August 16th, 1980 was a Hillsborough-like Disaster for Kolkata's football fraternity
The fanaticism around football in Kolkata of 1970’s, is unmatched in the history of the beautiful game in independent India. In a city caught between political turmoil and a fledgling Naxalite movement, the sport offered a waft of fresh air, also aided by a number of young footballers who would stroll into the hall of fame in the years to come.
The two giants, namely East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, remained at the center of the proceedings, with the former gaining a substantial number of fans due to the inflow of refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The early years of the decade were dominated by the Red and Golds, but the Mariners made a comeback in the second half, winning the treble in 1977 and scoring 84 goals in 27 matches. While the fanfare snowballed to help the game take the cynosure of the town, a horrible accident on the 16th of August, 1980 changed the scenario.Eden Gardens, at the heart of the city (remember the Salt Lake Stadium was inaugurated only in 1984), was hosting the tie on that inauspicious day as the Green and Maroons led by Compton Dutta (now a member of the club’s executive committee) locked horns with the opposition captained by Satyajt Mitra. Staying away from the nitty-gritties of the game, the mercury started soaring in the early proceedings. East Bengal’s Dilip Palit started as an unorthodox right-back to keep a close eye on in-form winger Bidesh Bose, but was unable to keep up with his trickery and committed an ugly foul in the 11th minute of the game. Sudhin Chatterjee, the referee, was too lenient at the offset and didn’t show Palit the yellow card he deserved. His rough tackling remained one of the major sticking point of the game as the players headed back at half-time.The situation went out of control twelve minutes after the play resumed as Bose, finally retaliated and was swiftly shown a red card while Palit wasn't punished. The referee, however, committed a blunder when he gave the East Bengal defender marching orders in the spur of the moment as a balancing act. The fact that play resumed with a dropped-ball and not with a free-kick after the second red card was a hint that the booking was a late reaction and not the result of any foul committed. Both teams played with ten men and the match finished 1-1, but little did the professionals on the pitch know about what was transpiring in the stands.
With supporters of the two outfits separated by a flimsy police barricade, a bloodbath kickstarted. Youngsters were thrown from the high stands to the concrete floor some 10-to-15 meters below mercilessly as the violence spread in no time. The innocent followers tried to run away from the venue through its narrow gates and an inevitable stampede broke out, taking 16 young lives and making it the darkest hour of Indian football and probably also of Indian sports.So, who was responsible for the debacle? The referee has to bear some responsibility for irking the crowd at the first place, but then it was only an error in his profession, something that every human being commits. The Indian Football Association (IFA), the governing body of the game in West Bengal, handed all responsibilities of organizing the game to the newly elected Left Front government. And, they failed!Jyoti Basu, the then chief minister of the state, also had the sports ministry in his portfolio. Breaking the usual tradition of selling two stands to supporters of two different clubs - for reasons unknown – tickets of some portions were sold to faithful of both clubs. The myopic planning sowed the seeds of the massacre but nobody could predict the severity would be so grave. While the police and the state failed to handle the disaster, young Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who was recently appointed the vice-chairman of All India Football Federation (AIFF), played a key role in damage control. “The police have been a complete failure in the whole episode,” Nirupam Some, the then Police Commissioner of the city, conceded hours after the incident.
“It’s fifteen minutes past ten in the night now. Hordes of people have flooded the hospital to identify their relatives, their friends. A widow is crying on the road - she has failed to trace her eldest son. Biswajit Mondal, a class XII student was admitted in the hospital, suddenly he shouted – “Xavier Pius is incomparable”. The news is reaching the suburbs like a wildfire. Those who couldn’t find their relatives at the Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital (SSKM), rushed to the other hospitals. A scary silence has shrouded the hospital premises, often broken by the shrill cry of a mother,” Anandabazar Patrika, the most circulated Bengali daily read on the next morning.
The dark hour was also a lethal blow to the popularity of the game in the land, where it had enjoyed unimaginable loyalty for more than 50 years. The regular attendees faced stiff resistance from their families to attend the next set of matches. People who were flocking the stands every weekend, now either snapped their ties with the Maidan or continued to attend the matches with a fear in their minds. The fanfare was never quite the same again.
The Calcutta Football League was called off instantly and the IFA Shield was abandoned. “With communal riots taking place in Moradabad, this government is probably too afraid to take a chance with the scheduled East Bengal – Mohammedan Sporting match. The real problem is with that league semi-final. This administration is not ready to take any further risk,” renowned journalist Ashok Dasgupta reported a few days after the incident.
While so many young lives were lost, nobody was punished for the debacle. The loss was insurmountable for the families and in retrospect, also for Indian Football. The youngest casualty of the day was a 15-year old – a news that sent shivers down everybody’s spine. Nisith Chandra Ghosh, the general secretary of East Bengal, was busy with a European tour, while Dhiren Dey, the reputed top official of Mohun Bagan, could only add to the confusion by making two contradictory statements within 24 hours. Teenagers Kartik Maity, Nabin Nashkar and Bishwajit Das all were in final years of their school – nobody was held responsible for the loss of these young lives.Syed Rahim Nabi’s injury a few years ago in the same fixture showed that nothing really has changed, as the derby has become more of a show-piece event of late. It remains a disgrace of highest order, the darkest half-an-hour of Indian football history.
Name of the sixteen football fans who lost their lives that day: Kartik Maity, Uttam Chowle, Samir Das, Aloke Das, Sanat Basu, Nabin Nashkar, Kalyan Samanta, Ashim Chatterjee, Robin Adak, Kartik Maji, Dhananjoy Das, Shyamal Biswas, Madam Mohan Bagli, Prashanta Dutta, Himangshu Sekhar Das, Bishwajit Kar.