October 31, 2015

Why Gandhi would have been appalled by the Gandhi-Mandela Trophy

Unlike Mandela, the Indian revolutionary disregarded not just cricket but sport in general all his life

Mahatma Gandhi claimed he never went to cricket matches, let alone played in one © Getty Images

India and South Africa are currently playing a series of games across the international formats for the "Gandhi-Mandela Trophy".

When this new trophy was announced, back in August, a friend said it was a case of small men wishing to look less small by associating themselves with two great, iconic leaders. The sarcasm was justified, for in terms of character and credibility the sporting administrators of India and South Africa are worlds removed from Gandhi and Mandela.

But there may be other reasons why the name of the trophy is inapt - and perhaps also inept. For Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi had little interest in sport, and on occasion actively disparaged it. When, in July 1910, the white Jim Jeffries fought the black Jack Johnson for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, Gandhi wrote a sharp editorial in his newspaper, Indian Opinion. He was appalled by the massive interest in the contest, with young and old, rich and poor, officials and citizens, turning up to watch it. Some had travelled all the way to Reno - where the fight was held - from Europe. "What did they see," asked Gandhi. "Two men hitting each other and displaying their brute strength. The people of America went mad over this show, and America is reckoned a very civilized country!"

In Gandhi's view, the boxing match in Reno was "the extreme limit of barbarism. However strong the bodies of Jefferies and Johnson, they may be reduced to wrecks in an instant. It is doubtful if the millions who had assembled at the show ever thought of this even in their dreams".

"You can have no knowledge of my amazing dullness and ignorance. You will be surprised to know that I do not know what really the game of hockey is"
Gandhi, when asked to send a message of the support to the Indian hockey team for the 1932 Olympics

Later in 1910, a reader asked why Indian Opinion did not carry sports news. Gandhi answered that if the journal was not so devoted to the cause of the Indian struggle in South Africa, they "would not be unprepared" to have a section on sport. Then he added: "But we ask our young friends whether sport should occupy so much of our time and attention as it does now. Indeed, those Indians who know what is going on around them, cannot afford to be in a sporting mood. Our forefathers did wonderfully well without the fashionable sport of today. Sport indulged in for the sake of developing the body is of some use. But we venture to suggest that agriculture, the inherited occupation of Indians - indeed of the human race - is better sport than football, cricket and all other games put together."

The Tamils in South Africa were passionate football players, and invited Gandhi to be a patron of their sporting clubs in Durban and Johannesburg. He accepted, out of affection (and admiration) for his Tamil friends. But this was done out of social obligation, not love of football per se. So far as I can tell, Gandhi did not spontaneously or voluntarily play or watch sports after he left school.

Gandhi returned to India for good in January 1915. In April of the same year, he wrote a letter to a Tamil colleague in South Africa, explaining why (in his view) sport was not, for him, an ideal form of physical exercise. "To me," remarked Gandhi, "a sound body means one which bends itself to the spirit and is always a ready instrument in its service. Such bodies are not made, in my opinion, on the football field. They are made on cornfields and farms. I would urge you to think this over and you will find innumerable illustrations to prove my statement. Our colonial-born Indians are carried away with this football and cricket mania. These games may have their place under certain circumstances. But I feel sure that for us, who are just now so fallen, they have no room. Why do we not take the simple fact into consideration that the vast majority of mankind who are vigorous in body and mind are simple agriculturists, that they are strangers to these games, and they are the salt of the earth? Without them your and my existence would be an impossibility, whereas you and I are totally unnecessary for their well-being."

During his incarceration at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela asked a visitor if Don Bradman was still alive © Associated Press

A year later, in an article on education published in a Gujarati magazine, Gandhi once more deplored this cricket and football mania, writing: "The idea that, if our boys and youths do not have football, cricket and other games, their life should become too drab is completely erroneous. The sons of our peasants never get a chance to play cricket, but there is no dearth of joy or innocent zest in their life."

