MOHUN BAGAN FANS will not be able to bring in tifos and banners when their team plays in the AFC Cup tomorrow.
This bizarre decision has been taken by the ATK Mohun Bagan FC management following the Mariners' use of multiple tifos and banners to reiterate their demand of 'Remove ATK' in the previous match.
The demand to remove the 'ATK' brand prefix from Mohun Bagan's football team has been steadily gaining steam among the club's faithfuls since 2020, when Kolkata Games & Sports Limited (KGSPL) shut down their previous franchise ATK FC and bought 80% shares in Mohun Bagan's football division but chose to frame it as a "merger of two clubs."
The KGSPL management then chose to use several branding mechanisms aimed at signalling that the team that was playing was not the Mohun Bagan that's been active in Indian football since 1889. KGSPL made contradictory claims regarding the team's identity, sometimes trying to frame it as a continuation of ATK FC (With 3 stars on the sleeve and "defending champions" tag that had to be removed after Mohun Bagan fans' protests) and sometimes as a new team that was born in 2020 (Via press releases and wording used on official website, socil media).
The official documents categorically disproved this narrative; but the constant drilling of this manufactured PR caused more and more Mohun Bagan fans to turn against the management. Some fans even participated in rallies and protests, where they burned the effigy of KGSPL shareholder Utsav Parekh, one of the biggest proponents of the "merger" narrative.
However the fans were limited to online campaigns and street protests till now because the matches were being held away in Goa, behind closed doors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This also allowed a section of KGSPL to maintain false claims that the 'Remove ATK or leave the club' demands that were coming from the Mohun Bagan fanbase were actually the opinions of a minority.
But when the team finally returned to Kolkata this month for the AFC Cup preliminary stage matches, the stadium gates finally opened for the fans. KGSPL management, aware that Mohun Bagan fans would use the matches to hold in-stadium protests that would be hard to cover up. So when ATK Mohun Bagan were facing Blue Star on 12th April, a directive was sent out to block tifos, banners and flags in order to stop the Mariners from expressing their opinions. The news of the ban was leaked to fans via a newspaper report.
However, the implementation of the ban was not done uniformly. On matchday, there was confusion among stadium personnel about what exactly was allowed into the stadium and what was not. Early in the afternoon, a staff member confirmed to TFG that Mohun Bagan fans would be able to bring in club flags but without the sticks. However, policemen near Gate 3A appeared to be unaware of that detail, and they tried to block Mariners from coming in with club flags.
This led to multiple arguments and confrontations between fans and police. In one particular incident, an elderly fan who had just lost his mother had still travelled 600+ kilometers to attend the match, wearing just his white mourning clothes and a Mohun Bagan flag draped around him like a shawl. When he was asked to remove the flag, he stood his ground and argued with the police. Other fans rallied around him and kept raising slogans until the policemen finally relented, allowing the flags to be brought in.
Similar incidents took place at other gates too and Mohun Bagan fans were even able to bring in their large tifos and banners, defying the ban on their expression. And almost every banner that was unfurled in the stadium categorically repeated their demand to 'Remove ATK.'
Banners unveiled in the stadium conveyed strong messages to KGSPL like "we are supporters, not your customers" and 'we have to save our identity. Another banner said, "Keep up the 132 years old legacy intact', and more directly, 'Bring back our Mohun Bagan.'
A tifo unfurled at the start of the game paid tribute to a wheelchair-bound Mohun Bagan fan who was a regular at the matches, depicted holding up a scarf that said 'Remove ATK.' The tifo also had the words 'MBAC 1889' (Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, established 1889) and 'Ultras never quit.' Another large banner depited two Mohun Bagan fans hugging the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club logo; a rejection of the 'ATK Mohun Bagan FC' brand that is used by KGSPL for the football team.
Some fans also held a t-shirt protest designed to skirt the tifo ban, and chants of 'Remove ATK' and 'Break The Merger' were heard throughout the match.
To cover up the protests, the audio from the stands during the match and was muted and the TV cameras never showed a long shot of the galleries during the protests. The KGSPL-run ATK Mohun Bagan social media accounts, too, did not post any pictures of the galleries; other than one image of a small section of a crowd during a post-match viking clap with the players.
Still, word of the Mohun Bagan fans' protest could not be fully suppressed. The protest trended on Twitter and images, videos of fans protesting were spread throughout the internet and via media.
Immediately an effort began to malign the protesting fans. When ATK Mohun Bagan FC were fined $10,000 by AFC for a single fan's pitch invasion, several media members were told that the fine was due to the tifos and banners. This was, of course, untrue; because AFC Cup has no rule that bans tifos & banners which are seen around the world as part of football fans' artistic expression during matches.
With the fans set to return to the stands once again tomorrow as the team faces Abahoni Limited Dhaka, KGSPL are trying hard to make sure the protests are suppressed this time around. To that end, they have for the first time officially banned tifos and banners. The list of restricted items issued by the management now includes banners and tifos along with fire crackers and drums.
This has created the possibility of a bigger crackdown on Mohun Bagan fans who want to make their voices heard at the stadium tomorrow.
The plan that KGSPL management are following here appears to be twofolds: block the 'Remove ATK' banners and tifos from entering the stadium, then try to claim that the lack of 'Remove ATK' banners and tifos in the stadium as evidence that Mohun Bagan fans were no longer keen on their fight to remove the controversial prefix.
Although KGSPL are fully aware, in light of the incidents of last week, that banning tifos & banners may cause arguments between Mohun Bagan fans and the police thus placing the fans in risky, confrontational situations; they seem to be willing to further aggrevate the situation and endanger the Marineres' safety in order to suppress the fans' free expression.
In response to this move, a loose coalition of a over a dozen Mohun Bagan fan clubs has sprung up overnight. They have decided to hold a rally together for the first time at 5 pm tomorrow, ahead of the start of the match. This is the very first time since the start of the 'Remove ATK movement' that so many different fan clubs have decided to conduct an activity together.