Gopalkrishna Gandhi: How the Indian cricket team reacted to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

NB: On the 70th anniversary of his assassination, the Mahatma still haunts us, almost as if in answer to Sarojini Naidu's broadcast of February 1, 1948: My Father, Do Not Rest. Given that the politics of his assassins grips a section of our ruling class and that malicious propaganda against him continues unabated, we would be doing ourselves a favour by learning more about his final weeks and days of life. Above all, that period manifested both his monumental strength of character and boundless compassion for suffering humanity. 

As Mary Catherine Bateson once said, "the timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it."If the Mahatma remains relevant today it is because his message of love and non-violence appeals deeply to the human spirit in search for a new way of life. This moving essay by Gopalkrishna Gandhi reminds us of the impact of the news of his passing. DS

Photos: Seventy years ago today

I have no interest in cricket at all. But it is one thing to have no interest at all in the sport, another to be interested in cricketers as persons, individually and as a category. Like being uninitiated in classical music, yet finding musicians fascinating, as persons and as a community.
Turning the pages of a rare volume, Memories of Bapu, brought out by The Hindustan Times in early 1948 , I was struck by the photograph in it of Indian cricketers, members of our Test team, touring Australia in January 1948. This was not only India’s inaugural tour of Australia but also the first tour by a team from Independent India. The ‘tourists’ in the picture are in Melbourne, standing in a row, distraught, paying homage to the memory of the assassinated leader.

Two distinguished experts in cricket, N Ram and Ramachandra Guha, helped me contextualise the tour. And Boria Majumdar identified the men in the picture as, from left to right, KM Rangnekar, CT Sarwate, and VS Hazare. He adds: “Behind them the two less visible seem to be G Kishenchand and JK Irani. The extreme right is L Amarnath and on his immediate left is Pankaj Gupta, followed by Amir Elahi and DJ Phadkar, and the last one looks like SW Sohoni.”

A review of this tour carried in the Melbourne Cricket Club Library’s journal The Yorker (2007/8), which N Ram shared with me, says: “In Victoria, the assassination raised thoughts that the Fifth Test at the MCG might be abandoned. The Indian manager, Pankaj Gupta, said, We have been stunned. None of us could get any sleep last night. We just sat around sadly listening to the All-India radio. Some of us wept at the news.’ Despite their sorrow, the Indians decided to “complete their itinerary and keep faith with the public”, but it is hard to believe that their thoughts were totally committed to cricket. As Mr. Gupta explained, Gandhi’s death was ‘a national catastrophe, and it was difficult for the team to adjust themselves and recapture the incentive to win.’ ”

The Indian team, as well as the Australian team led by Sir Donald Bradman, observed a minute’s silence before play began at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the first day of the fifth Test. The men in the picture are now no more, Hazare being the last to cross over, in 2004 at 89. Memories of Bapu carries responses to the assassination from thinkers, statespersons, among which George Bernard Shaw’s is deservedly the most famous: “It is dangerous to be good.”

The most prescient, the most profound among them, is the following from Mary M Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, as it was then called: “As we mothers of the world stand in awesome fear of the roar of jet planes, the crash of the atom bomb and the unknown horrors of germ warfare, we must turn our eyes to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.”

But as seen today, the picture of our cricketers is for me, the most tender part of the volume.
None of the players are looking at the camera. They are in fact not thinking of the camera, of posing for a picture. Their thoughts are with the slain leader and his slaying. No one who sees this picture can say cricketers are obsessed with themselves, their image, that they have no thought beyond themselves, their scores, their earnings on the turf, off the turf.

No selfie could have captured that moment in Melbourne. It is selfless.

Perhaps Majumdar can initiate a search for letters the 13 men and their manager wrote home on what they felt about the future of India and the world following the assassination. Something very different, very profound, like Bethune’s assessment might emerge from them, reflecting the minds of these men of the willow. The 70th anniversary, this year, of Gandhi’s assassination is far more significant for us, civilisationally, than the 150th anniversary of his birth, next year.

Why do I say this? Because births emerge from parents’ timelines, deaths from one’s own. They say something about us. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay has written that Gandhi was an “ichha marani”, that is, he died as he wanted to — in solidarity with those who were dying at bigotry’s hands. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi cricketers stand in silence in the picture, in deep reflection, in grief and in anxiety. They stand, in anxiety, for us, today.

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