IN 1933, the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, Krishna Kumar Sinhji, presented New Delhi a stadium. It was only two years since New Delhi had been inaugurated as the new national capital by Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India. In true subjugated-Maharaja style, bowing to the mighty colonial power, the stadium was named Irwin Amphitheatre, sometimes referred to as Irwin Stadium. It was inaugurated by Lord Willingdon, who had replaced Lord Irwin as the Viceroy.
Lord Willingdon, a patron of sports, had a pavilion at the Feroze Shah Kotla cricket stadium named after him. Mumbai’s super-exclusive Royal Willingdon Sports Club still carries his name.
When India became free, and hosted the inaugural Asian Games in 1951, Irwin Stadium was renamed National Stadium, and so it remained until Dhyan Chand’s name was appended to it, much after the hockey legend died.
After Independence, an idealist would have imagined that with the expulsion of the British and India becoming a democratic republic, it would be a country of equals; that there would be no princes among the men who governed the country; that the days of the British potentates and their representatives in New Delhi were well and truly over.
Yet, India made new princes, through vote. The country then saw a profusion of stadiums named after the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — there are several stadiums or arenas named after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi across the country. Some were named after towering figures from the Independence struggle and early democracy — such as the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadiums in Hyderabad and Kollam, or the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad.
It’s unlikely that those named above would have given their consent to a stadium being named after them; except, perhaps Indira Gandhi, who did have a strong authoritarian streak in her character. It is a fact, though, that no stadium was named after Nehru or Gandhi or Shastri in their lifetime.
The Nehru-Gandhi stadiums across India, perhaps deservedly, mock our ‘sporting tradition’ — a country of over a billion people gets humiliated every four years at the Olympics, trying to get its hand on a bronze or two, while countries that are a dot on the world map — Slovenia, Slovakia, Fiji — merrily took home a gold in 2016.
When you walk to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, your breath is taken away by the huge statues of cricketers such as Dennis Lillee, Shane Warne, Bill Ponsford, Keith Miller and Don Bradman. The stadium also has statues of athlete Shirley Strickland and several Australian football legends.
In India’s grounds, which are almost always named after politicians/administrators, we’re often greeted by statues or busts of politicians. Why can’t a politician say no?
Why could not Narendra Modi say no to his name replacing that of Sardar Patel when the reconstructed cricket stadium in Ahmedabad was inaugurated? He’s said to be a modest, self-effacing man, isn’t he?
Apart from the debatable propriety of a place being named after a living person, there’s also the matter of divesting the Ahmedabad stadium of the name of Sardar Patel, one of India’s greatest modern leaders — and a man revered by Modi. So, is nothing sacred any more?
Those who wish to flatter a great leader will find ways and means to persuade him that it’s only right that a stadium — a great place to influence young people — is named after him. It’s very likely that it was due to the sycophants that stadiums were named after Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin in their own lifetime.
Last month, the Sports Ministry had declared that all upgraded and new Sports Authority of India facilities would be named after athletes who have made the nation proud at the world stage. This declaration suggested an ambition to do things differently from the times of the old, entrenched dynasties.
But democracy creates new princes and dynasties. They follow the ways of the old dynasts. The renaming of the stadium at Ahmedabad shows that in New India, we still follow the ways of Old India — 1933 isn’t all that far back.
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