THE FALLOUT FROM THE KOLKATA DERBY is continuing to snowball, not just on the field but off it as well.
The high profile clash on Sunday saw East Bengal defeat their arch rivals Mohun Bagan 2-0 in front of a gigantic crowd of 62,629. The result effectively means the end of any leftover title hopes for the Mariners, while the Red and Golds are now back right in the middle of the four horse I-League title race.
While the match itself was full of high tension and drama with scuffles, high boots, loads of tackles and a controversial referee decision that disallowed a Mohun Bagan goal, a different battle was taking place outside the field of play, and it has led to serious consequences especially in the Mohun Bagan fan community, with many fan groups suspending their matchday activities and effectively boycotting the games in protest of what happened on Sunday.
This tussle involved years of pent-up frustration among fans towards club officials, multiple ultras groups in both clubs, the Bidhan Nagar Police, and a round of unfounded rumours.
To understand what exactly went wrong, and why people reacted to the incidents the way they did, we have to go back a bit and look at the volatile internal conflicts that were playing out in the clubs in the lead-up to the match.
As the two Kolkata giants started preparing for a transition to the Indian Super League, they began the search for investors to fund that. This created the possibility of the majority shares of the football teams being transferred to a corporate entity, and a number of fan groups were in favour of that; to them it represnted a hope of the clubs adopting a fresh and more professional approach leading to better youth and infrastructure development.
East Bengal, after a year of search, partnered with Quess Corp. At Mohun Bagan, this process saw disagreements escalate between the two most powerful persons in the club: Tutu Basu and Anjan Mitra. The two had run the club together for decades, but in 2018 they led opposite factions into the club elections. The result was a wipeout victory for the Basu faction.
But the atmosphere of bitterness and distrust that was created in the lead up to the elections - which included a full on push-and-shove face off between the two major factions at a general meeting - persisted and the fan groups who were pushing for change in the club remained wary of the newly elected and re-elected officials, who over the years had built up a reputation for empty promises and manipulative politics.
Meanwhile, in the last few years, both clubs were witnessing the spntaneous growths of a number of fan groups, who with the rise of social media discovered a new way to coordinate, organize and show up at matches with well-rehearsed chants, tifos and banners; their efforts going up a scale each time to outdo the rivals. It was a spectacular rivalry that played out in the galleries; and two groups were leading the charge on opposite ends: East Bengal Ultras and Mariners' Base Camp.
Jump cut to this season: at Mohun Bagan, the club elections were over, the management was actively looking for investors to fund their switch to the ISL. Rumours were flowing around that the club officials, instead of allowing a corporate takeover by selling majority shares of the football team, were looking for a 50-50 partnership with a corporate entity so that they could maintain control over the team. This did not go down with many of the fans; they were distrustful of the old officials and worried that if they stayed in charge there would be no change in the club's approach; it would just be a more expensive version of the same old thing.
But as the months went by, Mohun Bagan officials failed to keep the fans satisfied with regular updates regarding the investment deal. The club officials had made hyperbolic promises before election, saying they would sign investors within weeks of being voted in, and when those promises inevitably failed it irked the fanbase who suspected yet another betrayal from the officials.
Behind the scenes, though, Mohun Bagan officials were making progress. They were talking to multiple groups for investment (including CESC who own ISL franchise ATK), re-structuring the club's shares, taking steps to register the club as a society... all positive steps, but every step was time consuming, and they failed to communicate the exact situation with transparency to the fans. This, coupled with the old mistrusts in the officials, saw the protests fire back up; this time led by a loose collective of fans called 'Hok Protibad.'
The 'Hok Protibad' platform returned to the old tactics of raising slogans and unfurling banners that accused Mohun Bagan officials of malpractice and incomepetence. A tradition of anti-establishment banners has been around for years in the Maidan; and these sometimes led to confrontations between pro-official and anti-official fan groups inside the stadium. But usually, there was little scrutiny of the banners the fans were bringing in, so the dissident supporters were able to bring those banners in without any problem.
But this time, the Mohun Bagan club officials decided to put a stop to all that and told the Bidhannagar Police, who provide security for the matches held at Salt Lake Stadium, to check the banners and block any "objectionable" content. This led to one banner which depicted the faces of officials Debashish Dutta, Anjan Mitra, Tutu Basu and Srinjoy Basu being barred from entering the stadium by the police.
The incident sparked a fresh flow of outrage from Mohun Bagan fans, and multiple fan groups called to boycott the home matches of the Mariners, accusing the officials of censoring the fans.
The fact that Mohun Bagan were suffering an ongoing lack of form that was pulling them away from the title race did not help soothe the fans' anger at all.
Meanwhile, East Bengal, after a light stumble at the start of the season, were quickly finding their feet under new head coach Alejandro Menendez and a more professsionalised management led by Quess Corp. After more than two years of Mohun Bagan's dominance over the Kolkata Derby, East Bengal finally managed to beat their arch rivals in their first leg encounter at I-League 2018-19.
While Jobby Justin and Johny Acosta were stealing the show on the pitch, East Bengal Ultras had their own moment of impact in the stands, unfurling a tifo that depicted images of tea, sugar and milk; a reference to a popular slang-ridden chant in the Maidan. The tifo, coupled with the loss, irked the Mohun Bagan fans and they began plotting for "revenge", both on the pitch and the stands, in the return leg.
