In the latter half of the 19th century, the freedom movement in India against the British regime started gaining momentum. Indian society at that point in time was riddled with caste fault lines, with the ‘untouchables’ (Dalits) facing severe social discrimination from the upper caste Hindus. Many freedom fighters were endeavoring to mobilize and unite the masses across religions and castes to take on the might of Britishers.
Baloo Palwankar was born on March 19, 1875, in Dharwad in a ‘chamaar’, a sub-caste of the untouchables, family. Soon after his birth, his father moved to Poona (now Pune) and was employed at an ammunition factory for the British army.
At a young age, Baloo started working at a cricket club run by Parsis where he swept and rolled the pitch and sometimes got to bowl to the members. For this, he was paid Rs 3 a month.
After some time, in 1892, he moved to the Poona Club which was administrated by the Europeans. Here, Baloo’s talent was discovered by the captain of the Poona Club JG Greig who would pay him 8 annas (50 paise) every time he got him out. He was a slow left-arm bowler of prodigious skill and subtlety.
Soon tales of his extraordinary talent began to spread.
When a Hindu cricket club in Poona challenged the Europeans for a cricket match, there was a raging debate among the Hindus whether Baloo, an untouchable, should be drafted into the team. Eventually, he was selected to play, but was discriminated against off the field. At the tea interval, Baloo was served the beverage outside the pavilion, and in a disposable clay pot, while his colleagues drank in white porcelain cups inside. He was also served lunch on a separate plate, and on a separate table.
However, when the Hindu club thrashed a prominent Satara club, he was carried on an elephant through the streets as his team-mates danced with joy.
In 1896, his family shifted to Bombay, (now Mumbai) and joined the PJ Hindu Gymkhana.
In 1898, Baloo came against the great batsman Ranjitsinhji, who had played Tests for England, in a match and dismissed him, a feat he was to repeat ten years later.
In February 1906, the Hindu Gymkhana locked horns with the Europeans in a 3-day match and defeated them by 109 runs, with Baloo emerging as a hero having grabbed 8 wickets. This victory was widely celebrated and Baloo, along with his brother, was allowed to enter into the club’s cafe and dine with his other team-mates.
The symbolic value of the win over the Europeans and subsequent elevation of Baloo as an equal in the team’s social hierarchy was monumental.
This was seen as a triumph over caste prejudice and an assertion of a suppressed national spirit.
The game of cricket had done what massive political sloganeering and persistent efforts of social reformers could not. An editorial in a newspaper captured the mood succinctly: ‘The Anglo-Indian papers are full of praise and congratulations for the Hindus, who, by defeating them at their national game, appear to have raised themselves in the estimation of the European public to an extent which no other qualification on their part could have done.’
In 1911, for the first time, an All India Team toured England. Both Baloo and his younger brother, Shivram, a flamboyant batsman and a nifty fielder, were part of the squad.
Although suffering from synovitis, Baloo was the only Indian cricketer who acquitted himself creditably. He scalped 114 wickets at an average of 18.84 and led India to victory against Leicestershire by claiming 11 wickets in the match.
Upon his return to India, the Depressed Classes of Bombay organised a function to felicitate Baloo for his glittering performance on the England tour. The welcome address was written by Dr BR Ambedkar, who was then a student, and he also presented Baloo with a memento.
Baloo became an inspiring figure for the ‘untouchables’ who saw him as a lodestar who had transcended caste barriers and become a respected household name.
When Baloo didn’t find a place in the Hindu Gymkhana squad for Quadrangular, India’s premier cricket tournament, in 1915 and 1920, there were widespread protests against his exclusion and he had to be reinstated both the times.
When Mahatma Gandhi started his campaign against untouchability in 1920, it emboldened the Dalits to tenaciously fight for their rights.
Against this backdrop, the Palwankar brothers — Shivram and Vithal — stood down from the team to protest against the exclusion of their distinguished elder brother, Baloo, in 1920.
Eventually, Baloo was included into the squad and was anointed as the vice-captain.
Although Baloo was the most illustrious and successful member of the Hindu Gymkhana, he never got to captain side because of his caste. But with the political and social scenarios changing after Mahatma Gandhi took centerstage, Vithal, Baloo’s younger brother, was elevated as captain of the club in 1923.
Over the next five years, he led his team to the Quadrangular title on four occasions, a monumental achievement. During the same time, Dr Ambedkar was making a name at the Bombay Bar and was traversing through villages to mobilize and build a base among the depressed classes.
In his speeches, he invariably put forth the feats of the Palwankar brothers and hailed Baloo as his hero and an inspiration.
When the British government announced a separate electorate for the untouchables after Ambedkar’s vigorous campaign, Gandhi went on the fast unto death in protest. Although Baloo had high regard for Ambedkar, he sided with Gandhi and lauded him lavishly for the spirit and intention of sacrificing his life for the sake of the depressed classes. He urged Ambedkar to relent so that Gandhi could be saved.
Eventually, Ambedkar succumbed and signed the Poona Act after Baloo negotiated with him on Gandhi’s behalf.
However, by 1935 Ambedkar disavowed the Poona Act and actively exhorted the untouchables to convert to other religion, a move Baloo described as ‘suicidal’. He said that conditions had changed considerably and there was a real feeling of goodwill towards Harijans (untouchables).
In 1937, the Congress chose Baloo to contest against Ambedkar for a seat to the Bombay Legislative Assembly. Baloo agreed reluctantly but was pipped to the post by the man who had called him his ‘hero’. In the end, Ambedkar got 13,245 votes, while Baloo managed 11,225.
When he left for the heavenly abode in 1955, Baloo received rich homage and was effusively called ‘an early nationalist hero and a gentleman of the golden age, who embodied the true spirit of the game.’
A huge crowd gathered at the crematorium to pay last respects to Baloo. Vijay Merchant, the great Indian batsman, said that it would be a long time before India could produce another great bowler like Baloo. CK Nayudu, who had played with him, remembered him as the best bowler of his generation.
His role in the freedom movement, efforts towards breaking caste barriers by using cricket as a vehicle, and the fact that he inspired thousands of Dalit youth were also duly noted.
Later, one of his nine sons, YB Palwankar, a left-handed batsman, appeared in a Ranji Trophy final for Bombay and scored 75 as his side won.