province served as important bases for indigo cultivation.

The ryoti system had prevailed in these areas for a very long time and cultivators were not only forced to grow indigo but were paid very little for it incurring numerous debts along the way. The finished product sold almost at the rate of gold thus christening it as the blue gold.

‘নীলকরের কি অত্যাচার,

এই নীলে সকল নিলে এদের নিলে বোঝা ভার।’

(Oh how torturous are the indigo planters, tis the burden of the indigo among all other things that is the heaviest) – Poem by Ishwar Chandra Gupta on the agonizing effect of indigo cultivation. [3]

An indigo factory in Bengal in the 19th century (Image courtesy – Wikimedia Commons)

After years of deprivation of rights, in 1859, these areas became a hotbed of a peasant uprising. Cultivators not only refused to grow indigo but attacked indigo factories and planters who were mainly European at the time. Villages across rural bengal were up in arms– handmade bows and arrows, slingshots, spears were used as weapons.

The revolt became quite popular though the British government moved swiftly to crush it. A Large contingent of armed police was sent to aid the planters and zamindars. Whoever was found to have even the faintest of connections to the uprising were mercilessly killed and their entire families were wiped out. Peasant leaders like Biswanath Sardar were caught, given a farcical trial and publicly hanged, while many others went into hiding. The revolt and its subsequent suppression left an indomitable mark on Indian and Bengali history, some historians even call it a precursor to the freedom movement that was to come. A year later, as Bengal was still simmering, Dinabandhu Mitra added more fuel to the fire by writing what is still considered to be one of the most important pieces of literature on indigo oppression ‘Nil Darpan’. With its publication ‘Nil Darpan’ instantly caught the attention of both the oppressors and the oppressed and also many native sympathizers among them Harish Chandra Mukherjee, Editor and owner of the newspaper ‘Hindoo Patriot’ and also the Reverend James Long. Mitra, a former student of Long, had sent a copy of the play to the Reverend which left him impressed.

When he mentioned the play to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal Sir John Peter Grant, Grant told Long to arrange for an English translation of the play. Long eventually did bring out an English translation with his own introduction with the help of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and it made more heads turn than was originally intended. It angered the pro-planters community so much that they dragged the Reverend to court where he was found guilty, sentenced to one month in jail and fined Rs 1,000.

‘My conscience convicts me however of no moral offence or of any offence deserving the language used in the charge to the jury. But I dread the effects of this precedent. This work being a lible, then the exposure of any social evil of caste, of polygamy, of kulin Brahminism, of the opium trade and of many others evils which are supported by the interests of men may be treated as libels too, and thus the great work of moral, social and religious reformation may be checked’ – from the address of the Reverend James Long to the court before passing of the sentence. [4]

As I stood there just outside the house at Moisgunj (actual name – Maheshgunj, corrupted over the years) in the misty cold morning trying to appreciate its charming surroundings it suddenly struck me that words like ‘Neel Bidroho’ felt a little out of place here.

The Moisgunj Mansion (Image courtesy – Balakhana)

The mansion at the heart of the estate has a dominant French style to it yet its long standing decorated pillars are carefully made to look like a very traditional Bengali zamindar bari. Its teak finished fireplace which has stood since the house was built along with the estate’s beautifully manicured gardens will betray very little of the past where it had served as a neel kuthi.

The Plantation on the banks of the Jalongi River (a branch of Ganges which flows in Nadia) at its peak had almost 200 hectares of land under it cultivating indigo. However, the mansion’s inception is shrouded in mystery. The popular belief as reiterated by Mr Ronodhir Palchoudhury the current owner, is that a Frenchman by the name of John Angelo Savi had built the house sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. Monsieur Savi was an interesting character. Born in Tuscany, trained to be a surgeon, it is said that he had served as doctor to Tipu Sultan, the tiger of Mysore when there were talks of an alliance with the French. His father in law was a certain Marine-General André-François Corderan who had served under the great Napoleon.

The plantation came about as Savi’s need to settle and try their fortune in what was a very booming business at the time.

Indigo plantation was thriving, it was nothing short of a gold rush.

Bengal along with Bihar made up the bulk of indigo production that was exported from British India. However, by the time the second generation of the Savi family came along, the natural dye was starting to fade away.

The Bidroho couldn’t have been very far away from the distinctive red pillars that stand at the main entrance to the estate.

It is said that the word of the rebellion crawled all the way up to her Majesty’s ears. Eventually, after recommendations from its own commission the British government decided to bring laws against forced cultivation.

“Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood” – E.De-Latour, former magistrate of the Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) while speaking to the neel commission in 1860. [4]

It was around the same time that William Perkin accidentally discovered the synthetic dye while experimenting with aniline and quinine. Some years later, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer would go on to perfect the process and make a fully synthetic replacement of natural indigo dye.

The American Indigo industry also came to a halt in 1865 after the civil war, when laws were made to end slave labour. 

It is not clear what really prompted the Savi family to sell the house but with the fortunes of the natural indigo now slowly dwindling, it was probably at that time that they decided to head back to Europe.

What is left as a reminder of that era is that one plant which Mr. Palchoudhury keeps to humour his guests and some cakes of indigo dye which are kept in a closet along with other little treasures, occasionally brought out for curious guests.

The Palchoudhury family bought the place from one of Angelo Savi’s many grandchildren, Henry Nesvitt Savi.

 “It was my grandfather,” said Mr. Palchoudhury.

Bipradas Palchoudhury saw an advertisement in the year 1875 while residing in England about the sale of this house and told his brother Nafarchandra Palchoudhuri who was a very prominent landowner at the time to buy it.

Bipradas was born into a very wealthy zamindar family from undivided Nadia. “My grandfather’s relationship with his family was not a very savoury one. When he came back to India after studying in England, he was asked to purify himself or to remain outside. Being a staunch atheist, he chose the latter unsurprisingly. He would buy this house some years later.”

One does get a sense that Mr. Palchoudhury’s grandfather was an attractive man with a certain flavour of seriousness about him by looking at his portrait which hangs on the wall of the dining hall.

A portrait of Mr Bipradas Palchoudhury (Image courtesy – Balakhana)

“My Grandfather was a very foresighted man and of many talents”, after establishing himself at Moisgunj he would go on to be a pioneer tea planter creating tea plantations all across North Bengal and Assam. “He was a member of the INC, he had built hospitals and banks and helped the community in so many other ways also.”

We were given a souvenir as we were about to leave. Little wooden spoons crafted by Mr. Palchoudhury himself. He did mention that he was very fond of carpentry among other things. I guess having numerous talents runs within the family so to say. He asked if I had seen Thomas Savi’s bed in the other guest room “you should have reminded me to show it to you, it has an arch over it which is very reminiscent of French architecture and is one of a kind”.

Probably next time I said.


We are grateful to the Palchoudhury family for their hospitality and for sharing with us such wonderful insights on the estate’s and their family’s history.


  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Indian Mutiny.” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 4, 2020. .
  2. “Balakhana – Heritage home stay”. In, 2021, [accessed 21 February 2021].
  3. Chanda, P, Nil Bidroho. In, 1st ed., Kolkata, Dey’s Publishing, 2015. 
  4. Das, S, Indigo Cultivation in Undivided Bengal: The History of Indigo   Revolt (In Light Of 150 Years). In, Kolkata, Nakshatra, 2014.
  5. DREW, J, “THE MAN WITH THREE NATIONALITIES”. In The Daily Star, 2018,  [accessed 21 February 2021].

Badluram ka badan: A fallen soldier and myth of a regimental song

Badluram ka Badan

A fallen soldier and myth of a regimental song

A fallen soldier’s quota of rations enabled his regiment to survive a siege by a numerically superior enemy, ultimately leading to the defenders securing a famous victory and the regiment memorizing its dead through a regimental song

By Trinanjan Chakraborty

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Very recently, when a triumphant Saikhom Meerabai Chanu returned home from Tokyo (Olympics) after winning a silver medal in weightlifting, she was welcomed at the Imphal airport by an army posse with the band loudly playing the regimental song. If you could decode the lyrics of the song they were playing, it would go like this: 


Ek khubsurat ladki thi

Usko dekh ke rifleman

Chindi khichna bhul gaya

Havaldar Major dekh liya

Usko pittu lagaya

Badluram ek sipahi thaa

Japan war me mar gaya

Quartermaster smart thaa

Usney ration nikala

Badluram ka badan zamin ke nichey hain

Toh humein uska ration milta hain

Sabashh… hallelujah…

Toh humein uska ration milta hain…


If you are scratching your head after reading the above lines, wondering what this gibberish is, I wouldn’t blame you. After all, it is unlikely that you, or anyone for that matter, would guess that the above lines are excerpts from the song of a proud and fierce regiment of the Indian Army that first found fame in World War II. 


In 2013, UK’s National Army Museum chose the twin battles at Imphal and Kohima in the summer of 1944 as the Greatest Battle in the history of Britain. Just like Stalingrad was the vital turning point of the war in Europe, it was the unbelievable bravery of the British Indian army in the hilly terrains of India’s north east that thwarted the progress of the Imperial Japanese Army and shifted the momentum of the Asian campaign in favor of the Allies, hastening the end of the war. 


Kohima, at present the capital of the Indian state of Nagaland, was located at the summit of a pass that offered General Mutaguchi’s Fifteenth Army the best route from Burma into India. In late March, the Japanese forces cut-off the Imphal – Kohima road and by the start of April, laid siege to the town of Kohima. The main defense of the town was in the form of the 1st battalion of the Assam Regiment, raised just three years earlier, supported by the 4th battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and a few platoons of the paramilitary Assam Rifles. Facing this hastily assembled defensive formation of roughly 2500-men was a 15,000 strong, well armed and stocked Japanese force. Despite their incredible numerical inferiority, the British and Indian soldiers put up a brave rearguard, resulting in a bloody close combat fighting and heavy casualties. One of the early casualties in this fighting was a rifleman by the name of Badluram. 


Here is where the story takes an interesting twist. Apparently, the quartermaster^, who was entrusted with keeping tabs of the soldiers, missed reporting his death. It is unclear whether this was an honest mistake – not improbable in the terrible situation the regiment was faced with – or a smart call by the unnamed quartermaster. Whatever it may have been, his miss – by omission or commission – would have a dramatic impact in the future events that followed. 


With supplies scarce, the battalion had to be satisfied with minimal rations. However, with Badluram’s death not reported, his share of food, provisions and water continued to be drawn from the mess. This would prove critical when the battalion was completely surrounded.  With supply lines cut off, it was the excess supplies that had been drawn in Badluram’s name that now came to the rescue of the beleaguered force, sustaining them through the days when all hope seemed lost. The song probably came into being during those days, when the morale must have been at its lowest and these simple lines would have gone a long way in boosting spirits. 