Meanwhile, disregarding Gandhi, young Indians took to cricket, football and other modern sports. In 1928 an Indian hockey team competed in the Olympics for the first time and won the gold medal. Three years later, CE Newham of the Indian Hockey Federation asked Gandhi for a message of support for a brochure being prepared for the 1932 Olympics. Gandhi said it would not be possible, noting: "You can have no knowledge of my amazing dullness and ignorance. You will be surprised to know that I do not know what really the game of hockey is. I have never, to my recollection, watched any game either in England, South Africa or in India." Then he added: "I have never attended cricket matches and only once took a bat and a cricket ball in my hands and that was under compulsion from the head master of the High School where I was studying, and this was 45 years ago. This confession does not in any shape or form mean that I am opposed to games, only I have never been able to interest myself in them."

Reading through the 90-odd volumes of Gandhi's Collected Works, I came across only two references to sport that were not disparaging. In December 1932, as part of the observance of an "anti-untouchability day", Gandhi advised that "games, sports and parties should be held by mixed gatherings of Harijans and caste-Hindu children". Another comment somewhat sympathetic to sport was offered in March 1937. This was when he met an Egyptian delegation who told him that "our youths should go to India and yours should come to Egypt as sportsmen". Gandhi replied: "Not only may we have an exchange and a mixing together in the field of sport but we should also have it in the field of education."

"Sport indulged in for the sake of developing the body is of some use. But we venture to suggest that agriculture is better sport than football, cricket and all other games put together"
Gandhi, in 1910

The Bombay politician and lawyer KF Nariman once referred to Gandhi as "the least sportive Saint". Nariman was himself a keen lover of cricket. So were some other nationalists, among them Gandhi's own close colleague C Rajagopalachari. Among other well-known Congressmen, Jawaharlal Nehru was moderately fond of cricket, Sardar Patel indifferent. But none except Gandhi were so sceptical of the values and uses of the modern sports of cricket, hockey and football.

I know Nelson Mandela's life and writings far less well. But it does seem that he himself fell on the Nariman rather than Gandhi side of the divide. He was a boxer in his youth. Once, when a friend came to visit him in Robben Island, Mandela asked: "Is Don Bradman still alive?" After he was released, and became the first president of a democratic South Africa, Mandela supported the Afrikaner-dominated Springbok rugby team, whose victory in the 1995 World Cup is said to have aided the process of racial and national reconciliation. (The story is well told in John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, and less well told in Invictus, the film based on the book).

It is hardly likely that the mandarins of the BCCI know either of Mandela's interest in sport or of Gandhi's supreme disregard of sport. They just wanted to have some of the glow of those hallowed names rub off on them. As a Gandhi scholar who loves cricket myself, I look forward to the Test series, but wish that the trophy that Virat Kohli's men and Hashim Amla's men shall soon play for had been called something else. It should really have been named the Kallis-Tendulkar Trophy to honour two sublimely gifted players who have inspired and enthralled cricket fans in India, South Africa and beyond.

This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on November 8, 2015, 12:52 GMT

    Guha in his "The stars of Kathiawar" column in 2013 reveals: As Gandhi left for England in 1888 to study law, one of his 4 letters of introduction was to his fellow Kathiawari, Prince Ranjitsinhji! Whether they met is not known. Still Guha spins a mystical happening: 'but they did meet in the afterlife'! He cites an Englishman's novel, in which Gandhi & Ranji as co-students in Rajkot play cricket (!)...with the 'wily bania (plebeian Gandhi)...bowling googlies against the aristocratic batsman (Ranji)'! Guha's Kathiawar mission was to discover the terrain that shaped Gandhi & his work. In his research he found many cricket stars in the rich tradition of Kathiawari cricket - Ranji, Duleep, Mankad, Mohammad brothers...Pujara & Jadeja! Guha concludes: Mahatma's homeland has a 'honored place in the political and social history of India...also has a secure spot in the more modest realm of the history of cricket"! Gandhiji has a stellar place in Kathiawari cricket that cannot be disregarded!!

