Ambedkar and Cricket

Baloo (2nd row, second from left) among the Maharaja of Natore XI, 1906-7
Hulla Baloo In Poona Gym
On the occasion of Ambedkar's birth anniversary, Boria Majumdar recounts the story of P. Baloo, a Chamaar cricketer who became BR's early inspiration

BR. Ambedkar and cricket! That's nonsense! This was what Soli Sorabjee said during my interview for the Rhodes scholarship. A nervous interviewee would get flustered by such a remark. But I was dying for it to come my way, for then I could guide the interview according to my prepared strategy. In the numerous mock interviews I had with my professors in Calcutta I had come across a similar response and I had the answer pat, a fact Soli would not have known! In a nation apathetic to accepting the broader social significance of sport, this reaction was all but natural. The truth is, one of Ambedkar's foremost heroes was Palwankar Baloo, a Chamaar cricketer from Dharwad. The true predecessor to Bishen Singh Bedi (a fact he may be completely ignorant about), Baloo—the nation's best bowler in the early years of the 20th century—justifiably deserved this adoration, a story I am eager to tell while commemorating Ambedkar's birth anniversary.
As a student, Ambedkar "looked at the solid frame of this untouchable bowler with pride". As a lecturer, Ambedkar organised functions to felicitate Baloo.

In his classic The Epic Fast (1932), Pyarelal writes: "Confined in the Poona Yervada jail, in September 1932, Gandhi had been forced to undertake one of his fasts unto death. This was against the decision of the British government to institute separate electorates for the low castes, a decision supported by Ambedkar.
This fast continued for several days to be finally broken by a compromise reached between Gandhi and a delegation of the untouchables consisting of Ambedkar, M.C. Rajah and P. Baloo." As Ram Guha has written, "historians who have written on the controversy do not generally bother to identify him (Baloo) quite possibly because they cannot." Baloo, he rightly says, was the first public figure to emerge from the ranks of the untouchables commanding enormous respect inside and outside the community. This was the time when caste prejudices were at their oppressive best, a fact evident from the history of the breast cloth controversy in south India. Under the prevalent norm in the south, women of lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, an act perceived as a show of respect to the higher castes. Against this backdrop, Baloo, a Chamaar born in Dharwad in 1875, had by his sporting prowess forced the Brahmins of the Deccan Gymkhana—eager to beat the British Poona Gymkhana—to take him into the team. A few years later, he was recrui-ted by the Poona Gymkhana, and then the Bombay Hindu Gymkhana, who even admitted his brothers—Shivram, Ganpat and Vithal. This was the start of a spectacular family sporting history that reached its climax when Vithal, captain of the Hindu side in 1923, was carried out of the ground on the shoulders of high-caste Hindus after he had led them to victory in the quadrangular tournament.

In view of this extraordinary development in an India riven by caste prejudices, the Indian Social Reformer wrote in 1906: "The Poona Hindu Gymkhana who consisted of mostly upper-caste Hindus found that Chamaar though Baloo was, his inclusion in the Hindu team would improve matters considerably. With this pluck and spirit which the Poona Hindus of the 1890s had, they admitted him as their member and so far (as) pollution from touch with a low caste went, the plucky Brahmins of Poona gave a slip to orthodoxy." A few years later the Bombay Hindu Gymkhana, "with such an example from orthodox Poona, admitted him after pacifying a few Gujerati (sic) members as regards his admission. The Hindu Gymkhana went further and they openly began inter-dining with Baloo. (Soon) Shivram, Baloo's brother, was admitted without the least scruple.

The history of the admission of these Chamaar brothers in the Hindu Gymkhana is a credit to all and has done far more to liberalise the minds of thousands of young Hindus than all other attempts in such spheres." From this, The Indian Social Reformer went on to conclude that this was a "landmark in the nation's emancipation from the old disuniting and denationalising customs.... Hindu sportsmen in Poona and Bombay have shown... that, where national interest required, equal opportunity must be given to all of any caste, even though the offer of such opportunity involved the trampling of some old prejudices. Let the lesson learnt in sport be repeated in political, social and educational walks of life. Let all disuniting and denationalising customs disappear and let India cease to be the laughing stock of the whole world".

It was not unnatural then that Baloo was one of Ambedkar's heroes during his student days, and he "looked at the solid frame of this untouchable bowler with pride". As Dhananjay Keer writes in his book, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission: "As a little known lecturer in Bombay's Sydenham College, Ambedkar organised functions to felicitate Baloo and worked for his elevation in the Bombay Municipal Corporation."

But Baloo's incorporation into the Hindu team was preceded by a critique of caste and class prejudices in the sporting arena in Bengal in the early 1880s, epitomised by Bengali sporting patrons like Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikary. Nagendraprasad, who belonged to an orthodox Hindu family, ignored all caste prejudices while establishing a series of sporting clubs. Best known among these stories is the one about the induction of Mani Das, a potter's son, into the Wellington Club. This club had a membership of nearly 500 from all classes of society. But when Nagendraprasad wanted to induct Mani, the club's richer members protested. Nagendraprasad refused to budge, arguing that a sporting club was beyond any prejudice.

Greatly irked by the intrigues carried on behind his back, Nagendraprasad dissolved the Wellington Club and by combining the various sporting clubs he had established—The Boys Sporting Club, Friends Club, Presidency Club, the erstwhile Wellington Club—founded the Sovabazar Sporting Club. Mani was one of the first members of this new club. He later distinguished himself as one of the best cricketers of the Mohun Bagan Club. Taking a leaf out of Nagendraprasad's book, Jagadindranarayan Ray, the Maharaja of Natore, had invited Baloo to come to Bengal to coach his team. In an incident recorded by Kuladaranjan Ray, the maharaja's pride of being a good batsman was all but gone after playing Baloo. His extraordinary skill as a bowler made him a prized recruit for the Maharaja who was out on a mission to prepare a truly Indian/Bengali cricket team. His actions were clearly motivated by a desire to be one-up on the Raja of Cooch Behar, whose team comprised of Europeans and so didn't contribute to the improvement of Bengal cricket. Kulada Ray also attests to the fact that their sporting skills had improved significantly after playing the left arm spin of Baloo.

These stories of untouchability being challenged in cricket have largely been ignored by historians but served as great inspiration for pioneers like Ambedkar. This is why the man who emerged as the foremost spokesman of the untouchables in 1927-28 went on telling village audiences about his early attempts to gain recognition for Baloo's achievements.It was because of Ambedkar's efforts that upon Baloo's death The Hindustan Times reported that all untouchable members of the Parliament and of the Provincial Assembly had assembled at the Santa Cruz crematorium where his last rites were performed.

(The author is a sports historian working on the social history of Indian cricket at St John's College, Oxford, on a Rhodes scholarship.)

Referred by:Raman Sridha
Published on: April 16, 2001
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