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Durand Cup: 'Remove ATK' dominates Kolkata Derby as Mohun Bagan officials drop hints

THE 'REMOVE ATK' MOVEMENT stole the show at the Kolkata Derby on Sunday, and after two long years, signs are pointing to a potential conclusion.

When East Bengal and Mohun Bagan faced off at the Durand Cup in Salt Lake Stadium under their investor-decided brand names Emami East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan, their fanbases, usually known for innovative banners supporting their teams and mutual banter, seemed less concerned with the match and more with the ongoing 'Remove ATK' movement that seeks to counter Mohun Bagan investor KGSPL's so-called "merger" narrative.

KGSPL, which used to own ATK FC, shut down that club in 2020 and invested in the football division of Mohun Bagan. But subsequently they made self-contradictory claims about the deal; often calling the team a "merged club" born in 2020 and at other times trying to portray it as a continuation of ATK FC. In reality, the team is just Mohun Bagan under a re-branded name, as proved by the team's official registration.

The reality of the team was even acknowledged by Dr Sanjiv Goenka, the principal shareholder, when Prime Minister and West Bengal chief minister congratulated Mohun Bagan on winning the I-League 2019-20. But his company's PR platforms continue to contradict his own words to the nation's leaders to this day.

But since KGSPL continued push the "merger" narrative through heavily funded advertising campaigns, PR platforms (press releases, websites, social media) and other visible means, Mohun Bagan fans decided to launch the 'Remove ATK' movement in an effort to safeguard their club's football team's identity and history. Almost every major Mohun Bagan fan club has withdrawn their support from the team as a protest and they have held several rallies, in-stadium protests despite KGSPL asking police to take away their flags and banners and crack down on the fans.

Mohun Bagan fans, however, have managed to get some of their protest banners into the stadium at every match.

During the Derby, Mariners Base Camp, one of the leading ultras groups in the 'Remove ATK' movement, displayed a tifo that accused AIFF officials and Mohun Bagan officials destroying the sport and the club; connecting the recent FIFA suspension on India and the identity crisis of Mohun Bagan as two symptoms of the same problem that's weakening Indian football from the inside. 

MBC have long maintained that the current crisis at Mohun Bagan is not only the fault of KGSPL but the blame also falls on the club's member-elected officials who allowed the investors to launch a derogatory branding campaign that undermined the club's identity.

Meanwhile, Mariners de Xtreme aka MDX, another major independent fan group, displayed a multi-level tifo that proclaimed that the Mariners belong to Mohun Bagan itself, and need to speak up to protect the club's identity and 133 years of history.

MDX, who notably helped organise multiple screenings for the Kolkata Derby in 2020 which saw large turnouts despite COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, have not held a single screening since and participated in every major protest event including organising some on their own.

There were other fans, too, who held a t-shirt protest; a concept designed to avoid restrictions on banners in the stadium. Several fans stood up on their chairs, wearing white t-shirts that spelled out 'REMOVE ATK.'

Meanwhile, the East Bengal fans also had their say on the matter. East Bengal Ultras, a leading Red-and-Gold fan collective, poked fun at the casual Mohun Bagan fans who continue to support the team despite KGSPL's overt attempts at undermining their club's identity and history. Their tifo used an image of the infamous washing machine, from an FSDL-produced ad that they were forced to edit out after strong backlash from Mohun Bagan fans, to drive home their point.

The banners were the main point of discussion after the match even though the television cameras did their best to leave them and the topic of the massive protests taking place in plain view out of the broadcast, as they did during the recent AFC Cup and Asian Cup Qualifier matches. The decision to censor the fans stood in stark contrast with the Premier League, where TV cameras often zoomed in on 'Glazers Out' protest banners displayed by Manchester United fans.

Despite all this, the 'Remove ATK' movement seems to be close to achieving their objective. Debashish Dutta, who is the General Secretary of Mohun Bagan and a member of the football team's board of directors, has been hinting for the last couple of months that the 'ATK' prefix may be dropped from the team's name going forward, although he has never given any date for the name change. And after the match, although he was criticised in the protest tifo by Mariners' Base Camp, he had a positive take on the situation when speaking to the media,

"Did you think the tifos and banners would not be there today? The fans have this sorrow, so there will be an expression of that... everything will happen when it's supposed to happen."

In another significant move, Dr Sanjiv Goenka came to the stadium wearing a green-and-maroon t-shirt with 5 stars on the sleeve; a reference to Mohun Bagan's 5 national league titles (3 NFL, 2 I-League). It's a reversal of course from KGSPL & ISL's past attempt to place 3 stars on the sleeve of the team's match jersey as a reference to ATK FC's 3 ISL playoff wins. The marketing gimmick, which actually contradicted their other manufactured narrative of the team being a "merged club", had to be scrapped as well after Mohun Bagan fans' protests.

Since April, there have been rumours that the Mohun Bagan football team was about to drop the 'ATK' prefix and adopt a different brand name; possibly 'Mohun Bagan SG' or 'Mohun Bagan Super Giants.' But despite it being widely reported in multiple major newspapers, neither KGSPL nor Mohun Bagan officials have directly commented on when and if it will happen.

The annual club licensing process, which provides the team a window to officially change its brand name, has not begun in India yet, but is expected to be conducted before the Indian Super League 2022-23 season kicks off in early October.

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