Conrad Hunte, a riotous mob, and an Indian police constable – A story diversely remembered

Souvik Naha

The riot at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta on January 1, 1967 was one of the most dramatic events that ever broke out on a cricket field. It was the 2nd day of the 2nd Test match between India and West Indies. A few minor crowd disturbances had held up the first day’s play. But it was nothing compared to the clash between the spectators and the police that shook up the next day. Double booking and black marketing of tickets of the widely anticipated game resulted in overcrowding of the stands. As the crowd spilled onto the ground breaching the perimeter of the playing arena, the police resorted to indiscriminate lathi charge to disperse them. An old man, Sitesh Roy, was badly mauled as he protested against the panic the police action caused among women and children who were present in large numbers. All hell broke loose as he went down, bloodied, in full public view. The agitated people chased the police away from the stadium with bamboo poles pulled apart from the stands, set the canvas roof on fire, and persistently attacked state and civil properties even outside the ground. About 200 persons including 52 police personnel were injured. The players were transported to their hotel in heavily guarded buses. The police were universally reprimanded for having provoked the riot. Play ultimately resumed after a rest day as negotiations involving officials, retired players, managers and key players of both sides triumphed. West Indies eventually routed India by an innings and 45 runs.

One of the most abiding memories of this Test was a heart-warming tale of patriotism. The Indian and West Indian flags were flying over the NCC pavilion, the roof of which caught fire. People noticed but nobody seemed willing to hazard their lives to save the national flag with its associated prestige. Conrad Hunte made an entry. As the common rendition goes, he climbed up the flaming tiers and saved the West Indian flag from being gutted. This story has since become a parable of patriotism. Points have been made and remade about the role of sport in development of character and its manifestation at the required moment. But this familiar tale gets a twist in the PTI coverage which claimed that it was not Hunte who salvaged the flag. He shouted to the local manager of the West Indies team that they should try to save the flags, “which were more precious than their lives”. The local manager took down the flags and gave them to Hunte.

This version of the story, quite possibly an eye-witness account, strips Hunte of the halo of patriotism. I went to a famous sport statistician, who has never missed a day’s play at the Eden Gardens since 1954, with this alternative story. He gave me a hard stare. Then he recalled in detail how the manager, like other CAB officials, had fled the scene even before the fire broke out and how Hunte climbed up the pole to save the West Indian flag.

Memoirs of the West Indian cricketers are not consistent about the incident either. Gary Sobers, in Sixty Years at the Top, wrote that no one among them dared to venture out of the smoke-engulfed dressing room while Hunte went out boldly and rescued the flag single-handedly. He praises Hunte’s moral virtues elsewhere in his other books too. For Clive Lloyd, who in Living for Cricket talks about leaving the ground early in a Morris car, the only memory of the riot is the conciliatory role that Sir Frank Worrell played to make sure the Test continued. The flag-saving is not mentioned in his memoirs. So it can be surmised that the incident was not important enough to leave a scratch on his memory. On the other hand, he had been thoroughly critical of some unnamed seniors for difference in attitude, a group Hunte might have been a member of. If that be the case, then it is only natural for Lloyd to downplay Hunte’s accomplishments.

If we take the PTI report to be true, then the choice of Hunte as the savior turns out to be a fabrication. But who would have wanted him to play the savior, and why him? Several concerns justify the choice. Hunte was very different from the average sporting heroes - known more for his ethical righteousness than cricketing exploits. While autobiographies of sportsmen are generally full of attempts to aggrandize their achievements or to vent their frustration, Hunte’s autobiography, Playing to Win, had a full chapter on Gandhi’s contribution to humanity and more praise for teammates’ efforts than his own centuries. He had the habit of leaving uplifting messages around the dressing-room, irking team mates quite often. Dickie Dodds, Hunte’s mentor, admits that he was the conscience of the team. His moral force gave the whole side an ethos. A brilliant orator, he was involved in anti-colonial resistance in Jamaica. So the image of Hunte as a moralizer and a savior was in circulation even before he came to play in India. In the chaotic situation, with fire engulfing most of the stadium, the sight of a dark man climbing up the pole might have tricked the “most literate cricketing public in the country” into thinking that it was Hunte pulling off another patriotic job. Every crisis moment calls for a hero. Since Hunte fitted the description most appropriately, the public made him their hero – someone to stand for patriotic and sporting spirit amidst the quagmire of corporate greed and administrative indifference. They remembered what they chose to believe, and did not want that memory, a relic of an unforgettable day, to be disturbed. This explains that hard stare.

Following Michel Foucault’s power/ knowledge equations, Edward Said has written about how social memories are reinvented to meet ideological objectives. Memory of flag-saving and its representations bring in questions of identity, nationalism, power, and authority. Local vernacular newspapers like the Anandabazar Patrika, incidentally, supported the story in bold prints. They found in it a morality tale to remind the belligerent public of the one who risked his life to save his country’s honour in a foreign land while the ‘cricket-lovers of Calcutta’ were busy damaging a community heritage. On another level, it served as a wake-up call to the government showing a foreigner manifesting resolve while the all-powerful state fails. It reminded too that the administrators cannot neglect the responsibility to look after the entitled spectator, or they would face public humiliation time and again. The instance of Hunte served as an earnest appeal to maintain Calcutta’s civic pride. The memory of this particular act can be said to have thus reinforced individual and group objectives by perpetuating the appeal of patriotism and establish moral authority as superior to political or military power.

But was Hunte really the savior? Who can know better than him? In his autobiography, Hunte says that he started climbing the flagpole to retrieve both the flags - the symbol of national sovereignty, but a white-clothed policeman urged him not to risk his limbs and volunteered to take the flags down. So, to trust Hunte’s memory, an anonymous policeman was the one to save the marker of the nation in front of foreigners. His white uniform was probably mistaken for that of a Test cricketer’s flannel while his counterparts were being chased around. Nobody knows who he was, for the spotlight never wavered from Hunte despite his acknowledgement of the policeman. Routine achievements, sadly, do not get elevated to legendary status. Cricket consists more in romanticism than statistics, and who wants to confront ugly truths when a comfortable myth provides shelter?

The spectators construct collective history in the stadium. Memories of this history is produced and perpetuated by oral and written transmissions. Memory is not merely the recollection of a piece of information important enough to be retained. Its production and propagation is a complex process that calls into question politics of social, political and historical enterprises. Memories can be multiple and specific at the same time depending on the modes of representation. Some elements in the body of information can be strategically highlighted and multiplied to maximize credibility or to fulfill certain objectives. This particular issue serves a brilliant example of the multiplicity of collective memory.

(Souvik Naha is currently doing research on the history of Indian cricket at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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