  •   Harsh Thacker on November 6, 2015, 7:01 GMT

    Gandhi always maintained that through sports one can achieve fitness, spiritual harmony and can also learn team work! Not surprised that he had more liking to agriculture but it does not mean that he was against playing sports. http://www.goal.com/en-india/news/136/india/2015/10/02/3420124/mahatma-gandhi-and-his-experiments-with-football

  • Jay on November 5, 2015, 11:46 GMT

    What's in a name? Just ask Shakespeare: It's caused many a storm in a teacup. Appalling. Take Guha's "What trophy should India and Pakistan play for?" column in 2013. Guha artfully spins a history-laden range of hyphenated name choices - from the contentious Gandhi-Jinnah vs Jinnah-Gandhi ... to the fantasised Lata-Noor Jahan & Iqbal-Tagore ... to the appealing face-offs of Imran-Kapil & Kumble-Wasim. Then out of the blue he pulls a singular name out of his bag of tricks: Sachin Tendulkar! OMG! Guha is so sure his 'completely uncontroversial' Tendulkar proposal will be 'gracefully' accepted, he proudly proclaims 'Let the announcement be made forthwith'! OOPS! His great joy of writing rapidly drowns in a tempest of heated reactions. He swiftly responds with "A case for the Amarnath-Kardar Trophy". Whew! Lesson: It's best for sporty Guha to leave the trophy-naming contest to the BCCI mandarins ... and to focus on what scholarly Guha does best: Indian history - before and after Gandhi!!

  • Vijayendra on November 3, 2015, 6:39 GMT

    Ramchandra Guha is the Suhel Seth of Writing.

  •   Adway Lele on November 3, 2015, 6:00 GMT

    @NO_ONE_IN_PARTICULAR: The Great man did not rate sports highly. What he did by signing as 17th man was expressing good-will towards his apparent enemy. He was not masquerading as a sportsman.

  • Nishantha on November 3, 2015, 3:58 GMT

    Kallis and Tendulkar trophy wouid have been great. I don't think from 90's onward no one would have been inspirational than these two gentlemen. It was treat to watch them play and truly deserves a trophy named after their names.

  • Navin on November 2, 2015, 19:10 GMT

    Gandhi - Mandela are two big names representing the two nations. No other names even come closer. If nothing else these names invoke a true spirit and a sportsman like conduct. Both believed in the impossible and achieved it for their nations. They were men of different times and hence somewhat different views on sport. If both were present today, they will both be supportive of cricket or any other competitive sport.

  • Paul on November 2, 2015, 18:07 GMT

    Although I have no academic knowledge of either of these two great men, I have to believe that both would have agreed with the sentiment of this article (that there are more appropriate cricketing idols after which to name the trophy) but they would humbly understand both the political and social significance of the naming of this trophy. I cannot believe that Gandhi would be appalled and would appreciate that this represented how far his work had brought his country, which let's face it, dominates world cricket, including it's former masters back in England.

  • Ashok on November 2, 2015, 16:54 GMT

    I strongly feel that this Trophy has been rightly named after Gandhi-Mandela because: 1. Elimination of Apartheid was essential for making it possible for the Test series between these 2 Nations. 2. Mandela played a major role in toppling the Old regime of SA & eliminating apartheid using Gandhian principles of non violence & Non cooperation. One should not forget that SA was banned from the International Test Cricket for decades because of racial intolerance. Without SA becoming a Republic, there was no way it would have played India or any Non-white Nation. SA in 1950's played only against England, Australia & NZ. Let us not forget the historical background!

  • Jay on November 2, 2015, 14:34 GMT

    Historian Guha seems to have disregarded his own cricket history narratives! In his admirable book "A Corner of a Foreign Field", Guha reveals: "The only evidence of a Gandhian interest in cricket" is a 1958 essay by Gujarati journalist Harish Booch. Booch cites Ratilal G Mehta, Gandhi's classmate in Rajkot, as remembering the Mahatma as 'a dashing cricketer' ... 'evinced a keen interest in the game as a school student' ... 'good both at batting and bowling'!! Interestingly while watching a local game together, Mehta says 'at a crucial moment in the match, as if through intuition, Gandhiji said a particular player would be out and hey presto, that batsman was really out!'. Mehta apologetically adds 'Though he had an aversion for physical exercise at school, as he pointed out in his autobiography'. It's anecdotal evidence that cannot be ignored: a "hidden truth" of the Mahatma's uncanny perspective of cricket & its uncertainties! A nugget of cricket history from Guha himself! Appalled?