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The mystery behind Jaipal Munda's removal from captaincy of India's first Olympics team

The official captain of India's first Olympics team in 1928 had been a young tribal man from Jharkhand. However, due to something that transpired behind the scenes, he had to leave the tournament midway.

The mystery behind Jaipal Mundas removal from captaincy of Indias first Olympics team
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Jaipal Singh Munda - Indian hockey's first captain who was removed under mysterious circumstances

By

The Bridge Desk

Updated: 2023-01-25T13:00:00+05:30

A few days ago, a member of India's cricket team was caught on the stump mic using a casteist slur for a teammate during a match. While the player himself might have used the word without an intention to hurt, it is important to look at India's sports history to understand why such a flippant use of politically-laden words is of far more consequence than the player would have realised.

Palwankar Baloo is probably the most well known instance of an elite player who was not allowed to be captain of the country due to his low caste. On the hockey field, however, one of the first captains of a representative Indian side was a tribal player from Jharkhand - Jaipal Singh Munda. Though listed as the first Indian hockey captain (1928 Olympics) in several documents, his demographical background led to a chain of events that forced him out of the team before India were crowned champions.

What might have happened in the Indian dressing room at the 1928 Olympics that led to Munda's exit is one of the mysteries in Indian sports history that is examined in Myths and Mysteries - Indian sport behind the headlines, a recent book by Gulu Ezekiel published by Rupa Publications. Following is an excerpt on the episode:

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The mystery here is why did Jaipal Singh Munda, appointed captain, drop out midway to be replaced by Eric Penniger?

After the inter-provincial tournament in Calcutta in February 1928, the team was announced with three more to join them in England. These were Jaipal, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi (who did not make it to Amsterdam) amd SM Yusuf, all three studying in college at the time.

According to Dhyan Chand's autobiography Goal: "Jaipal was during his term the mainstay of the Oxford hockey team. As a full back, Jaipal Singh had a reputation in the United Kingdom. The natural and obvious choice for captaining the Indian team fell on him and he joined us in England."

Dhyan obviously thought the world of Jaipal. In England, during the pre-Olympic tour, he praised his intimate knowledge of the English players and ground conditions, and said he was exceedingly popular and virtually a household name in hockey circles.

"It is still a mystery to me why he, after ably captaining us in England and in two or three matches in the Olympic Games, suddenly left us."

In Group A, India beat Austria 6-0, Belgium 9-0 and Denmark 5-0. They then beat Switzerland 6-0 in the final group game, which saw them straight into the final. There was no semi-final match, but both Dhyan Chand and other historical references state Jaipal left before the semifinals and final, so it appears the Switzerland game was considered as the semifinal, and Jaipal missed that and the final too.

READ | Dilip Tirkey's rise from a small village to Hockey India boss

It seemed like the manager, AB Rosser, was being sidelined at Amsterdam by two ex-Army officers, Major Ricketts and Colonel Bruce Turnbull, and they clashed with the captain. By Dhyan's account, it was Jaipal who refused to captain in the last two matches due to his dispute with the team management.

"Some had said communcal and racial issues were involved. The fact remains that Jaipal...was eminently suited to lead us, could not do so till the end. Something had happened behind the scenes."

Dhyan expressed the hope that Jaipal would be in a position to clarify the issue 'so as to give future historians of hockey the real facts'. Unfortunately, that never happened. Jaipal, till his death in 1970, aged 63, kept his silence on the matter and so it remains an eternal mystery of Indian sport. (end of excerpt)

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Since Jaipal Munda himself never gave away any details on why he had to leave the Indian team in the middle of the Olympics, several theories exist. One of them is that the 'Indian' team of the time was primarily white and they did not like a 'native' at the helm. Another theory is that most of the 'Indian' players hailed from an Army background, and they did not like a civilian leading the team.

Jaipal Munda (sitting, bottom row, right) was one of the few 'native' players part of India's first Olympics team.

The Indian team for the 1928 Olympics: Jaipal Singh (Captain), Richard Allen, Dhyan Chand, Maurice Gateley, William Good-Cullen, Leslie Hammond, Feroze Khan, George Marthins, Rex Norris, Broome Pinniger (vice-captain), Michael Rocque, Frederic Seaman, Ali Shaukat and Sayed Yusuf.

Goals: Dhyan Chand scored 14; Feroze Khan and George Martins scored five each; Frederic Seaman, three; and Ali Saukat and Maurice Gateley, one each.

One other angle not mentioned in the book is the tug-of-war which might have been playing out in Munda's heart - the Indian hockey team on one side, and the Indian Civil Service on the other.

According to his living family members, Jaipal Munda returned from the Olympics as he had to return to London for his ICS final exam. The few Indians who had qualified in this exam before him hailed from rich, land-owning aristocratic families. He was a striking exception. He asked the India Office in London for a leave of absence to take part in the Olympics, but this was denied. Given a choice to play hockey or to qualify for the ICS, Jaipal Munda chose to play for his country - giving up the ICS honour.

Jaipal Munda's experience of being sidelined from the hockey team despite being captain and his treatment at the hands of the India Office in London would have had a part to play in his subsequent rise as a tribal political leader. It was his call for a separate state of Jharkhand that led to the creation of the state 60 years after his call.

On December 16th 1946, the voice of Jaipal Singh was heard for the first time in Constituent Assembly: "I rise to speak on behalf of millions of unknown hordes - yet very important - of unrecognised warriors of freedom, the original people of India who have variously been known as backward tribes, primitive tribes, criminal tribes and everything else, Sir, I am proud to be a Jungli, that is the name by which we are known in my part of the country.

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There are several memorials of Jaipal Singh Munda which still exist today, but for what he means to the tribal community from Jharkhand, it is apt to recount Dilip Tirkey's column written in The Indian Express:

"He played as a deep defender and was known to have been very good — a clean tackler, calm-headed, with an unparalleled ability to read the game and with powerful hits. These are some of the qualities that define players from the tribal belt even today — from the legendary Michael Kindo to players like Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas and Deep Grace Ekka, who were part of the men's and women's hockey teams at the Tokyo Olympics recently," Tirkey wrote.

"On the hockey field, there was a huge void after Jaipal sir stopped playing. For almost four decades, we had little-to-no representation at the national level. It's a mystery to me why there was such a long gap, but the long drought ended when Michael Kindo, who went on to play in three World Cups (1971, 1973 and 1975), the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1974 Tehran Asian Games, was selected for India... But sometimes, you wonder if any of us would have made it this far had Jaipal sir not taken the first step."

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