Friday, 21 June 2013

Foe and Friend

Ritusmita Biswas

SWAGOTO BOSE HAD never been enthusiastic about visiting his in-laws; but for a few weeks recently, the idea grew particularly disagreeable to him. “However hard they try to control, I see a smirk on their face whenever they discuss football now,” he said when I met him early in January. Swagoto’s family and the family of his wife Sutanya are supporters on either side of India’s most fierce football rivalry—Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal.
“Let us understand—the fight between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal is much beyond the football field; it is a fight of identity between the Ghoti [people from West Bengal] and Bangal [people originally from Bangladesh],” said Supratim Bose, Swagoto’s father, who insisted that he’s fond of his daughter-in-law despite her fealty to the rival club.
The clubs’ pairing is without doubt the most dramatic in Indian football; but for a few weeks in December and January, it was put in jeopardy after the All India Football Federation announced a two-year ban on Mohun Bagan.
The ban came following a match on 9 December, in which fans pelted the ground with stones after Bagan’s Nigerian striker captain Odafa Okolie was sent off the field; a projectile hit another player Syed Rahim Nabi on his face, injuring him seriously. Bagan officials decided to pull out of the match, after which it was awarded to East Bengal, who were leading with a 43rd-minute goal. For this move, the core committee of the I-League—the country’s largest football competition—took a decision to ban Bagan for two years, leading to much grief amongst the club’s supporters. And amongst some East Bengal fans, like Swagoto’s in-laws, much glibness.
“This is a time of crisis and we Mohun Bagan fans need to unite and face the heat,” said supporter Samit Paul when I spoke to him after the ban. “I personally feel that this has been a right decision and by taking this decision the club has averted another August 16th mishap. So we are sad, but not ashamed.” Paul was referring to a 1980 tragedy in which two players from the rival teams fought; fans clashed violently in the stands, leading to the death of 16 spectators.
In the second week of January, the ban on Bagan was overturned, and the club was let off with a fine of Rs 20 million. But the weeks in which the ban appeared imminent were telling—even though Bagan’s ban increased East Bengal’s prospects within the league, not all of the latter club’s supporters were rejoicing. “I am always happy when there is trouble in Mohun Bagan but I am not happy with this ban,” said Samir Aich, a diehard East Bengal supporter whom I spoke to when Bagan’s ban was yet to be revoked. “Like Durga Puja is for Bengalis, and Tagore is integral for Bengali existence, similarly a football match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal is an essential part of our lives. The ban is like allowing a cricket match to be played but suspending the bowler. No. It is not a happy decision at all and I am disheartened with this ban.”
While the pitched rivalry lives on, uninterrupted, Swagata and Sutanya’s marriage appears to face no threat from their seemingly incompatible football preferences. “In our times, as far as arranged marriages were concerned, traditional Mohun Bagan families could never ever imagine welcoming a East Bengal bride at home,” said Supratim. “The times have changed now.”

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