IN THE EARLY HOURS of Saturday, 12th June, a bunch of East Bengal fans gathered in the New Barrackpore area, about 20 kilometers to the North of the club.
While the club they loved was still stuck in a limbo with the officials grappling over the deal with their investors, these twenty-two fans were about to embark on a mission of their own; one where they would engage in acts of charity to people in distress in the name of their club.
They had gathered around 5 am, and by the time the clock hit 6:30, they had finished loading up six trucks full of emergency food supplies; each packet valued at Rs 500, a week's worth of food. Then they set off on a 5 hour journey towards the south, until they reached Kakdwip, an area devastated by Cyclone Yaas a couple of weeks ago. There, they spent the whole day distributing the food packets to the local families. It was well into the night by the time they made it back to Kolkata.
These fans were all members of a collective called Banglar Ahangkaar Desher Gourav East Bengal Fans' Club (Bengal's Pride Nation's Glory East Bengal Fans' Club) aka BADGEB. Established in 2012, this organization has been active in the Maidaan as one of the prominent East Bengal fan groups; and they have been involved in club-related activities as well as charity drives of their own.
Operating with the Madhyamgram, Barasat and New Barrackpore belt as their primary base, they went beyond the normal matchday activities of supporting the team with chants and banners. When East Bengal playing their home matches at the Barasat Stadium, BADGEB were providing volunteers to organize the games and selling tickets. They also gained popularity among the fanbase with their 130 feet long red and gold flag; said to be the single largest East Bengal flag.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, football in the city came to a halt. And BADGEB focused on the charity side of their activities.
When TFG reached out to Aritra Das, one of the group's members on the ground, he informed that the event, dubbed 'Yaas Relief Camp by BADGEB', was going on smoothly well into the afternoon; but due to its hectic nature the group's members had yet to have time to eat.
About the group's charity efforts, he said,
"We were always active on the social fronts with our charity drives and other activities. We used to help out at old age homes, orphanages, distributed clothes to the needy ahead of Durga Puja and such. But in the last year or two, those activities have gone up because of the situation we are in."
Although the group considers their support for East Bengal as a core principle in all their efforts, they have never received help from the club or its officials in doing what they do. According to Aritra,
"We've never taken help or coordinated with the club. They have never reached out to help us and we've never needed to ask them for it either. We've worked hard to build trust with the people we serve, and we value that."
BADGEB used its own reach in real life and social media to raise funds for its activities. The Facebook groups of the collective have over 100,000 members and its social media pages reach many thousands. As the numbers grew over time, they were able to take on bigger projects,
"The last charity drive seven-eight months ago, for the victims of the Amphan cyclone, was done on money raised from members alone. But this time, for Cyclone Yaas, it was a much bigger effort so we decided to run a crowdfunding."
Another member of BADGEB, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, also spoke in detail about how they group's efforts,
"We were able to support from 100-150 families who were affected by the Amphan cyclone. This time, our crowdfunding drive raised more than Rs 1 lakh, so we managed to help more than 200 families. Till date this is the biggest drive that BAGDEB has conducted."
The group plans to take on even bigger charity drives in the future. And although the young men and women who participate in those efforts do it for the joy of charity alone, the situation their club is going through does linger on their mind.
Asked where BADGEB stood on the ongoing controversies of surrounding East Bengal and their deal with the investors, Aritra said,
"We have always been against the officials who are corrupted. We believe Shree Cement Limited should have the sporting rights and run the team."
Another member of the group, speaking on condition of anonimity, said that the prolonged uncertainty surround the club has tested the fans' patience to the point where watching from the sidelines no longer seems like an option,
"If needed there will be protests once the lockdown is lifted. Some fans have already organized a protest event in Beleghata. Next, it will happen in the club premises itself."
It's clear that groups like BADGEB that see social work as part of their duties as fans of East Bengal have played a key role in earning goodwill for the club in communities across the state. But the current situation may force them to use their organizational strength and a well-honed ability to carry out collective objectives to bring about major changes in the club through a civil movement.