Hope was finally delivered in the form of the reinforcement from the British 2nd division, who broke through the blockades reaching Kohima on 18th April, 1944. Although the battle raged on for more than a month from there on, it was the Japanese who were now increasingly on the defensive and finally started retreating by mid-May. It was the beginning of the end for Imperial Japan. Assam Regiment earned battle honors for their incredible rearguard in Kohima. 


In 1946, Major M.T. Proctor created the song “Badluram ka Badan” as the regiment’s official song, inspired by and set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” Till date, this song continues to be the song of this proud regiment that has continued its glorious journey post-independence and into the new millennium, becoming an integral part of its identity. 


The tale of Badluram may or may not be 100% historically authentic and accurate. Yet, inherent in it lies a deep message. One of brotherly love and supreme sacrifice. It is in effect a homage by a group of men to their fallen comrades, who did not survive to witness the glorious victory. 


The fallen of the Battle of Kohima are laid in the War Cemetery there. The lines on the famous epitaph there are credited to English classicist John Maxwell Edmonds. Its evocative lines go, 


“When you go home, tell them of us and say

For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”


^ Quartermaster: In terrestrial armies, a quartermaster is generally a relatively senior soldier who supervises stores or barracks and distributes supplies and provisions



16th August: The day of eternal shame in Indian football

16th August

The Day of Eternal Shame in Indian Football

Four decades ago Calcutta witnessed the bloodiest day of Indian football. We relive the fateful day through first-hand narratives of those who lived through the nightmare.

By Trinanjan Chakraborty

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Saturday, 16th August, 1980. Calcutta. The Mecca of Indian sports. The city whose heart beats for the beautiful game. The day couldn’t get any bigger. Archrivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were squaring off in a “Calcutta Derby” at the Eden Gardens.  Being a League encounter, the result was always less significant in the long run, for supporters of either side, however, a victory meant bragging rights. And thoughts of defeat were never entertained.

Neel Madhab Dutta was a young man in his early twenties, a die-hard supporter of East Bengal. If there was a football match involving the Red & Gold brigade, he was a permanent fixture at the ground. That day was no exception. The season had not started well – several big names had left East Bengal for Mohammedan Sporting. But the arrival of three Iranian recruits, especially a mercurial young man named Majid Bishker had infused new hope among the East Bengal faithful. And Pradip Kumar Banerjee, the man who had led the Red & Golds to unprecedented success in the first half of the preceding decade, was back in charge.

As the match progressed, nothing seemed unusual. Like most derbies, it was a tense affair with tempers rising and the gallery also getting worked up. And then suddenly,  it was like a scene straight out of the Walking Dead.

More than 40 years later, the first thing Dutta recalls is the unbelievable volume of bricks and stones that appeared as if magically. Soon, the two sets of supporters got into a free for all melee, baying for each other’s blood. He remembers being thrown  on to the floor and surviving a stampede albeit without shoes, in torn clothes, and several cuts and bruises. Dutta somehow regained his feet and the sight he witnessed stunned him. In one of the adjacent stands, the Ranji Stadium- several fans, trying to escape the madness, were jumping down from the top tier to lower levels. Terrified and in pain, Neel Madhab Dutta’s survival instinct kicked in. He climbed to the top most level and sat there well into the evening – long after the match was over.

When he finally got down and reached the exit, the first sight that greeted him was piles and piles of abandoned footwear and the cries and moans of injured fans. In the darkness, the sound of those moans left the young man traumatised. Dutta saw an agonized old man crying out for his young missing nephew. He recalls walking barefoot from the Eden Gardens to Sealdah station, still in shock and daze. Dutta never attended another football match in his life although he retained a keen interest in the game.

16th August, 1980. The darkest day of Indian football. The day when the beautiful game turned deadly – leaving sixteen dead, countless injured, and families shattered. What happened that day? Why did a football game turn into such unrestrained violence? How did common people, who thronged the ground for the love of football suddenly become so savage with passion? To answer these questions, we need to travel back to over a hundred years to understand the factors that shaped Bengal and Bengalis’ relationship with the beautiful game and what ultimately led to that devastating derby.

Chapter 1

Play audio to immerse into Calcutta Maidan's of electric atmosphere

1877. A carriage bearing a rich Indian lady and her son was passing through Red Road, Calcutta. In the adjacent ground, European soldiers were playing a game of football. The boy was enthralled – he pleaded with his mother to stop the carriage so he could take a closer look. The lady finally relented. As the boy watched from the sidelines, the ball rolled out of play towards him and a soldier asked him to kick it back in play. That kick has been immortalized for posterity as the first time ever a Bengali kicked a football – the reality may have been a little more humdrum and a little less dramatic. But the impact this boy would go on to have on the game of football and its spread across Bengal would be no less than legendary. Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari – that was his name – would legitimately fall in love with the game and in time come to be acknowledged as the “Founding father of Indian football.”

But Sarbadhikari was not the only Bengali to have a profound effect on this game. Before he gained global fame as a spiritual leader, Narendranath Dutta was better known as an avid sportsman. One of the most enduring myths of the Calcutta maidan is how, as a young man, he took seven wickets in a cricket contest against a European side. As he grew up, Swami Vivekananda became a strong proponent of physical excellence. Indians in general and Bengalis, in particular, were perceived as weak and effeminate. Vivekananda wanted to change this perception. Himself an avid practitioner of wrestling, bodybuilding, boxing and horse-riding among others, the great man also exhorted his brethren to follow suit. From his lips emanated the famous clarion call, “You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita. You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles a little stronger.” – There couldn’t have been a more profound pep talk.

Football in Calcutta grew exponentially in the last decade and a half of the nineteenth century. Sarbadhikari’s Sovabazar Club was the first torchbearer of the Indian (Bengali) community’s footballing aspirations, waging lone battles against the European hegemony of the city’s football. Gradually, more followed in his wake. Manmatha Ganguly’s National Association, Sir Dookhiram Majumdar’s Aryan Club, Kalicharan Mitter’s Kumartuli Park and Mohun Bagan Athletic Club (formed by three aristocratic North Calcutta families) all came up, as football became a symbol of expression against the shackles of foreign rule. Though success on the field was rare – a combination of lack of experience, biased officiating, poor infrastructure (most native teams played barefoot) – that didn’t deter the zeal in any way.

As nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the nationalistic fervor in Bengal kept rising. Lord Curzon’s infamous Bengal Partition Act added fuel to fire. All over the province, sports clubs became a front for the armed insurgency movement. The football grounds also saw tempers rising. “Gorer math-e Gora petano” (beating up players and supporters of European clubs at the Maidan) became a way for Bengali young men to level up with their colonial masters and their oppressive rule.

July 29th, 1911 – a day that has now entered the annals of Indian football history. In the final of the IFA Shield, eleven Bengali men defeated East Yorkshire Regiment – a British side. Although it was not the first time an Indian team had defeated a European one (Sovabazar is believed to be the pioneer), the high-profile nature of the game and the staunch nationalistic sentiment that pervaded every sphere of life made this a landmark incident and a slap in the face of the mighty British Raj. It was a strike back of justice for a century-and-a-half of oppression – dating back to Clive’s treachery on the Nawab of Murshidabad and right up to Curzon’s malevolent plans of bifurcating Bengal.

Even as the nationalist movement raged on, football clubs kept sprouting up across Calcutta. In 1920, Jorabagan Club was facing Mohun Bagan when one of Jorabagan’s best players, Sailesh Bose, was inexplicably left out of the starting eleven. One of the leading functionaries of the club, Suresh Chaudhuri felt infuriated at this and soon left Jorabagan. He, along with some of his close friends, formed a new football club. As the founding members all hailed from the eastern part of Bengal, the new club came to be christened “East Bengal” club. They say that the flow of time is like a stream, smooth in general but capable of rising into big waves when pebbles and stones are thrown in. Probably, no one realized it then, but this moment was akin to a gigantic boulder being dumped into the time stream of Bengali history.

Jyotish Chandra Guha better known as “JC” Guha, is an iconic name in the annals of East Bengal club. Having represented the club as a goalkeeper in the 1930s, he later on became a secretary of the club and also its unofficial coach / manager during the mid to late 1940s. He held the post of club secretary for well over two decades and had an umbilical connection with the club.

On that day, 16th August, 1980, seated in the stands was someone who came from the famous Guha stock. Anindit Guha was barely sixteen. Born to love East Bengal, he was eagerly looking forward to the clash. But a sight he saw that day would come to haunt him forever. As fights broke out in the stands of the Ranji Stadium, he watched with shock as a man was pushed over the edges several feet down into the tier below. It mentally scarred this young man forever. He vowed never to step inside a Calcutta stadium for a football match ever again. More than 40 years later, even though his passion for East Bengal remains unwavering, he has not budged from his vow. He watched his beloved Red & Gold take the field in matches outside Calcutta but never did he again step inside the ground in Calcutta. One can only imagine the horrors that the day inflicted on this young mind.

Twelve-year old Ajay Pal worked in the canteen at the New Secretariat building for meager wages. He had bought a ticket to the Ranji Stadium worth 60 paise for six rupees in the black market. That evening of the match, Pal was among the missing.


But that terrible day exacted a far worse price from people even younger. Twelve-year old Ajay Pal worked in the canteen at the New Secretariat building for meager wages. He had bought a ticket to the Ranji Stadium worth 60 paise for six rupees in the black market. That evening of the match, Pal was among the missing. His father’s heartrending shouts filled the corridors of the SSKM Hospital. And they weren’t the only ones. Thankfully, Pal was subsequently located, battered and bruised but alive at Shambhu Nath Pandit Hospital.

But some had it worse even without stepping inside the ground.

In 1980, Goutam Ghosh was another young man in his early twenties – on the verge of stepping into the next phase of life. A regular at the ground to cheer for his beloved Mohun Bagan, for some reason he missed the match that day. His world turned upside down with a phone call from his best friend’s parents in the evening, enquiring about the whereabouts of Pradipta, his friend. Ghosh knew what Pradipta’s worried parents did not – his friend had gone to Eden Gardens for the match. And now he was untraceable. After more than 40 years, it is an emotional struggle for Ghosh to recall what followed in the coming hours. He remembers rushing to Bhowanipur police station and being directed to the morgue of SSKM Hospital where most of the casualties had been brought in. One after another, the white covers were removed to show him the victim’s faces. It was an experience that no one would wish on their worst enemies. Thankfully, Goutam Ghosh’s story had a happy ending. Pradipta returned home late that night.

But Howrah’s Dhananjay Das’s family was not among the fortunate. Das, who ran an automotive business, was crazy about Mohun Bagan. Once, he left home for Bombay informing family that it was a business trip. It was only when he returned that they came to know he had gone to watch his favorite club compete in the Rovers Cup. That fateful day too, he was present at the doomed Ranji Stadium. His family did not know but when he did not return late in the evening, they started getting worried. Unbeknownst to them then, Das was one of the thirteen corpses whom Goutam Ghosh had checked while searching for his missing friend. His unrequited love for the game and his club had extracted too steep a price.

