PROTESTING EAST BENGAL FANS faced off sabotage attempts, violent attacks and a lathicharge by the police to register their voices against the club officials' handling of the deal with the investors today.
Many were arrested, at least five were left injured and had to be carried off in an ambulance, in what was arguably the biggest club specific anti-establishment protests by fans in over a decade.
A number of East Bengal fan clubs had called for this protest following repeated delays from the club officials in signing the deal with the investors' consortium led by Shree Cement owner Hari Mohan Bangur. After the club officials recently declared that they were not going to sign the deal, the fanbase grew concerned about their club not being able to participate in the Indian Super League 2020-21 season. After this, a fan was harrassed by people loyal to club officials for doing a live stream from inside the club on Saturday.
Overnight, posters were put up in front of the club and a call went out to the fanbase to stage a protest on 21st July. After this, counter-posters supporting the club officials also appeared and CCTV cameras were installed in front of the club for the first time ever.
As support for the protests grew, many fans reported receiving threatening calls from people loyal to the officials. They also claimed that the officials were planning to "organize" a counter-protest to suppress the organic movement by the fans.
From early morning, heavy anticipation loomed at the Leslie Claudius Street. There was a large presence of police and as the day advanced, a crowd gathered in front of the club that was overtly in favour of the officials. These people, however, did not appear to be an organic gathering. Many were wearing identical blue and white wrist-bands as if to easily identify themselves, and tokens for free lunch was distributed amongst them.
One such group of fans - mostly comprising of women holding up posters - held a march in front of the club sloganeering in support of the officials' decision not to sign the deal with the investors. It was led by Mrs Molly Ganguly, a member of the East Bengal Club Executive Committee and wife of former national team goalkeeper and club legend Bhaskar Ganguly. A reporter who was conducting a live stream interviewed her to get her full perspective. However, soon afterwards, he was interrupted and his cameraman was attacked by an apparently pro-official person. After the video ended, the interviewer was beaten up by a number of pro-official supporters and left on the ground bleeding until some other fans helped him escape that situation.
Meanwhile, a fan who intended to join the protest against officials was reportedly assaulted and left with torn clothes. The protesting fans alleged that this was done to intimidate the fans before the protests even began.
Around 3 pm, fans began to stream into the Maidan with banners demanding the club officials' resignation for failure to secure East Bengal's ability to play in the ISL. The police set up barriers to keep them apart from the pro-official crowd. But very soon it became obvious that the protesting fans far outnumbered the pro-official crowd.
At one point, the club officials asked the protesters to send three of their representatives into the club to discuss the issues they were raising. However, the fans rejected this offer out of concern for being identified and targeted by officials later, and keeping in mind the mistreatment that was meted out to a fan inside the club just four days ago.
Sloganeering continued between both the groups. Some skirmishes, push-and-shove between the two opposing factions also took place. At first, the police issued appeals for calm. But things escalated when the policemen decided to lathicharge the protesting fans in order to disperse the crowd from the area.
The fans were driven away from the area by chasing cops who rained down blows on their head and chest. Some were injured, and groups of protesting fans were seen carrying fans who had collapsed towards the waiting ambulances. One fan was visbily bleeding from the head as he, among others were rounded up by the police and packed onto the waiting police vans. Although many were pleading for him to receive medical treatment, those were ignored by the cops present in the vicinity.
Some journalists who were covering the protests were also caught up in the situation and were reportedly manhandled.
Immediately afterwards, the news channel 24 Ghanta claimed that the DC South of Kolkata Police had denied that any lathicharge had taken place. Speaking to another channel, club official Debabrata Sarkar (Whose resignation was demanded by the protesting fans) also denied any knowledge of such an occurence. However, videos shot by fans as well as news channels all clearly showed fans being chased, hit, manhandled and pushed around by policemen.
Afterwards, the police officially acknowledged that they had arrested four people (Although the number of fans who were dragged into police vans was much larger), who were released later that evening, and alleged that the fans had damaged a vehicle.
As for the club officials, they have called for an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee. They have not directly responded yet to the demands put forth by the protesting fans but it's clear that the fans, who had been waiting patiently for over a year to see East Bengal's deal with their investors being finalized, have reached the limit of their faith in the club administration.
The scale of the protests today was unprecedented. Although the police have intervened in the past when fans of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan clash, it's rare to see them intervene in a protest involving just one of the clubs. Some people present at the protest put the number of fans around 4,000 at least.
Support for the protesting fans have poured in from across the country with many calling out the officials for their mishandling of the situation.
As things stand, there is still no clarity over whether East Bengal will be able to field a team this season. It remains to be seen if the club officials will be able to resolve their disagreements with the investors and sign the deal to ensure the club can continue playing in the Indian Super League, Durand Cup and other major competitions in Indian football.