India’s First International Dalit Cricketer And The Breaching Of The Caste Frontier

By: Kamalpreet Singh Gill
Palvankar Baloo is believed by historians to have been India’s first ‘international’ Dalit cricketer. He was part of the first all-Indian cricket team that toured England in 1911 under the captaincy of Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh. Even though the Indians lost the series, Baloo distinguished himself as the most outstanding player, beguiling English audiences with his left-arm orthodox spin.

It wasn’t, however, an easy journey. Baloo was born in 1876 in Dharwad, Karnataka, to an ‘untouchable’ family. Baloo started off as a groundsman at the Parsee Club in Bombay before moving to the Poona Club, where his job included rolling and making the pitch and erecting the nets. Watching the game from such close quarters, Baloo quickly picked up its finer nuances, and, one day, when he was called upon to bowl as a practice bowler to the English cricketer, J G Greig, his talent was immediately spotted by team scouts hungry for cricketing glory.

This was a time when first-class cricket in western India consisted of a quadrangular tournament among the major cricketing clubs or Gymkhanas that represented the four major communities. These clubs were called the Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsis, and Europeans. Rivalry among the clubs was intense, fuelled by a hawkish local press that dissected each game passionately, writing lengthy paeans or polemics – as the case may be – to each of the clubs that they favoured or disfavoured. Passionate fans demanded nothing but the best from their players.

No sooner had Baloo’s talent been accidentally uncovered at the Poona Club was he picked up by the Hindus. He made his debut for the Hindus in 1906 against the Europeans – in a match played against the backdrop of increasingly strident nationalist rhetoric coming from leaders such as Lokmanya Tilak, which would eventually lead to the Surat Split of Congress in 1907. Baloo’s impressive performance ensured that he became a regular fixture in the team. And cricket became a mirror for the changing social and political landscape in the country.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Gandhi and his campaign against untouchability were a distant speck on the horizon, harijan was a term yet to be coined, and Dr B R Ambedkar was but a teenager. At such a time, Baloo was bravely wading into waters never entered before, all alone, changing the discourse on caste in his wake.

Being the only Dalit in a team dominated by upper-caste men from prominent families of western India, Baloo had to face discrimination and segregation early on. His meals were served separately, and his utensils were washed by a separate orderly belonging to the untouchable caste.

As the news of segregation against Baloo, by now popular among the fans, spread, fans and admirers responded with anger and outrage at the treatment meted out to a star performer. Shortly afterwards, the Bombay Hindu Gymkhana did away with their practice of serving separate meals to Baloo and he was allowed to freely interdine with the rest of his teammates, the scruples of a few members notwithstanding. A few years later, Baloo’s younger brother, Shivram Palwankar, was admitted to the Bombay Gymkhana without any of the fuss or undue scruples that had accompanied Baloo’s own admission. A medium-pace bowler and a hard-hitting batsman, Shivram soon established a reputation for himself that rivalled that of his elder brother’s.

Baloo’s crowning glory came in 1911 when he was included in the first All-Indian team to tour England, captained by Bhupinder Singh. Although the Indians could win just two and draw another two of their 14 first-class fixtures, Baloo stood head and shoulders above everyone else, scalping 75 wickets with his left-arm spin, claiming a best of 8/103. Upon his return to Bombay from the 1911 tour, an event was organised by the Depressed Classes Association of Bombay to felicitate Baloo. The welcome address for the celebration was presented by none other than Ambedkar.

By 1913, Baloo and Shivram had been joined in the Hindu Gymkhana team by their brothers Vitthal and Ganpat. There were, thus, not one but four ‘untouchables’ playing in the Hindus team, a matter of great pride for the more progressive elements of Indian society who stood against caste discrimination and untouchability. As early as 1906, the Indian Social Reformer was writing in its editorial that the admission of the Palwankar brothers into the Hindu Gymkhana was a “Landmark in the nation’s emancipation from the old, disuniting and denationalising customs. Hindu sportsmen in Poona and Bombay have shown that where national interest required, equal opportunity must be given to all of any caste, even though the offer of such opportunity involved the trampling of old prejudices. Let the lesson learnt in sport be repeated in political, social, and educational walks of life.” (Boria Majumdar, Cricket in Colonial India 1780-1947, Page 46)