1947 – No single year has had as dramatic an impact on the history of the subcontinent as this. Long awaited and precious independence came at the cost of partition of the country. Bengal was one of the two provinces (other being Punjab) which suffered the most due to this. The human cost of partition was unimaginable. The Muslim dominated eastern districts became East Pakistan. It sparked one of the largest human migrations in documented human history. By 1951, according to Census data, 4, 33, 000 Hindu refugees from East Pakistan had arrived in Calcutta. This number kept increasing as the years went by. The state they were coming to was but a poor and cheap imitation of what was once the richest province of entire Asia. The war years, the famine of 1943, the riots of 1946 had left Bengal ravaged. The partition was another killer blow. The agriculturally rich eastern districts now were no longer a part of India, badly hitting the supply line for industries like jute. Burgeoning population aggravated by industrial decline presented a nightmarish situation.

Added into this volatile mix was the refugee influx leading to heightened socio-cultural tensions. There was a long-standing cultural divide between the populations of eastern and the western part of Bengal. In some ways, Kipling’s “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” well describes this divide. Till the partition, this divide, although real, remained somewhat subdued. But post 1947, this became a pronounced reality. Both sides held a narcissistic view of cultural superiority. The people of western Bengal, called Ghotis by their eastern counterparts, looked upon their brethren from the east as loud and uncouth, not worthy of being on the same pedestal.  On the other hand, those from the east, referred to as Bangals, disparaged the Ghotis as petty, lazy and mean-minded, among others. A common derogatory remark by the people of west Bengal for the refugees was the sign of barbed wire on their backs – an insensitive playback on the movement from east to west post partition.

Most of the refugees had lost all their wealth and life’s savings while fleeing from East Pakistan. These homeless people thus became suspect to the original residents.

This evolving socio-political situation also had a dramatic effect on Calcutta football. The rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in pre-Independence Bengal wasn’t exactly about brotherly love. There had been clashes between their supporters. However, partition and the massive refugee influx dramatically altered the status quo. For the refugees from East Bengal, who suffered the most ignoble of horrors, having lost everything  and leading a miserable existence now in refugee-camps and colonies, the East Bengal football team became a symbol of hope, a window of escape to utopia. Their love for the football team now became an inseparable part of their identity. This period also saw a remarkable ascendancy for the club with the coming together of five incredibly talented forwards – orchestrated by the legendary JC Guha – dubbed the Pancha Pandavas. As East Bengal’s fan following rose dramatically, the original residents of west Bengal, who formed the core support base of Mohun Bagan, felt threatened and entrenched themselves deeper into the club that symbolized their very existence and culture. A rivalry deep-rooted in racial difference, one to rival the Old Firm of Scotland, thus took shape.

Play audio to immerse into the vintage era of radio commentary

Corruption had by then become a feature of all walks of life in the state. Black marketing of tickets for sports matches was a most profitable initiative. Garfield Sobers’ West Indies were playing the New Year test at Eden Gardens. The ground was overflowing with people. More than 20, 000 duplicate tickets had been sold and there was no place to even stand inside the stadium. Spectators started crossing the boundary line and milling onto the field. Used often to quell public protests in the most brutal manner, the police by then had become accustomed to going trigger (or lathi) happy at any given opportunity. That morning, their weapon of choice was the bamboo stick.

As a senior spectator collapsed in a pool of blood, all hell broke loose. Bamboo poles were uprooted and irate spectators chased cops and started beating them up. The canvas roofs of the stands were set on fire, police charged tear-gas and it got unbelievably ugly. Outside the stadium, buses were torched, shops had their windows smashed. Several of the West Indian players went and took shelter in the Mohun Bagan tent for safety. Fast bowler Charlie Griffith lost his way and ran all around the Maidan before arriving at the team hotel (Grand), on the verge of collapse. The image of West Indian Conrad Hunte climbing the stands to save the national flags from burning down became one for the ages1.

Sadly though, far from being an eye-opener, this behavior from the upholders of law and order became a norm. A few years later, for an India/Australia test match, there was a mad rush for tickets as the counters opened. The police started violently lathi charging, a stampede broke out and soon six people lay dead. Even this immense tragedy didn’t open any eyes as we were to learn a decade later.

On that dark day of August, 1980, as the D block of the Ranji Stadium erupted in violence, the cops sat back coolly, watching the game. Ever since the first United Front government came to power in the state in 1967, the police force had become accustomed to orders of “staying-out” of trouble between establishment owners and trade unions2. This inertia had ended during the tumultuous five years of Congress rule in the seventies when the police force had effectively functioned as a private militia of the government. When the Left Front government came to power in 1977, police action (or lack of it) gradually became remote controlled from the men in power.

That day too, only when the match was nearly over, did they descend in full vigor, raining blows a dozen a minute on the spectators.  A mad stampede erupted and people were crushed beneath a scared crowd desperately trying to get out and save their lives.

Chapter 2

Play audio to immerse into the unfortunate scenes on the fateful day

Deepak Majumdar was a young man of 25 in 1980. He belonged to a rare breed – a proud “Bangal” (East Bengali origin) but a ferocious supporter of Mohun Bagan. Holding a ticket to Ranji Stadium, he was frustrated as he was late in reaching the ground and found the “good” seats all taken. Left without a choice, he, along with his friend, climbed towards the topmost section. Looking back, he feels that delay probably saved his life. As he saw scenes of violence that he could scarcely believe, Majumdar and his friend stayed rooted at their perch, daring not to move out of fear of their lives. A sight he saw has haunted him since. Amid the fracas, an unfortunate soul was pushed from the top tier, hurtling through the air into the lower stand. Several more jumped, voluntarily, just to save themselves from the deathly dance that engulfed the Ranji Stadium. After so many years, the horrors of that afternoon haven’t left Majumdar.


Majumdar and his friend stayed rooted at their perch, daring not to move out of fear of their lives. A sight he saw has haunted him since. Amid the fracas, an unfortunate soul was pushed from the top tier, hurtling through the air into the lower stand.


Alok Chatterjee was a top sports journalist of the time with a leading Bengali news daily. What unfolded that day, while saddening, did not surprise him. In his opinion, since the late 60s, spectator behavior and police and administrative callousness were only building up to such a tragedy. During that ill-fated visit by the Australian cricket team in 1969/70, an embarrassing incident had taken place. One of the Australian team members, Doug Walters was conscripted in the Australian armed forces. A false rumor spread that Walters had been on tour to Vietnam. Hundreds of young men, fuelled by Communist ideals, besieged the Australian team hotel in protest, throwing stones at the windows and vandalizing nearby shops. When the Australian team bus was journeying towards the airport after the match, it was subjected to stone pelting near the city center.

Even after so many years, Chatterjee remains scathing in his assessment of the police and holds them primarily responsible for the horrors that unfolded that day. Interestingly, it is a sentiment shared by the then police commissioner of Calcutta, Nirupam Som who was unrestrained in criticizing his own force for their incompetence on that day.

Very few countries or states have suffered as much tumult as West Bengal did in the years post-independence. But it took on a whole new life of its own since 24th May 1967. The next decade in the history of the state was of agony and bloodshed. First came the Naxalbari uprising which started off as a rural movement but soon found most vocal support amongst Calcutta’s colleges and universities. It was followed by events across the border. Since the early 60s, voices for autonomy had been becoming stronger in East Pakistan. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won an overwhelming majority in the 1970 Pakistan parliamentary elections, the matter came to a boil. What followed was one of the worst state-sponsored genocides in human history.

For the state of West Bengal, it was a nightmarish action replay of events from almost a quarter century ago. Once again, streams of refugees came in from across the border, in even more wretched condition than before, bringing with them unspeakable tales of horror, anger and discontent. The environment only worsened with the declaration of Emergency in 1975. This is where the reel and real life also merged, bringing to life the angry young man.

One of the worst sufferers of this was the beautiful game in Calcutta. Football matches in Calcutta had always been contested very passionately. But this passion started taking dangerous tones from the early 1970s. The anger flowing through the society started finding its way into the football grounds. The biggest change was in the way footballers were perceived. Even in the 60s, the Maidan loved its footballers. Losses broke hearts but it did not make footballers public enemies. This started changing in the  seventies.

Extreme emotions started becoming the norm. In the final of IFA Shield in 1975, East Bengal recorded the biggest ever Derby margin, thrashing Mohun Bagan 5-0. An East Bengal supporter in the ground died, his heart stopping beating from the uncontrolled euphoria. A different tragedy unfolded for a Mohun Bagan supporter. Unable to bear the humiliation, he committed suicide, leaving behind a heart-rending note, saying that he wished to be re-born as a footballer and avenge this ignominy. That night, goalkeeper Bhaskar Ganguly who let in four of the five goals became a hunted figure. Ganguly left Calcutta and stayed hidden in a relative’s place for several days out of fear. Subrata Bhattacharya, one of the greatest players in Mohun Bagan’s history remembers the large crowd outside the Mohun Bagan tent on the evening of that 0-5 match, in frenzied anger. He, along with another player, escaped through the back door and hid in a small eatery on the Strand Road, fearing for their lives. It was 2:30 in the night when the venerable Sailen Manna came, escorted by a police jeep, and rescued the two scared young men.

This became a norm in the mid to late 70s. Victories were accompanied by ceaseless taunting of the opposition. Worse came in losses. Clashes between rival fans became a common affair and often irate supporters took out frustrations on state buses and shops, vandalizing these. The “gora” beating returned in a twisted and ugly form. Quite regularly, when they lost to smaller teams, players from these teams were manhandled. While supporters of all three big clubs indulged in these nefarious deeds, the worst came from East Bengal supporters. Fuelled by anger, their rabid behavior terrorized the Maidan and was portending the oncoming of a tragedy of herculean proportions. Despite their deep affection for East Bengal, Neel Madhab Dutta and Anindit Guha both endorse this quite staunchly.

Although inadvertently, a legend of Indian football may have played some role in the above. PK Banerjee is one of the biggest names of Indian football ever. In the early 70s, after hanging up his boots, he began coaching East Bengal. Prior to him, football coaching in India was more about grooming young players making them technically proficient. Banerjee changed all that. Possessing an astute mind, he quickly realized that a passionate fan base can contribute in a big way to a team’s success. His coaching style played a key role in increasing football frenzy in Calcutta of the 70s. During matches, Banerjee was hugely animated, exhorting his players and bringing the crowd into the mix through his gestures. Everyone loved PK sir – the players, the crowds and the press. 

Football in Calcutta was transitioning into the realm of drama. But sadly, the environment of anger and violence in the city meant that this volatile mix could explode  any moment. As it did on that fateful August afternoon. Somnath Ata, a lifelong Mohun Bagan loyalist, was a regular  at the matches  his club was playing. He believes some culpability, albeit indirect, must go to the late Banerjee. His animated behavior, throwing his hands in the air, exasperated facial expressions –contributed to further inciting what was already a volatile crowd, believes Ata.  