Mariners Base Camp took the leading role in preparing counter-tifos. They worked for weeks, collaborated with other groups and came up with the ideas and designs of four massive tifos that matched and one-upped the tone and insult of the EB Ultras' tifo to the point that it tested the limits of banter through banners. One of them was a humourous jab at the East Bengal club, saying they were like lions who turned into pussycats during the I-League. A second one showed a locked gate in reference to East Bengal club deciding to close their gates on Sundays allegedly after some lovers were found hanging out in the club premises on non matchdays. A third one, made by Mohun-E-Mataram, depicted a servant bringing a cup of tea to his employer, a direct retort of the Ultras' tifo. Another tifo depicted a green and maroon cannon, and referred to East Bengal as "invaders"... a derogatory reference to the East Bengal fans' migrant heritage.
The fans spent weeks of labour and more than 60,000 rupees to get their tifos ready. But unbeknownst to them, something else was happening.
A rumour was making the rounds in Mohun Bagan; alleging that some East Bengal fans were preparing a vulgar banner with explicit imagery that they wanted to unfurl in the stadium. And they were also planning to bring in a large amount of fire crackers hidden in the creases of that banner, with the intention of getting Mohun Bagan fined by the AIFF due to the use of banned items at a match hosted by them.
The Mohun Bagan officials immediately forwarded the tip to the Bidhannagar Police. A decision was taken to closely scrutinize every single banner's content and check them for hidden objects. The Bagan officials issued a notification to the fans regarding this decision in a press release before matchday.
For the Bagan officials, this was taking care of two problems in one go: they were also concerned about the dissident fans using the platform of the Derby to unfurl protest banners in front of the large in-stadia crowd and millions watching on TV. Police scrutiny would stop those banners too.
But on matchday, the axe of this measure fell primarily upon Mariners' Base Camp. The police found their banners derogatory and inflammatory and refused to allow those into the stadium.
Only one small banner which used the cartoon of a donkey to deride East Bengal was allowed.
On the other end of the stadium, East Bengal fans had two big tifos that were allowed to enter. Both upheld the club's long standing heritage and traditions. If any East Bengal fan did make a vulgar banner, it did not make an appearance in the Salt Lake Stadium during the match.
The measures Mohun Bagan took to block "objectionable" banners primarily affected their own fans.
And this led to the fallout we are witnessing now. For the fan groups who have been on edge all season, this is the final straw. While the team is having its worst I-League campaign since 2013-14, the officials' measure to block banners has snapped the final straw of cooperation that existed between the fan groups and the club management.
The spark of rebellion came from Mariners' Base Camp announcing that they were suspending all matchday activities in protest of what they see as censorship from the officials. Within hours, several other fan groups started joining them. At the time of writing this article, 20 Mohun Bagan fan groups based around the country had joined the protest including Beleghata Mariners, Delhi Mariners, Mohun-E-Matarm, Jiboner Rong Sabuj Maroon and Barrackpore Bagan's Army.
Mariners’ Base Camp, the pioneer of Ultras movement in @Mohun_Bagan gallery has decided to stop all gallery activities to protest against the current management's decision of not allowing TIFOs for home supporters on Jan 27 in #KolkataDerbypic.twitter.com/Nu2wDiDoaw
The club is experiencing a fan boycott the scale of which it has never faced in its 130 year history.
Ultimately, with time, cooler heads will likely prevail. The I-League will end, the team will begin a new campaign in Super Cup which will likely re-charge the enthusiasm among its fanbase. More importantly, as the current season nears its end, the club is expected to announce its investment deal that will finance its entry into ISL.
As the East Bengal - Mohun Bagan rivalry enters the ISL, it will be seen as a new fresh chapter in the clubs' rivalry by the fans, and the excitement around Kolkata Derby will reach a level even higher.
But even if most of these fan groups end their protests and return to full activity during matches, their relationship with the club's management may have been damaged to a point of no return. Unless the officials realise that their half-measures based on false rumours have completely misfired and incensed their own loyal supporters, and make a sincere effort to make amends.
For the next few weeks, though, Mohun Bagan are at a low point, with the players, the management and the fans all in for a few weeks of raging internal conflict as the club navigates its most crucial transition phase in decades.
UPDATE: As the number of protesting fan groups continues to grow, the Mohun Bagan management has come out with an official statement clearing the club's stance on the whole controversy, and apologizing to the fans whose sentiments were hurt in the incident.
We would like to clear the misconceptions that Club Officials had instructed police to restrict carrying of all tiffo’s/banners inside the stadium in our Sunday’s Derby match. We had written a request letter to police in which we had mentioned that spectators may carry firecrackers wrapped in banners/tiffo’s which would incur financial/disciplinary sanctions to club.
Besides we had also asked them to restrict entry of banners depicting obscene/vulgar messages or images which are against our Bengali culture. The letter as stated is attached herewith.
Hony. Asst. General Secretary Shri Srinjoy Bose & Hony. Finance Secretary Shri Debashis Dutta had stationed volunteers at Gate No. 1, 2 & 3 to allow spectators carrying with tiffo’s/banners inside stadium. The request was made in general for all spectators bearing in mind to maintain harmony at the stadium and was in no way for any particular fan group/people.
We extend our sincere apologies if this had hurt the sentiments of the fans those were unable to carry their good work inside the stadium."
As of the evening of 29th January, more than 100 fan groups have joined the mass boycott. Mariners' Base Camp has called on the fans not to display any green and maroon flag in the stands during the Mohun Bagan vs Gokulam Kerala FC match on 30th January. Meanwhile, the club's assistant general secretary Srinjoy Basu has expressed interest to sit down with dissident fans and discuss the issue of protest and boycott; the date of the meeting is yet to be decided.