The Struggle to the Top

However, letting go of old prejudices was easier said than done. Despite being among India’s most outstanding cricketers of that era, Baloo never attained captaincy of the club he played for all his life. Younger players of a far lesser calibre were often promoted to the captaincy ahead of him. When M D Pai was appointed the captain of the Hindu Gymkhana team, overlooking the favourite Baloo, the unfairness was not lost on anyone, least of all on Pai himself. In his acceptance speech, Pai himself admitted that the “honour of captainship should have been given to his friend Baloo, for he was the senior and more experienced player in the team”. (Ramachandra Guha)

Similarly, in the 1915 season when the ageing Baloo was dropped from the Hindu team, a torrent of angry public criticism forced the managers to reinstate Baloo into the team. Again in 1920, the issue of captaincy came to a head when all the Palwankar brothers were ignored for leadership of the Hindus team. This was a time when Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement had begun to gather steam, and, taking a leaf out of Gandhi’s book, the Palwankar brothers decided to sit out the entire season in protest. Panicked at losing their star players, and under pressure from fans, the club pleaded with the brothers to return. As a conciliatory measure, Baloo was appointed the vice-captain of the team for the season.

The honour of captaining the Hindus side, however, would eventually be claimed by Baloo’s younger brother, Vitthal Palwankar. Vitthal captained the Hindus side for four years, between 1923 and 1926. Vijay Merchant would later name Vitthal Palwankar as one of his inspirations, not the least because of his struggle in overcoming the handicap of caste discrimination and reaching the pinnacle of club cricket in western India. The road to Vitthal’s achievements was, no doubt, paved with Baloo’s struggles.

From Player to Politician

By the time Baloo retired from cricket, he had become a well-known public figure in western India, particularly in Bombay and Poona. Among the Dalit community especially, he had acquired a status that rivalled that of Ambedkar.

Ambedkar, who was some 15 years younger than Baloo, had long been an admirer of Baloo’s achievement, while Baloo, in turn, had a lot of respect for Ambedkar and his work towards the betterment of Dalits. However, their political views were at odds – Baloo was not a firm believer in the politics of affirmative action espoused by Ambedkar. When Ambedkar pressed forward with his demand for separate electorates for Dalits, a clash between the two men seemed inevitable.

In 1931, the Free Press Journal had the following to say on the brewing confrontation between the two men:

“A large section which embraces the vast majority of Depressed Classes Community under the leadership of Palwankar Baloo, B J Deorukhakhar, and Mr Patel repudiated Ambedkar’s position on separate electorates and special representation and declared their faith in the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi.” (Majumdar: 47)

The following year, with Gandhi on a fast unto death in the Yerawada jail against Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates, Baloo was one of the mediators from the Congress side who persuaded Dr Ambedkar to take back his demand in what came to be known as the Poona Pact.

In 1933, Baloo stood for his first-ever election that pitted him against an affluent Parsi doctor, Homi F Pavri. Baloo received strong popular support, but, in the end, lost the election by a narrow margin, polling 2,179 votes to Pavri’s 3,030.

In 1937, the decades-old, frequently intertwining trajectories of Baloo and Ambedkar finally collided head-on. That year, Baloo stood for municipal elections in Bombay on a Congress ticket. His opponent was to be none other than Dr Ambedkar. There would be no more stepping aside from each other’s paths and no more room for negotiations. The two great men had a large following and each represented a different ideology and a different way forward for the people, their people.

In the event, Dr Ambedkar won the election, but it was a close call – Baloo polled 11,225 votes against 13,245 of Ambedkar. The result, however, would have been much different had a Congress rebel not decided to contest as an independent at the last moment and eat into Baloo’s vote share. A defeat for Dr Ambedkar at this juncture would have greatly affected his political career.

In contesting elections, Baloo breached another frontier – he was, perhaps, the first-ever professional cricketer to stand for elections, a path many others would take later, including, most recently, Imran Khan.

For the sport of cricket, the significance of Baloo’s achievements remains undervalued. One could argue that had it not been for Baloo, cricket in India might well have remained a sport played by brown sahibs in exclusive clubs over Sunday lunch and tea. Baloo, as early as 1906, opened the sport up to the masses. Following Baloo’s lead, another Dalit cricketer from Karachi by the name of H L Semper played for the Hindus from 1910 to 1927, scoring 284 runs in 18 innings and taking 16 wickets.

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