It is something the iconic Sailen Manna attributed to in his speech at a ceremony to remember the victims of the tragedy. The doyen of Indian football made a plea with folded hands for everyone involved to stop “inciting” players and participants. 

Ata’s most telling experiences  were recorded a day or two later when he boarded his usual local train. He shared a common passion for the game with several daily passengers who were also regulars like him at the ground. He observed a missing face or two and learnt a few days later that they were among the ill-fated that day.    

In any tragedy, some individuals end up grabbing the spotlight – often in an unintended manner. On that afternoon, the man who was thrust into this undesirable position was Dilip Palit. Having been with Mohun Bagan for a while, he had now jumped the fence to sign with their fierce rivals. Such an act was considered an unpardonable sin by supporters of all three major clubs in those days. Surojit Sengupta, a darling of the East Bengal crowd during the glory filled 1970s, had moved to Mohammedan Sporting that year. He was at the ground, covering the match for a Bengali magazine. The fact that he left the ground ten-fifteen minutes before the final whistle – unwilling to take a chance with the venomous wrath of the Red & Gold fans – speaks volumes about the terror that mad football mobs generated in the city then.  

Seeing Palit turning out for their arch rivals certainly made the Bagan fans furious. Coach Banerjee, having spent the previous few years with Mohun Bagan knew that Bagan’s pacy left-out Bidesh Bose was likely to cause major problems. He positioned Dilip Palit, known for his physical style of play, in an unorthodox, advanced right wing back position. As play kicked off, Bose was making his marauding runs down the left flank. Repeatedly, Palit was foiling his runs, at times using too much physicality. If a foul was called, the Red & Gold supporters were expressing dissent, fueled on by their coach. If one wasn’t given, their rivals were letting their anger be known in no uncertain terms. The fact that Palit, a Judas in the eyes of Green & Maroon supporters, was involved in the action, was adding to the fire. 




Chapter 3

Play audio to immerse into 1980's Calcutta

We spoke with many who were present at Eden Gardens on that fateful afternoon. No matter how near or far they were from the doomed stand, they were affected in some way or the other. Bikash Chaudhuri is an obsessed lover of the East Bengal club. Such was his passion for his club, he went to watch a game a day or two after he was married, antagonizing several family members. On that August afternoon, he was seated far away, almost diametrically opposite the Ranji Stadium. From that far, he could make out something was amiss, but barely realized the extent of the damage.. It was much later, when the dust had settled, that the sight startled him. Prone and lifeless bodies were being lowered from the upper tier to the lower levels, hung down from the edge – some heads up, some heads down. It was a sight that has haunted Chaudhuri for more than 40 years now. While we were speaking to him, we could feel his immense discomfort remembering the scenes, and could only imagine the scale of the trauma that would have consumed him on that day.

The sharp deterioration in the behavior of the football fans in the cities throughout the seventies had an unfortunate casualty – depriving the Maidan of something that may have still played a role in preventing the tragedy on that day. Senior football lovers, who went to the ground to savor the beauty of the game, were increasingly feeling threatened and disappointed with the way the supporter behavior was shaping up. By the late seventies, many of them started turning away from the game they so loved because of the behavior on and off the field. A good example of this was the response that awaited Somnath Ata when he returned home that evening. His father, a football lover himself, sternly ordered him to  reduce his Mohun Bagan membership card to ashes. Such was the disgust that had permeated into veteran watchers of the game.

This dwindling number of older, saner heads was a portent to the brewing storm. Moreover,  the Ranji Stadium, having the cheapest tickets, attracted  a younger audience and consequently, hotter heads. Subhra Kanti Dey was a regular at Eden Gardens then  and had watched many matches at the Ranji Stadium. Looking back, he counts himself fortunate  to not have picked up a ticket at the doomed stand that day. But even after so long, he finds it incredulous that the authorities had not foreseen a tragedy coming. In Dey’s opinion, the narrow passages and exit corridors were a disaster waiting to happen. It is unfortunate that the ones who were entrusted with the prevention of such an occurrence did not realize the same.

The embers that had been glowing in the stands finally exploded about half way into the match. Bidesh Bose, frustrated at the constant attention from Dilip Palit, lashed out at him. The referee promptly issued Bose a red card. As he exited the pitch, the Mohun Bagan section of the crowd was furious at what they  considered biased officiating. But the match official followed this up with something bizarre. Having chosen not to caution Palit earlier, he suddenly flashed out a marching order to him. This was the point that broke the dam.

The respective member galleries housed rival fans thereby preventing them from coming in close contact. The Ranji Stadium, however, housed both sets of fans. People fell on each other like blood thirsty hounds. As unimaginable violence ensued in the stands, quite incredibly the match progressed to a goalless draw. The cops, gloriously unmindful till the final whistle, then proceeded to unleash their batons on the crowd .

As with any incident involving loss of lives in India, the events of 16th August were also followed by the blame game. While the Indian Football Association (IFA) was the agency presiding over the game in West Bengal, the organization of the match was under the aegis of the sports ministry of the West Bengal government. The two exchanged allegations and barbs in the days following the match without any side coming up with a single positive step. It became an extension of the political rivalry between the chief minister Jyoti Basu and opposition leader Priyoranjan Das Munshi who was also the key person calling the shots at IFA.

Amal Dutta, who was in charge of Mohun Bagan for this match wrote this scathing letter to chief minister Basu:

You have done the right thing by not coming to see the match. In that case, you will have to bear the pain of watching the last breaths of a number of young lives simply due to inaction on the part of your police. … This accident surely disproves your worth whatsoever as ministers for Home and Sports. … You won’t be excused even if you immediately appoint an enquiry commission as mere eyewash. You must have realized the extent of decline of moral values among the youth during the course of Federation Cup football played early in the year. It must be well known to you that football is now more than a game to the Bengali – it is an entity to them. To sustain this entity, large sections of the unemployed, aimless and reckless young society take drugs before and during a match like this. This information is well known to the police department and should have been reported to you by them. Besides this, in the last few years, spectators have got used to cany arms such as blade, razor, knife, brick and iron-rod while watching the matches of their favorite clubs especially in the 60 paise gallery. Whether your police have made any sincere attempt to stop this hooliganism or arrest the culprits is not known. It is really surprising as to how your government could take the responsibility of organizing such an important match without having made any attempts to avert clashes and arrange sitting allotments of rival supporters to two different blocks. In that case, how can you evade responsibility for the disaster?

In the following days, outrage gripped the city. Newspapers were full of condemnatory letters – many demanding scrapping of football matches altogether. Multitudes were permanently scarred by the horrors of that day. Among them was KK Chatterjee. He had grown up watching stalwarts like Chuni Goswami, Balaram, Ram Bahadur and Thangaraj in the sixties. Professional engagements had kept him away from Calcutta for the better part of the next decade. That day, he had gone to the ground hoping to catch a fascinating contest. What he experienced dampened his enthusiasm forever. He never attended a club game in Calcutta ever again but he did visit the stadium to watch India play in tournaments like the Nehru Cup.

Swapan Kumar Bhowmick, a passionate East Bengal supporter who was present at the ground that day returned home to an anxiety-stricken family. In the coming years, he kept his visits to the football ground a secret.. Singer Manna Dey was an avid football lover and passionate Mohun Bagan fan. He was present at the ground that afternoon. He would later compose and sing a song titled “Khela football khela” that recounted the ghastly tragedy of Eden Gardens. The beautiful game’s popularity was dealt a blow from which many feel it never recovered.

More than forty years later, some questions still remain unanswered and unexplained. Sudhin Chatterjee, the match official, was considered among the best in Calcutta football. Did he simply have a poor day at the office? Or was there something more to it? And, despite knowing how tempers ran wild in a big derby, why were the cops so inert even after the violence erupted? Why were the tell-tale signs of danger at the Ranji Stadium, obvious to spectators, ignored summarily? The IFA claimed that the state government rejected its proposal of separate seating for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans. Moreover, IFA’s initiative to have a temporary hospital setup within the Eden premises was also allegedly shot down by the government and police. The former would have perhaps averted the tragedy altogether. The latter would have saved some more lives by ensuring immediate medical attention. Why were these proposals rejected?


On one side of this office, a huge stack of construction rubbish was piled up. A lot of the bricks and stone blocks that were used that day came from this pile. How did this pile escape the attention of the organizers?


A bigger mystery remains in the sudden appearance of huge blocks of stones and concrete chunks in the Ranji Stadium.  A week after the match-day, a team of the now-defunct news daily Jugantar went to ‘inspect’ Eden Gardens. The visit led to some shocking discoveries. Just below the Ranji Stadium was a temporary office of the Calcutta Metro Railway which was then under construction. On one side of this office, a huge stack of construction rubbish was piled up. A lot of the bricks and stone blocks that were used that day came from this pile. How did this pile escape the attention of the organizers? There is no satisfactory answer. Even more astounding was the discovery of a partly demolished brick oven, in a corridor on the top tier of D-1 block that witnessed the worst of the action. According to the Jugantar report, these ovens were built to cook meals for the small teams that often come to play at the stadium. Every time before a big football or cricket match, the organizers usually demolished such structures. But when the match began on 16th August, 1980, this oven was still standing intact. During the fracas, bricks were broken off from this oven and used as weapons. Was it simple negligence? For a city long used to witnessing spontaneous crowd trouble, how did not one but two potential sources of “trouble material” escape the attention of the police and match organizers? The answer has remained in the domain of conjecture.

One thing is for certain. Not a lot changed even after this horrific day. While the Calcutta football season was cancelled, pan-India tournaments went ahead as per schedule. In the Rovers Cup in Bombay, these two archrivals clashed again. After a nasty foul, the referee proceeded to give marching orders to an East Bengal player. The player snatched the card from the stunned official’s hand and threw it away and also refused to go off the field. The crowd was riled by this insolent behavior. Among those who were left disgusted at this incident was none other than matinee idol Dilip Kumar. If this incident had taken place in Calcutta, there may well have been a repeat of the 16th August tragedy.

A few years later, in the final of the 1987 All-Airlines Gold Cup, once again the supporters of the two clubs came to blows on the stands. Thankfully, a major untoward incident was averted. As recently as 2009, during an I-league derby at the Yuvabharati Krirangan, Mohun Bagan defender Rahim Nabi was hit on the head by a brick thrown from the gallery. In an eerie replay of that black day, bricks and concrete slabs had almost instantly appeared in the galleries after a controversial red card. Most of the people present that day felt that the  bigger tragedy was that no long-standing lessons were learned from the atrocious incident and individuals or agencies whose negligence contributed to this wonton massacre of life went unpunished. The fact that there hasn’t been a repeat is seen as more fortuitous than as a result of preventive measures.

