Palwankar Baloo

19 Mar 1876
4 Jul 1955
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Babaji Palwankar Baloo (19 March 1876 – 4 July 1955), commonly known as Palwankar Baloo, was an Indian cricketer. He bowled left-arm orthodox spin with great accuracy and the ability to turn the ball both ways. He was also a moderately skilled lower-order batsman.

He was the first member of the Dalit (also known as the “Untouchable”) caste to make a significant impact on the sport. Although being one of the finest cricketers of his time, he was never allowed to lead the team as a captain because of his so-called lower caste. However, in later years, his brother Palwankar Vithal was made captain of the Hindu team by the Hindu Gymkhana Club, which was seen as an impact of changing social situations in India.

Baloo was born in March 1876 in Dharwad. His father was employed in the army, and he either worked in an ammunition factory in Kirkee, or was a sepoy in the 112th Infantry Regiment. His family name of Palwankar came from his native village of Palwan. Being a Dalit, he faced discrimination prevalent in India at that time. (Guha 2002:86)

His first job was tending the pitch at a cricket club for Parsis in Poona, now known as Pune. He also occasionally bowled to the members, and was paid 3 Rupees a month. Around 1892, he moved to the Poona Club, a cricket club for Europeans, where his duties included rolling and sweeping the pitch, erecting the practice nets and occasionally marking the tennis courts. His salary increased to Rs.4 a month.

One of the Europeans, a Mr Tross, encouraged the young Baloo to bowl to him in the nets. His skill at slow left-arm bowling was enough to encourage other members to bat against him for practice, in particular the fine batsman Captain J.G.Greig. In time, he was bowling to them regularly, his bowling important practice for the club members. Despite bowling for hundreds of hours, Baloo later lamented that not once did any of the club members offer to allow him to bat—a role then considered the preserve of the aristocratic classes.(Guha 2002:90). An undocumented story states that he was paid 8 annas by JG Greig every time he dismissed him. Baloo thus perfected his bowling, spending hours in the nets bowling to the Europeans.

A Hindu club in Pune challenged the Europeans to a cricket match, creating a dilemma over whether or not to include the obviously talented Baloo in their side. The (high-caste) Brahmins in the Hindu side were against it, but some Telugu members argued for his inclusion, as did Captain Greig. This seemed to settle the matter, for Baloo was invited to play with the Hindu Club.

On the field, Baloo played cricket as an equal, but off it he was segregated from the Europeans and the higher caste Hindus during rest and meal breaks. While his team-mates dined inside the pavilion on fine china, Baloo was left outside to eat and drink out of disposable clay crockery. Despite this treatment, he bowled well and took plenty of wickets, leading his club to several victories almost single handedly.(Guha 2002:93)

Over the next few years, Baloo slowly earned the respect of his Hindu club team-mates. As his standing in the Poona cricket community grew due to his obvious talents, these barriers broke down and he was eventually accorded the right to gather with his fellow players off the field.

In 1896, Baloo chose to move to Bombay with his family – at least partly because of the severe plague which broke out in the region, but also because of the greater opportunities for cricket in the larger city. There he served with the Army and played for the newly formed Parmanandas Jivandas Hindu Gymkhana club. The captain of the Gymkhana cricket team wanted Baloo’s bowling skills, but had to overrule the protests of several other players who objected to Baloo’s caste. When he left the Army, Bombay Berar and Central Indian Railways gave him a job, allowing him to play for their corporate cricket team as well as the Gymkhana.

Baloo played for the Hindu side in the famous 1906 and 1907 matches against the Europeans of the Bombay Gymkhana, in which the Hindus defeated the Europeans by 109 runs and 238 runs respectively. These matches led to various newspaper commentaries, of two types: ones proclaiming a victory over caste prejudice as the united Hindu team triumphed, and others painting them in nationalist tones as a victory of the natives against European rule.

Baloo was chosen for an all-Indian team to tour England in 1911, consisting of Parsis, Hindus, and Muslims, captained by a Sikh. In results terms, the tour was a failure, but Baloo was the outstanding performer for the tourists, taking 114 wickets at an average of 18.84, 75 of which were in first class matches.

From 1912 to 1919, Baloo was a regular player in the Bombay Quadrangular tournament, between the Hindu, Parsi, Muslim, and European Gymkhanas. Despite regular calls for him to be named captain of the Hindu team, there was still enough caste-based prejudice within the club to prevent it. Three of his brothers, Shivram, Ganpat and Vithal, also played in the Quadrangular, and Palwankar Vithal eventually captained the Hindu team.

In 1920, Baloo was dropped from the side to play the Muslims. Rank and file members of the club were outraged and at a meeting after the match expressed their displeasure so vehemently that Deodhar was removed and Baloo invited to play again for the Hindu Gymkhana, as vice captain. During the next match against the Parsis, Deodhar’s replacement, M. D. Pai (also a Brahmin), deliberately left the field for an extended period, allowing Baloo to direct the team in his absence.In this manner, Baloo broke the barrier against members of his caste acting as leaders, at a time when Mahatma Gandhi was just beginning his campaign against the stigma of Untouchability.

Late in his cricket career, Baloo met and befriended B. R. Ambedkar, who went on to become the greatest leader of the Dalit and pre-eminent in the struggle to overturn the caste system. Ambedkar considered Baloo a hero of the Dalit, naming him as an inspiration to himself and others of their caste, but over the following years a rift was to grow between the men over the methods of dismantling the caste system.

Baloo went on to become involved in politics, strongly supporting Gandhi’s efforts to bring home rule to India and to fully integrate Dalit into Indian society. Ambedkar campaigned for Dalit to be assigned special representation in the legislature. The British Government assented, creating a Communal Award under which Dalit would be elected from a separate electorate composed only of Dalit voters.

Gandhi protested against this, arguing that full integration was the only way to remove the stigma of Untouchability, and special representation would lead only to resentment and civil war. Gandhi then announced his decision to fast until death in protest, beginning on 20 September 1932. Baloo released a press statement stating his admiration for “the spirit in which Mr. Gandhi has proclaimed his intention of sacrificing his life for the sake of the Depressed Classes.” Under pressure from Congress, Baloo told Ambedkar that he “was also a leader of the Untouchables and also had an equal right to express his views.” Ambedkar was opposed by M.C.Rajah and P.Baloo who joined hands with Congress and Hindu Mahasabha and signed a pact against the position of Ambedkar called ‘Rajah-Moonje Pact’. Ambedkar negotiated with Gandhi under pressure and signed ‘Poona Pact’, allowing Dalit more seats, but with all Hindus allowed to vote for them. The British Government quickly ratified the agreement and Gandhi ended his fast on 26 September.

In October 1933, Baloo stood for election for a seat on the Bombay Municipality, on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. His opponent was a high caste Hindu, well liked by many sections of the community. Baloo lost 2,179 votes to 3,030.

In 1937, Baloo ran against Ambedkar for a designated “Scheduled Caste” seat in the Bombay Legislative Assembly. Ambedkar defeated Baloo by the close margin of 13,245 votes to 11,225.

Baloo died in Bombay in July 1955. He was remembered most fondly for his great skill on the cricket field, but his passing was also marked by a large crowd including members of the Bombay Legislative Assembly at his cremation, recognising the role he played in overcoming the chains of Untouchability.

Baloo played 33 first class matches, from 1905/06 to 1920/21, taking 179 wickets at an average of 15.21.

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