Sixteen lives were lost that afternoon on 16th August, 1980, the youngest being fifteen-and-a-half years old. They had come with dreams of cheering on their favourite team. They returned covered in white shrouds. As decades have passed, the memories of this incident have dimmed in the public mind. But for those who lost their loved ones on that fateful August day, time has failed to heal those wounds.


  1. In his autobiography, Conrad Hunte stated that it was not him but a plainclothes policeman who had retrieved the flags.
  2. “The Labor minister, Subodh Banerjee, was perfectly clear about what was now generally happening in industrial West Bengal. On 19 June, he told trade unionists in Rourkela that ‘I have allowed a duel between the employees and employers in West Bengal and the police have been taken out of the picture so that the strength of each other may be known.’ There was some indication that the whole apparatus of law enforcement had been pressed to get out of the picture. …” – chapter 10: Road to Revolution, page 324, Calcutta: The City Revealed, Geoffrey Moorhouse


  1. Jugantor newspaper archives 19th – 24th August, 1980


We are sincerely thankful to all for their time and patience during the research work

Alok Chatterjee, Deepak Majumdar, Subhra Kanti Dey, Anindit Guha, Neel Madhab Dutta, Goutam Ghosh, Somnath Ata, Swapan Kr. Bhowmick, Bikash Chaudhuri, KK Chatterjee, Subhasis Roy, Shiladitya Das, Adisri Guha, Proma Sanyal , Himadri Sekhar Sarkar, Aritra Biswas, Uddalak Das, Suman Bhowmick, Madhurya Chaudhuri, Madhumita Dutta & Surajit Sengupta


We are grateful to

National Library of India, British Library Endangered Archives Programme, Jugantar, Ananda Bazar Patrika and. Amrita Bazar Patrika


Research & Development Team

Trinanjan Chakraborty, Abhinav Maitra, Subhajit Sengupta, Aratrika Ganguly, Priyadarshini Basu, Indranath Mukherjee & Srinwantu Dey

When an Indian boy gave his green turban to stitch the Pakistani flag

When an Indian boy gave his green turban to stitch the Pakistani flag

By Srinwantu Dey

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In the vastly complex political landscape of India and Pakistan, there is an obscure story of an unforgettable day in 1947, when a group of young boys, from the twin nations, unfurled their national flags in the most bizarre of circumstances.

Before delving into this gripping account, one must understand the meaning and importance of Jamboree. Jamboree is a word with a fairly complex etymology[note 1]. Based on the most popular belief, it traces its root to the Swahili word Jumbo, meaning Hello. In the world of Scouting, “a Jamboree is a large gathering of Scouts, at a national or international level”. The Scouting program garnered global fame after Robert Baden-Powell founded it in 1908[1]. The first World Scout Jamboree was held in 1920 in the United Kingdom and the latest 24th edition was celebrated in West Virginia in 2019.

The sixth World Scout Jamboree was held in 1947 and was hosted by France at Moisson, a village on the outskirts of Paris. It was a retired shooting range of the World War II era, located on the bank of Seine. This was the first Jamboree held after the devastating World War II and was aptly named the Jamboree of Peace (Jamboree Mondial de la Paix) [2].

The Boy Scout movement had already gained momentum across undivided British India by then. After 1911, the program was opened for native Indians and had started gaining prominence in Calcutta, Mysore, Jabalpur, Allahabad, Shimla, and Madras. In the province of Western Punjab, the Scouting program was introduced in the towns of Lahore and Ghora Gali. For the Jamboree Mondial de la Paix in 1947, 165 Boy Scouts were selected from all parts of undivided India with Dhanmal Mathur of Mayo College as the Scoutmaster, to be led by G.J.J. Thadeus, a staunch Christian from Kerala [3].

The group of youngsters embarked upon their voyage from Bombay to Paris via Southampton on a ship named SS Alkantara. It took them 18 days to reach England via the Suez Canal. The boys experienced massive sea-sickness. They struggled with sleeping, walking around, and even eating, as most of the food on the ship had beef in it. The Hindus would not eat it, and the Muslim boys too rejected the food in solidarity. After enduring all of this, the boys eventually reached Moisson[4]

It was a true amalgamation of cultures of the world. About 40,000 Scouts[5] from 24 different nations joined the opening ceremony on August 9, 1947, six days before India gained independence. The first week went by celebrating brotherhood, but things changed suddenly when the camp received the news of India’s independence and the resultant partition.

Indian contingent scouts in Paris, 1947 (Source: FPJ Bureau)

Indian contingent scouts in Paris, 1947 (Source: FPJ Bureau)

It was August 15, 1947. The uncertain Boy Scouts realized that they did not belong to the same nation anymore. Scoutmasters of the respective groups decided to hoist two different flags representing the separate nations with the Scout flag in the middle. The Indian High Commission of London sent them boxes of sweets to celebrate the independence with an Indian tricolour flag[5]. Unfortunately, there was no Pakistani flag available, as it was only on August 11, 1947 that the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan approved the design of the Pakistan national flag[6]. The Muslim Boy Scouts of Pakistan had only seen a picture of the proposed Pakistani flag in a local newspaper. Meanwhile, Kurushid Abbas Gardezi, the boy from Multan, and his Scout Iqbal Qureshi, along with the Punjab and Rajasthan contingent, were given the task of arranging the Pakistani flag, a day before the flag hoisting ceremony. These boys then came up with a brilliant idea![7]

Gardezi tore his white shirt and Madan Mohan, an Indian boy from Shimla, offered his green turban[note 2] to provide the fabric for the flag of Pakistan. Two French Girl Guides stitched the fabrics together all night, and what they produced was the handmade Pakistani flag Parcam-i sitārah o-hilāl or the flag of the crescent and star[8]. While back home at about the same time, the Indian subcontinent was witnessing the largest and most traumatic human migration in world history with people from the two religions mass-murdering each other. In this backdrop, the story of a Pakistani flag made from an Indian boy’s green turban bears special significance.

It was a riveting historic moment. Gardezi, Qureshi, and their young friends were the first ones to raise the Pakistan flag on foreign soil, far away from their homeland, on the day of liberation. During the flag hoisting ceremony, the Indians sang ‘Jana Gana Mana as their national anthem, but Pakistan was yet to decide on theirs, so all the Boy Scouts decided to sing ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha[9][note 3]. That remarkable day witnessed for the first time, the two independent dominions, India and Pakistan, unfurling the two new flags one beside another, at an international gathering.

The Boy Scouts soon after started their 16-days-long return voyage to Bombay on RMS Strathmore, the historic ship that carried Don Bradman’s Australia team to England for the Ashes in 1938. It is the same ship that took the 1936 Olympics Gold Medalist, Dhyan Chand, and the Indian Hockey Team home from Berlin, accompanied by the Nawab of Pataudi and Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram[10]. This was no ordinary journey either! All the Scouts, who had travelled to Paris as the residents of one nation, were returning as the citizens of two separate countries.

The situation was grave. They heard the news of partition and the ongoing violence in the name of religion back home. Thadius, fearing violence on board the ship, advised the boys to guard the deck in turns to ensure nobody is pushed into the water. The sleepless and frightening journey came to an end when the Strathmore docked at the port of Bombay. Back then, Bombay was burning with religious tension and riots. The Boy Scouts bid farewell to each other and the officials escorted the Muslim boys to Lahore and Karachi[11]

For some of them, the world had turned upside down in a matter of a few weeks. Swaran Singh, a Punjabi boy from an opulent family of Western Punjab, was one of the unfortunate boys. He came back only to find his parents waiting homeless at a railway station[12]. Aftab, a Muslim boy from Ajmer, stayed on in India on a quest to find his parents. His Hindu friends accompanied Aftab, gave him a Hindu name, hid him in a first-class train compartment, protected him from the rioting mob and escorted him to his parents in Ajmer[13].

The 1947 World Jamboree was a historic journey of smiles, tears, and symphony. The boys returned home unharmed. Ranbir Singh of the Rajasthan contingent grew up to be a celebrated polymath. His fellow compatriot Jasdev Singh became a popular commentator for Doordarshan[note 4] and All India Radio. Later in life, he covered nine Olympics, and was also the iconic voice for India’s Republic Day parade[14]. Pakistan Boy Scouts Association honoured Kurushid Abbas Gardezi by presenting him with the Lifetime Achievement Award[15]

The future, however, was a stark contrast for a few; perhaps a grieving testimony of the hostile future of the two nations. One of the Boy Scouts from India at the Jamboree was Colonel Narendra Kumar (also known as the Bull), a famous mountaineer who climbed the Himalayas and the Karakorams. He was also an Indian soldier, who played a key role in Operation Meghdoot to reclaim the Siachen glacier in 1984. Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui, on the other hand, was Colonel Narendra’s good friend who had hoisted the Jamboree Organization flag in 1947, and later joined the Pakistan Air Force. During a siege of IAF Halwara Air Base in 1965, he made the supreme personal sacrifice.[16][17].

The Hindu and Muslim youngster, who together unfurled the flags of two new dominions for the first time on a foreign soil, could barely imagine that it was only the beginning of a bloodthirsty rivalry for the years to come! More importantly, this unusual story has faded into oblivion. 


  • Etymology is the study of the history and origin of words.
  • A turban is a type of customary headwear by people of various cultures with prominent traditions found in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Wearing turbans is common among Sikhs in the Indian subcontinent serving as a religious observance. 
  • “Sare Jahan se Accha” , (Translation: Better than the entire world, is our Hindustan,”), is an Urdu language patriotic song written by poet Muhammad Iqbal.
  • Doordarshan is an autonomous, public service broadcasting organization founded by the Government of India established in 1959, providing digital television service across India. 



[1] WARREN, ALLEN. 1986. “Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout movement and citizen training in Great Britain, 1900–1920.” The English Historical Review CI, no. CCCXCIX (April): 376–398.

[2][5]  The Guardian. 2014. “16 August 1947: The world in miniature: 40,000 Scouts.” The Guardian.

[3][4][11][13]  Sinh, Ranbir. 2019. “Jamboree de La Paix (Jamboree of the Peace).” India of the Past.

[5][9] The Canadian Parvasi. 2017. “How a Sikh boy scout gave his turban to create Pakistani flag.” The Canadian Parvasi, August 11, 2017, 1.

[6] Dawn. 2011. “Facts about the Pakistan flag.” Dawn, August 12, 2011.

[7][15] World Scouting. 2011. “Veteran Pakistani Scouter Gardezi honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award.” World Scouting.

[8] Jafari, Aqeel A. 2010. Pakistan Chronicle. Karachi: Virsa Fazli Sons.

[9] Scroll. 2017. “Dhyan Chand on chasing Olympic glory, being snubbed and meeting Don Bradman.”

[12][16] Col N Kumar, N N Bhatia. 2016. Soldier Mountaineer: The Colonel who got Siachen Glacier for India. Delhi: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.

[14] Bhandari, Prakash. 2018. “Not just India, Jasdev Singh was equally popular in Pakistan.” Times of India, September 26, 2018.

[17] Dispatch News Desk. 2020. “Squadron Leader Sarfaraz Ahmed Rafiqui— A fighter whose courage made his enemies to salute his dead body.” Dispatch News Desk.

Kings in exile: The longing for a homeland

Kings in Exile

The longing for a homeland

What do the Last Mughal Emperor and the Last Burmese sovereign have in common? They remain in perpetual Exile. As we revisit a troubled past their tales and fates come across as not very dissimilar from each other. This is but a small snippet, a window into their last days spent away from their beloved homeland

By Aratrika Ganguly

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The invaders were at the door, to claim a very precious price.

Mandalay appeared like a ghost town, it’s beautiful streets were lined up with large columns of British troops. People were afraid to venture out. Inside the Golden palace the affairs were more chaotic, people were crying, running and some trying to salvage or take away whatever they could. Thibaw was only 26 at the time when Her Majesty’s men came knocking. 

Sitting on the lion throne he would implore his captor Colonel Sladen ‘If i cannot live in the palace give me a little house in Mandalay’ [2]

The decision however was already made for Thibaw, he was to be permanently deported to India, never to see his beloved Swarnabhumi (The Golden Land) again.

While standing on the shores of the beautiful Arabian Sea, I could feel the breeze of history enveloping my tired and sad mind. My visit as a Fellow working in the University of Calcutta to Ratnagiri for field work concerning the last king of Myanmar was during a very low point in my life. The visit however would fill my mind with the wonder of history and one of intrigue. 

A small settlement on the fringes of the western coast of India, Ratnagiri would have come to life when Thibaw and his royal entourage walked into it. Odd looking faces with strange attires however must have made Thibaw and his family feel a little out of place and almost alien like in a very foreign land, but he was deprived of a choice. 

Ratanagiri was supposed to be where he, the last scion of Konbaung Dynasty of Burma (Myanmar) would spend the rest of his days.

Scenes like these however were not new to the subcontinent back then. Months before Thibaw was born some fifteen hundred miles away in Dilli in the corridors of the Red Fort a trial was being held. The accused was a former king, being prosecuted for leading an uprising to overthrow the powerful East India company. It was more of a victor’s trial then an actual legal proceeding as the king was not a british subject. But as was the case with Thibaw the vanquished very rarely have their say. The king was found guilty and sentenced to exile never to see his beloved Dilli again, place of his exile was to be Rangoon.

Days after the trial the HMS Magara docked at the port of Rangoon. There was a considerable amount of crowd, swelling with anticipation to get a glimpse of the passengers on board.

There was constant whispering and gossiping but none of the onlookers could make out who the old frail man was who had just de-boarded the ship. Lt. Edward Ommaney, the man in charge of the company led the frail man and whatever remained of his family through the docks to where they were temporarily being set up. But the setup was not worthy of any comfort to a former king and his family. Ommaney would report this to his superiors.

“The Prisoners now have scarcely any comfort. The Government is bound to treat them better” – Ommaney in his letter to his superior. [1]

Days later, feeling homesick, Ommaney would take leave and the prisoners would move to their new accommodation where they would be keenly watched upon by their new warden Capt. Nelson Davies. The old man, fondly called by his pen name Zafar(born as Mirza Abu Zafar Siraj-ud-din Muhammad), didn’t know how far exactly he was from his home, his Dilli. 

Compared to his Dilli, where he was once a king, a calligrapher, a renowned poet, a descendent of a powerful dynasty, the last of the Mughals, Rangoon felt strikingly unfamiliar. The architecture, its houses and palaces with its beautiful wooden work, its monasteries and pagodas gilded in gold, the odd smell of its food, Zafar must have felt out of place. Thibaw would have the same feeling many years later. 

Their fates intertwined in such a queer manner. 

Once emperors of the richest and most diverse kingdoms in the world were reduced to paupers in exile by their colonial masters. Powers and privileges snatched away from them, swiftly like the breeze that sweeps away the paddy fields during a monsoon rain

 Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein

(How unfortunate is Zafar that for burial, not even 2 yards were spared in the land of the beloved –a poem often attributed to Zafar.)

While visiting the Thibaw Palace in Ratnagiri, the house where Thibaw spent his last few years in Ratnagiri, I could feel Thibaw singing Zafar’s laments in his own language.

I found some local boys playing on the fields of Ambedkar Wadi (a locality in Ratnagiri) beside the Outram House, where Thibaw and his family spent the maximum years in Ratnagiri before shifting to the Thibaw Palace. They told me how the king would pray in the Buddhist Vihara situated beside house, how he would stand near the sea and look longingly at the distant horizon waiting for ships to come from his beloved Burma. These stories were passed onto them by their fathers or grandfathers who would have seen the king in flesh. 

The ships never came however; rather every uprising by the people still loyal to the exiled king were curbed mercilessly by the British.

Much of their wealth was left behind in Burma. It is said to secure their future the king even had to part ways with the Nga Mauk, the ‘ruby among rubies’ and not even the king’s private treasury was spared. Most of the items were looted in the nights concluding to the deportation, the rest taken away by the British army. The Royal family was permitted to carry very little of whatever was left of their vast riches. Their lives in Ambedkar Wadi was a very ordinary one.

Zafar’s fate was not so different; he and his family were allowed to take very little of their vast  treasures during their travels. However while the colonial government was somewhat sympathetic towards Thibaw, towards Zafar, they showed indifference. It was always a fear that Zafar’s name and lineage was still powerful enough to conjure up yet another uprising. The family was keenly watched upon, every step minutely examined. Their accommodation which was half a mile away from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda was two storeyed and consisted of 4 rooms and it was nothing like the extravagant Zafar Mahal or the elegant palaces inside the Lal Qilla. 

Zafar and his sons would often sit on the verandah on the 2nd floor and would be found idly chatting with each other or watching the commotion below, trying to taste some semblance of normalcy. They were not allowed to interact with anybody without prior permission, pen and paper were strictly prohibited. Zafar, whose poems once lit up the mushairas of Dilli, had to scribble his poetry on the walls of his room with a burned stick during his last days. Even their warden Capt. Davies while writing letters to his superiors was barred from using words like “ex-King” or the “ex-Royal Family”.

Zafar and Thibaw were not extremely popular kings, they were often seen as weak and timid and prone to ill advice. The muslim population of Rangoon almost knew nothing of Zafar during his exile there as they were kept in almost isolation. For Thibaw on the other hand people from the budhhist community and indeed in general knew about the late King only because of the existence of the Thibaw palace which was built around 1910 and had no added affinity towards the burmese scion.

The palace was built after many petitions by Thibaw to have a house suitable for a royal family. The late king had given a substantial amount of his input into the new palace’s construction, from the amount of Burmese teakwood that emerges from its staircases and doors, to the mangalore tiles that sits on its roof. Though it was nothing compared to the magnificence of the Golden Palace it was a place where Thibaw would feel close to home. The palace looks imposing even today sadly though only a handful of items belonging to the late king are left now.

When I met Nana Guruji, an elderly gentleman living in the locality near the palace, he spoke about how the only interaction Thibaw had with the locals was by employing them at his service. Thibaw never really did like Ratnagiri nor its people that much. Things got a little out of hand when his eldest daughter, Phaya Gyi, got involved with the Palace’s gatekeeper, a local Marathi man called Gopal Bhaurao Sawant. They never got married but that act would forever make the First Princess an outcast within her own family. Among the other three daughters of Thibaw, the second one settled in Kalimpong in North Bengal. The other two siblings left India and settled in Myanmar after Thibaw’s death.

Phaya Gyi’s family is still there in Ratnagiri who welcomed my visit with warmth and joy. With every passing generation they have integrated more and more with the local Marathi population. The Powar family is descended from Phaya Gyi’s daughter, Tutu. When I visited them for the first time, they showed me their family album and the first picture was of Thibaw and his chief consort, Supalayat. Some of the stories they told me of Thibaw and Tutu, his grandchild were fascinating to say the least. Conditions were so bad once for Tutu after Phaya Gyi’s death that she used to do odd jobs to earn some money.

“She taught us the Burmese language, its food and culture and was genuinely a good person” – Tutu’s daughter in law during our interaction.

Talking to them, hearing their tales, their strong zeal (almost a hopeless dream) of getting back the Thibaw Palace from the government of India. One could get a fleeting sense of their royal heritage and their desire to have at least some portion of it restored.

Nothing much is left of Zafar’s lineage sadly. Of his two sons it was Mirza Shah Abbas who had the more simpler tastes and probably that’s why he was able to escape some of the misery that was thought to have cursed his family. He married the daughter of a local Mohamadden merchant and lived a very elementary life. Jawan Bhukt Zafar’s elder son on the other hand drowned himself in drinking. While his wife who after her father in law’s death was slowly losing her sight was driven to the ground, situations were suich dire that she had to give up her ornaments to obtain food for her children.

Zeenat Mahal, Zafar’s favorite queen outlived him by almost 20 years but her life was no less miserable for it. Not able to return to her homeland and dominated by her son Jawan Bhakt, she used to frequently ramble about how she lost her private treasures and jewels during the mutiny (which she never supported from the onset). Even though Maj. Hodson pledged his word to give them back, he never did. She died heartbroken and was unceremoniously buried beside her husband.

Thibaw’s chief consort was given permission to go back to Burma while his junior queen met an untimely death. Today Supayagalae (junior queen) rests along with Thibaw on a small hilltop not far away from the Thibaw palace. A man who was working at the Palace took me to see their graves. 

Away from the hustle of the town, the resting place of Burma’s last king is surrounded by tranquillity and peace.

Apparently, the graves were restored when Thibaw’s descendants from Myanmar visited Ratnagiri in 2016 marking Thibaw’s hundredth death anniversary.

Zafar’s death on the other hand was hushed up by the british and for a time the location of his grave was even forgotten. It took the colonial government almost half a century after Zafar’s death to consider a proper gravestone on his tomb. 

These days it’s a shrine, a Dargah which is not only visited by wandering travellers who consider Zafar as a Sufi Saint but also by powerful politicians and dignitaries from all around the world seeking his blessings.

The dead kings remain in exile still, their pain and neglect although not forgotten has drowned in the echoes of time. Their life in exile reminds us of the ravages of a colonial past, of betrayal, of persecution, of a weak monarchy. In death however, both the kings have created an invisible bond between the two nations which has drawn people like me towards it like gravity and which will constantly be revisited and studied upon.


I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Dr. Mrinmoy Pramanick, Asst. Prof in the Dept. of Comparative Indian Language and Literature, University of Calcutta and the UGC UPE II Project conducted by him for giving me the opportunity to interview Thibaw’s descendants while working as a Project Fellow on behalf of the university. 



  1. Dalrymple, William. 2014. The Last Mughal. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  2. Sudha Shah. 2014. King in Exile. Harpercollins India.

Shadhin Bangla Football Dal

Shadhin Bangla Football Dal

A few good men who hoisted a nascent flag and brought liberation

By Subhajit Sengupta

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During July 1971, amidst a gruesome civil war, a band of thirty young men from East Pakistan decided to spread the message of freedom. So, instead of bullets and shells, they opted for the most powerful tool that connects the majority of the world with the collective emotions of love, respect, and peace: Football. The result? On 16th December 1971, Bangladesh emerged as a free country.

On 16th December 2021, Bangladesh will celebrate its 50th Independence Day. As the whole nation will be in a jubilant mood, a few old souls will be remembered through the history of their revolutionary road. A bunch of enthusiastic and highly motivated men who went to war to build a free country without any arms or ammunition.

The outcome of the Aligarh Movement during the later half of the 19th century started to create a secular political identity amongst the British Indian Muslims. Soon after, as the All India Muslim League was formed, the idea of Pakistan Movement came into life and Muhammad Ali Jinnah was at the fulcrum of it. Despite widespread opposition from prominent Muslim personalities like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Ghaffar Khan and institutions like All India Azad Muslim Conference and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, on 14th August 1947, the new Dominion of Pakistan became independent and Jinnah was sworn in as its first governor general.

However, the dwellers of the newly free land were diverse; there was a plurality of thoughts,religion culture  and language . The tension began to mount as the majority of the East Pakistani populaton who were Bengali, started to feel oppressed when they refused to accept Urdu as the official state language. Abul Kalam Azad, the then President of the Indian National Congress and the primary opposition of Jinnah’s proposal of partition, predicted this beforehand. In an interview with Shorish Kashmiri, the chief editor of the weekly Chattan magazine, somewhere during April 1946, he said – “I can only spot grave dangers in Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan. Note something else as well. Bengal has so far eluded Jinnah’s scrutiny. And he is yet to know that Bengal simply does not yield to outside dominance and authority. Bengali will protest — sooner or later. I believe East Pakistan can never put up with the supremacy of West Pakistan — the two can never co-exist. Their faiths are disparate; what else is to bind the two? The only reality of being Muslims can hardly be a cohesive factor.[1].

Although East Pakistan had a larger population, they had very little political influence over the decisions made at Islamabad, the capital city which was as far as 2000 miles away in the West of the country. In the name of religious superiority, the westerners deprived the easterners in every possible way. The majority of the common budget was allocated for the development of the West side of the country. Jute, cultivated in the East, had its price determined in the West, wiping away more than 50% of the profit and, on the other hand, apples, grapes and woolen garments that were produced in the West were sold at a price 10 times higher in the East.

Awami League party led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (also known as Bangabandhu) became the sole voice of the oppressed from East Pakistan during the mid-sixties. As the Bengali nationalist movement started to gain nationwide momentum, a frown creased the forehead of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). PPP used the intelligence agency to monitor Mujib’s movement and later  imprisoned the top tier of the party to cease the thrust of the movement. The conspiracy was in vain as the whole of East Pakistan rose as one, demanding Mujib’s release. Nationwide rallies and protest marches forced the ruling party to release the prisoners. By then the air of Pakistan was echoing the Bengali slogans, East Pakistan had already become a different country – “Tomar Amaar Thikana, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna (Yours is my address, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna)”[2].

The two sides of the nation  reached the apex of disagreement  in December 1970[3] when Awami League won the general election but General Yahya Khan, President of the PPP refused to hand over the power. Mujib’s next move made it clear that within just two decades of freedom, the people of East Pakistan again felt the need for liberation. On 7th March 1971, “Bangabandhu” Mujib addressed an ocean of humanity – “This time the struggle is for our freedom.[4]

In response, the Pakistani army recruited local goons from Jamaat-e-Islami[5] to instigate communal violence which they then used to unleash genocide and uproot all oppositions. On 25th March 1971, the Pakistani armed force took control over East Pakistan (known as the Operation Searchlight) as the verbal war changed its form into bloodshed, rapes, and debris of dead bodies. A provisional government was formed in East Pakistan which later shifted its base to Calcutta, India as a government in exile. They secretly funded guerrilla warfare, supported by Indian armed forces and intelligence services in refugee camps across the border which later formed “Mukti Bahini”, the military wing that went on to war against Pakistani armed forces.

Saidur Rahman Patel, a professional football player in the premier division and Pakistan PWD (Public Works Department) team, came up with a vision to form a football team that would act as an exponent of the revolutionary movement and spread the word of liberation. He proposed the idea to Shamsul Haq, the General Secretary of the Awami League who then took the opportunity to present it to the first Prime Minister of unliberated Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmad.

I proposed my idea to Tajuddin Ahmad that I wanted to form a Swadhin Bangla Football Dal here.

He asked me “What made you think of this?”

I replied, “I want to do something for the country as a football player to help our freedom fighters and to raise awareness amongst the general public.”

Tajuddin Ahmad then stood upright and hugged me and said “Patel, young chap, how did you come up with such a beautiful thought!! You have my full support. Do you think you can achieve this?”

I replied “Inshallah, we can”.[6] – Saidur Rahman Patel recalled during one of his interviews.

Having been promised the required permission from Indian Football Association (IFA) and a practice field for the team, Tajuddin Ahmad handed over Rs. 14,000 to start the venture. Soon the recruitment process started. Regular announcements were made from Akashbani (the national public radio broadcaster of India) and the Shadhin Bangla Betaar Kendro inviting  enthusiasts, living in the refugee camps scattered across the borders to show up for a trial. As many as  30 people showed up from whom  25 were selected by Nani Basak, who was appointed as the team coach. And thus “Shadhin Bangla Football Dal” was formed to play fundraising matches in India to support the Liberation War. As the team started its  tour, the news spread like wildfire and received overwhelming response, and in no time, the team strength went up to 36. Zakaria Pintoo was made the skipper and Pratap Shankar Hazra his deputy. The final squad  included some revered names like Kazi Salahuddin, Enayetur Rahman Khan and Shahjahan Alam.

Kazi Salahuddin was the young prodigy of Mohammedan Sporting Club, the leading football club of East Pakistan. The 17-year-old star went to West Pakistan to play in the regional championship for Dhaka. His impressive performance did not go unnoticed as he was asked to join the Pakistan national football team after the tournament. Just as he came back to his family in Dhaka before making up his mind, the war broke out. The young Salahuddin did not have any second thoughts before joining a guerrilla training camp despite his family’s strong resistance. It was during his time at a guerrilla camp that he met a photojournalist from Calcutta while the team was already on tour. The journalist convinced him of the importance of utilizing his skills in the appropriate field and immediately with his help, he flew to Calcutta on a cargo plane of the India Air Force to join the squad. He then played the matches under the pseudonym ‘Turjo Hazra’[7] (Vice captain Pratap Shankar Hazra let him borrow his surname) to ensure his family’s safety in the war-torn East Pakistan.

The inaugural match was hosted at the Krishnanagar Stadium in West Bengal, India on 24th July 1971. The visiting team was up against Nadia Ekadosh. People were seen climbing on top of walls and trees, occupying terraces of neighboring houses as the small venue was packed to its capacity. Much to the agitation of the 15,000 odd crowd, Shadhin Bangla Football Dal refused to kick-off the match unless they were allowed to raise the flag of Bangladesh, a country yet to make its existence on the world map. As the tension began  to mount, skipper Zakaria Pintoo was allowed to raise the flag. “When Bangabandhu asked us to join the war with whatever we had in his speech on 7th March 1971, I thought to myself, I have nothing but football to offer.[8] – Pintoo recalled the moment during one of the interviews: “I still remember that day. It is the most memorable moment of my life being the first person to hoist the Bangladesh flag outside the country.[9] – he said. “We sang ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ (Later it became the national anthem of liberated Bangladesh) and then paraded the field with our flag and heads held high.[10] – Pratap Shankar Hazra stated 40 years later in an interview. The hard-fought match ended in a 2-2 draw.

The next match was against the mighty force of Asian football, Mohun Bagan, captained by the charismatic Chuni Goswami. The controversy from the previous match had FIFA intervened into the match and forced IFA that Mohun Bagan had to play the match under a different name. They agreed and played the match under the banner Gostha Pal XI (A legend of Indian football and the first captain of Indian national team). The hosts registered a convincing 4-2 victory over the visitors despite going down by a goal from Kazi Salahuddin after just 13 minutes into the match. “The day I took over as the captain of Mohun Bagan, I desired to do something for the freedom movement…With all our support for the game, we stood next to them in the freedom struggle[11] – Goswami was quoted after the match.

Shadhin Bangla Football Dal secured an emphatic 4-2 win against a Calcutta XI side on 14th August. It was Pakistan’s Independence Day. Prior to the kick-off, the footballers from the visitor’s team pulverized a Pakistani flag, set it on fire and threw it to the stands, sending a clear message to Islamabad. However, the match against Sportsweek XI recorded the highest attendance in Bombay, Maharashtra. Khalid Ansari, the editor of Sportsweek, took the pivotal role in organizing the match in support of Bharat-Bangladesh Maitry Samity which ended 3-1 in favor of the visiting side. The then Indian cricket team captain, Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi captained and scored the only goal for the hosts. Bollywood star Dilip Kumar also featured in the match and later went on to donate Rs. 1 Lakh for the cause. The Nawab himself had given around Rs. 20,000 to the fundraiser. The presence of Bollywood stars like Sharmila Tagore and famous music director Sachin Dev Burman contributed largely to the sold-out venue. Close to Rs. 2,00,000 was raised from the sale of tickets alone.

Shadhin Bangla Football Dal played their final match against Balurghat XI. The match was more of an emotional reunion as the team went out to meet the liberation fighters from Balurghat’s guerrilla training camp.

The team was set to play their next match in  Delhi when they received the life-altering news . On  3rd December 1971 evening, the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi declared war against Pakistan and within two  weeks, Pakistan armed forces officially surrendered. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh became a reality on 16th December 1971.

Over the course of four and a half months, the Shadhin Bangla Football Dal played 16 matches in India. Out of which they won 12, lost 3 and drew 1. The result of the matches however, reflected broadly on the fate of their nation. An independent land at last. During the tour, the team managed to collect 5,00,000 Bangladeshi Taka to support their fellow comrades on the battlefield. The awareness they created through the exhibition matches amongst the people of India played the catalyst’s role in Indira Gandhi’s decision to go to war which is safe to assume had saved at least a couple of thousands lives. The Bangladeshi team proved that you don’t need to resort to violent means to win a country and its people. Although they did not receive the medal of honor, they had won a war, they had won hearts and football was their weapon of mass liberation. As Zakaria Pintoo had rightly said – “Teams will come and teams will go, but there won’t ever be a team like ours.[12].

References & Bibliography

  1. [1][2][4] Haider, Daud. “How Bangladesh was born” from The Indian Express. The Indian Express. Accessed March 26, 2021.
  2. [3][5] Zakaria, Anam. “Remembering the war of 1971 in East Pakistan” from Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. Accessed December 16, 2019.
  3. [6] “Bijoy ay choturtho Bangly, part-3”. YouTube video. 9:50. Posted by “Probash bangla TV”. December 10, 2012.
  4. [7][8][10][12] Khan, Tamanna. “History of the Masses” from The Daily Star Archive. The Daily Star. Accessed March 23, 2012.
  5. [9][11] Dasgupta, Shirsho. “A Play For Independence: The Forgotten Story of Bangladesh’s Football Revolutionaries” from VICE Sports Staff. VICE. Accessed March 21, 2017.

How a kidnapped girl from Mughal India inspired Mexico’s traditional costume


How a kidnapped girl from Mughal India inspired Mexico’s traditional costume

A fascinating tale of Mexican costume, Mughal India, a religious cult and the global slave trade.

By Srinwantu Dey

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Mexican art and culture has a deep-rooted connection with  symbolism, cult and their fabled history. The bright colours, quirky patterns and magical textures found in the Mexican culture have often taken inspiration from religious, social and cultural rituals of Mayan and Aztec civilisations. If you ever attend the festival Cinco de Mayo, you will probably notice the local Mexican girls draped in traditional colourful dresses— dancing, cheering and celebrating; but what you can hardly ever guess  is that the origin of these gorgeous Mexican costumes actually traces back to Mughal India.

Cinco de Mayo is an annual Mexican celebration, observed on May 5, to honour the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, fought on the same day, in 1862. On this day, women dance in  vibrant costumes including white embroidered blouses made of silk, embellished with tiny decorative beads, and floral skirts decorated with sparkling ornaments. They also wear vibrant rebozo[note 1] shawls with gorgeous geometric patterns on them. This is the traditional attire for urban Mexican women of the Puebla region and is known as China Poblana. Although in modern times, wearing this ethnic costume is limited only to the holiday celebration, the costume is also often considered synonymous with the eternal Mexican womanhood.

The origin of China Poblana is alluded to in the legend of Catarina de San Juan, a 17th-century religious woman. She lived in the old city of Puebla, located in Central Mexico, in the valley of the volcanic soils. The captivating story of Catarina de San Juan draws a fascinating connection to a noble family of Mughal India, and her perilous yet epic journey of becoming a cultural icon in the faraway land of Central Mexico.

According to most historians, Catarina de San Juan was born around 1606 in India, during the Mughal regime. During the era of Emperor Akbar and Jahangir, Mughal India was a vibrant confluence of culture, religion and trade. Though her exact place of birth is still unknown, it is believed to be in one of the opulent north Indian cities of that time. She was born into a Muslim family, and named Mirra by her parents, who were believed to have a royal lineage.

When Mirra was 10, in an effort to evade an alleged Turkish invasion, her family emigrated to Surat, one of the strongholds of the Mughal empire on the western banks and a hive of the European traders. Meanwhile, the Mughals and Portuguese were on the brink of a war over several disputes. Surat, on the other hand, had become the epicentre of a complex socio-political situation due to its vicinity to south Asian maritime trade and attracting growing interests from several European forces. In 1612, off the coast of Suvali, in a village near the Surat, East India Company and the Portuguese galleons were involved in a fierce battle. Today the Battle of Suvali is recognised to be the genesis of the Indian Navy. However, the western banks also saw another force rising to power in the early 17th century. When the Bay of Bengal had witnessed the atrocities of Portuguese Harmads and Arakanese Maghs, the Arabian Sea endured the wrath of the pirates, who began preying on the spice trade.

At the onset of such a volatile political situation around Surat, one day, a group of Portuguese buccaneers noticed a little girl with her adolescent brother playing on the beach. The girl was Mirra, barely 10 then. The pirates abducted her and set off on a voyage across the Malabar coastline to Cochin. In that era, the Malavares pirates of Cochin were among the most feared ones, although it is still inconclusive exactly which pirate group abducted Mirra from Surat. Mirra was brought to Cochin, and she was soon baptised by the Portuguese Jesuits, a religious missionary group of the Catholic Church. She was named Catarina de San Juan following her baptisation and was transported to Manila through the Bay of Bengal. She spent days crammed in a small space under the deck of the ship. Manila was waiting for her.


Manila, in the early 17th century, was the hub of the notorious Trans-Pacific slave trade, a planet-scale framework to supply Asian slaves to Spanish America and New Spain[note 2]. The slaves, who were abducted from various Asian nations, were transported to Acapulco in Mexico via the famous Manila Galleon, where they were sold in exchange for a few hundred Pesos. Her long stay in the slave markets of the Philippines was not so pleasant. She was being starved, abused and sexually humiliated. Eventually, a Spanish merchant purchased her from an auction in Manilla and she had embarked on Manilla Galleon for her final destination, Mexico.

During a heavy monsoon in 1619, Catarina finally arrived at the port of Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. She had to make a perilous journey crossing 400 kilometres through the terrains of via de China, travelling north to Mexico City and eventually reaching Puebla in around 1621. Her final destination was the residence of Miguel de Sosa, one of the wealthy Portuguese army captains of the city. His wife Margarita was in need of a domestic servant and thus Mirra, the kidnapped slave from India, became a housemaid in the colonial city of Puebla. She lived the remainder of her life in this city, far from home and family.

During the early 17th century, numerous slaves from different Asian origins were shipped to Mexico on Manila Galleon. Traditionally, the Spanish slave owners categorized them all as Chinos, the slaves from China, ignoring their cultural and ethnic origins. Keeping the norm intact, Catarina was also stamped as a Chino. Her roots of Indian origin began to fade with time.

Over time, Catarina established herself as an efficient domestic help, who understood the Hispanic household culture, and after the death of Miguel, she was emancipated and started to help a cleric named Father Pedro Suárez in the proceedings of the church. Father Suárez had arranged her wedding to one of his other servants of Asian origin, Domingo. However, her wedding night turned out to be a little unconventional. According to her biographers, the spirit of naked Jesus Christ appeared in her dream and advised her to maintain her chastity. This marked the commencement of her spiritual journey, where she devoted her life to the Church and became a prominent religious figure.

After Domingo’s death, Catarina became a devoted servant of the church and gradually came to be recognised for her visions and prophecy. She lived the rest of her life in a cell at one of the neighbourhood houses. She hardly went out of the town. She even predicted the deaths of several prominent personalities including the Viceroy of New Spain. Her work for needy and poverty-stricken city dwellers also garnered public sentiment. Her popularity as a miraculous woman had gone to inspire myriads of texts, paintings, music and Hispanic Baroque art. After her death, she was almost transformed into sainthood. Over time her legend has been asserted by imagination, and she has been remembered as the China Poblana, the slave girl from Puebla, who became a nun. The place where she lived has now been commemorated as a hotel[note 3], where a ceramic plaque reads in Spanish “In this house died the enchanting princess of the Great Mughal, Mirra …” and a porcelain statue of a smiling woman with hands on her hip draped in the ethnic China Poblana costume, has become an identity of the city since then.



Today the legend of Catarina de San Juan has been credited to the origin of the China Poblana costume of local women in Mexican folklore, and many believe that the fashion has originated from the Indian fabrics and dresses that Catarina brought from Mughal India, her homeland. However, a segment of modern scholars unanimously believes that the connection between the costume and 17th-century Indian slave is still inconclusive. Somehow, the slave woman from India, who was always seen modestly draped in dark woollen clothes, magically transformed to an image of the one in a colourful dress, which thereafter became an emblem of Mexican femininity. The words became a legend, the legend became a myth. The church had a significant contribution in passing down the elaborated legend and imagination of a pious Asian woman, who embraced Catholic practise. Catarina de San Juan served a major religious and commercial purpose for the Mexican Catholic church. The church was in need of an exemplary face to promote the ideology of religious devotion among the women in the society and Catarina was just the perfect icon for the purpose. There were at least two hagiographies[note 4] written following her death by her confessors. The three-volume biography by Alonso Ramos was the most voluminous body of work published in colonial Spain. Apart from detailing meticulous life events, the hagiographies also contain enough elaboration of her religious cult, virtuous life and devotion to the church helping to establish her legend as a national identity.

The link between Catarina de San Juan, China Poblana and the Mexican iconic folk costume is still being heavily contested among historians. The image of a virtuous woman, when portrayed as a national identity, invokes an interesting realm of complex socio-political implication. Although, the direct connection between China Poblana, the 19th-century colourful costume and China Poblana, the 17th-century legendary nun, is still being debated, but there is no denying that the legend of Catarina de San Juan has survived for centuries and has been deeply associated to the narrative constructing her image as a symbol of modern Mexican womanhood. The extraordinary life of Mirra, from a royal resident of the Mughal Empire, to becoming a slave of a remote Mexican town, and eventually achieving sainthood and inspiring one of the iconic costumes of Mexico, will always be an astounding folklore for generations to come.


  1. A rebozo is a long flat garment, very similar to a shawl, worn mostly by women in Mexico.
  2. New Spain included all of the territory claimed by Spain Colonial force in North America and the Caribbean
  3. Casona de la China Poblana is a restored 17th-century mansion in the historic city centre commemorating the house where Catarina de San Juan lived, having suits named after Mirra, Samarcanda, El Gran Mogol, Agra, Akbar etc.
  4. A hagiography an idealized biography of a saint or a religious leader.


References & Bibliography


  1. De Orellana, Margarita, Michelle Suderman, Gutierre Tibón, Pedro Ángel Palou, Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, Guillermo Prieto, Richard Moszka, Ricardo Pérez Montfort, Jason Lange, and Emma Yanes. “China Poblana.” Artes De México, no. 66 (2003): 65-80. Accessed March 23, 2021.
  2. Risse, Kate. “Catarina De San Juan and the China Poblana: From Spiritual Humility to Civil Obedience.” Confluencia 18, no. 1 (2002): 70-80. Accessed March 23, 2021.
  3. Bailey, G. A.. “A Mughal Princess in Baroque New Spain. Catarina de San Juan (1606-1688), the china poblana.” (1997).
  4. Seijas, Tatiana. “Catarina De San Juan: China Slave and Popular Saint.” Chapter. In Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians, 8–31. Cambridge Latin American Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107477841.002.
  5. MALONI, RUBY, and RUBY MALONY. “PIRACY IN INDIAN WATERS IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 52 (1991): 410-15. Accessed March 23, 2021.
  6. Seijas, Tatiana. “The Diversity and Reach of the Manila Slave Market.” Chapter. In Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians, 32–72. Cambridge Latin American Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107477841.003.
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