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Milkha Singh in uniform, and on the field

Obituary: Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, India’s Pride from Indian Army

India’s legendary athlete Milkha Singh who recently died of COVID at the age of 91 followed till the very end, his lessons in discipline from the Army.

Milkha, who was recruited as a Sepoy in the Army in November 1952, never forgot to acknowledge the huge contribution of the Army in making him what he was. Milkha opted out of the Army in 1961 after accepting a job offer by the Punjab government. In many interviews, Milkha also expressed gratitude to Pakistan that first gave him the title of Flying Sikh after he defeated its top athlete, Abdul Khaliq,  in Lahore, in a packed stadium and recalled media reports of that time which mentioned that even burka clad women lifted their veil to see the ‘Sardar’ who had beaten him. The spectators looked wide-eyed as Milkha defeated Khaliq who was widely acknowledged as the best Asian sprinter and popularly known in Pakistan as the ‘Ghoda’ (horse) for his speed.

In one such interview some years back to Lok Sabha TV, Milkha recalled how the then visionary Chief Minister of Punjab, Pratap Singh Kairon convinced him to join Punjab government and made him an offer that he could not refuse. The celebrated athlete recalled how the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru convinced the then Chief of Army Staff, General Thimayya to discharge him. “ The Army did not want to let me go but Pandit Nehru told General Thimayya that Kairon wanted to create more sportspersons like Milkha. I won 77 out of 80 international races.”

Milkha Singh with Prabhjyot Singh

Chandigarh based veteran sports journalist Prabhjot Singh who knew Milkha Singh for more than forty years, recalls how this famous athlete earned in January 1960 in Lahore the title of Flying Sikh from the then President of Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Born in Lyallpur in undivided India and now in Pakistan, Milkha was rejected three times by the Army but was determined to make it. He was finally recruited in Sringar in November, 1952 and was assigned the work of ‘Laangri’ (cook). From there, he was sent to Pathankot and then to Secunderabad. They had a gruelling schedule that involved a six hour parade in the sun and night long vigil as a guard in the unit. Another task involved lifting building raw material for Electrical Mechanical Engineers. The jawans got a monthly salary of Rs 29 of which they were required to send Rs 10 by money order to their families.

The following year, Milkha learnt that the Army was holding selection for its athletic team. The competition was tough as it meant running six miles in uniform and Army boots with a backpack. Thousands of jawans joined the race in the hope of making it to the top ten who would qualify for the athletic team. To Milkha’s surprise, he earned the sixth position in the race and that was a turning point. He was relieved of his routine tasks as he became a member of the EME Athletics Team. He began training for races and ran his first race of 400 meters. “ Milkha ji told me that when a senior trainer Hardev Singh first asked him to run on the track, he did not know what 400 meters distance was. It was then that he noticed India printed on the track suits of other athletes and decided that he would also work hard to reach the level of representing India. He gradually improved his performance and won two gold medals in the 200 meters and 400 meters respectively in the Asian Games in Tokyo in 1958. On his return, Jawaharlal Nehru honoured him. The then Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon invited all the winners to his house for dinner. The following evening in General Thimayya’s residence, a pipping ceremony was held. A star and stripe were pipped on his shoulder-flaps, promoting him to Naib Subedar, a Junior Commissioned Officer. His salary increased almost tenfold from Rs 29 to almost Rs 300.

He was also the first Indian to win the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff the same year.  It is true that General Thimayya tried to dissuade Milkha by telling him that a job in the Army meant stability and said that they wanted to make him a Lieutenant and had already started the paperwork. Milkha ji told me that he wondered what salary and designation the Punjab government had in mind for him. When Pratap Singh Kairon offered him the post of Deputy Director Sports, Milkha innocently asked people if the Sports Officer’s post was bigger than that of the Deputy Director Sports.’’

Prabhjot says that Milkha had no formal education but earned extraordinary success and fame by his perseverance. “ Look at his struggle. He was only 17 at the time of partition when he saw his parents die in front of him when and fled penniless from had just become Pakistan. He hid in the women’s compartment of a Delhi bound train and came to Delhi during a cholera outbreak. Like many refugees, he spent nearly a month at the Old Delhi railway station. Then, he learnt from the lost and found announcements on the public address system that his sister was alive and had also reached Delhi. He then went to live with her in a refugee camp in Purana Qila but fell in bad company and dropped out of school. Milkha’s life came back on track after he joined the Army.’’

Prabhjot says that although Milkha spent only nine years in the Army, he was a soldier all his life. Milkha made immense contribution as Additional Director, Youth Services and Sports, Punjab. He began organising three-week off season training camps in Srinagar every summer for 2000 to 3000 boys and girls from Punjab schools. His hard work and vision ensured that Punjab had many sportspersons.

Prabhjot says he knew Milkha as a very simple man. He says that in his last meeting with Milkha Singh four months back in Chandigarh, he found him as always, in high spirits. He was a very fit man. He would always sport a maroon turban and was immaculately dressed. He was jogging every day and was addicted to golf. ‘’

Pune based Narinder Singh Bakshi whose father, Honorary Captain Avtar Singh was instrumental in recruiting Milkha Singh in the Army, says, “My father and Milkha Singh’s elder brother, Makhan Singh who was also in the Army, were very good friends. During his stay in our house in Lucknow in 1950, Milkha Uncle bonded very well with my parents and would even go sometimes to drop my elder sister to school. I first met him in 1960 in the Vallabh Bhai Patel stadium in Worli , Mumbai where a reception was being hosted for sportspersons. My father had lost touch with him. I introduced myself to him and told him that my father remembers him. He was very happy to meet me and expressed his desire to meet my father. He was staying then in President Hotel at Cuff Parade. I was barely seven years old but I succeeded in reconnecting my father and Milkha Singh ji. We then joined him at the hotel where Milkha Singh ji hosted us and was very cordial. When I last visited him in his house in Chandigarh about three years back, he introduced me to his daughter- in- law and told her that he owed a lot to my father for shaping his career and that the doors of his house will always be open for me. I have very fond memories. Despite an age gap of almost 24 years, I got along very well with Milkha Uncle. During his visit to Mumbai some thirty years back, we even travelled in the general compartment of a local train as he had to attend a function in Kalyan. It was a treat for the commuters to meet him. Another time, he was in Mumbai around 25 years back, he expressed a desire to play cards. So, we went to the Santa Cruz club. As soon as the club authorities spotted him, they announced his presence and said that the club was very lucky to have him.’’

Milkha ji is remembered fondly by his admirers from all walks of life.

Neeru Bhatia, Sports writer and Deputy Bureau Chief with The Week magazine remembers Milkha Singh as a very warm-hearted gentleman. “ The hard work and discipline was probably the reason why he was such an exemplary athlete. That continued till the very end. He would jog and play golf regularly. Look at the greatness of his accomplishment. We have never had an Indian track athlete winning an Olympic medal ever.’’

Industrialist Anand Mahindra’s tribute to the legendary sprinter, aptly sums up the iconic sprinter’s contribution.  He tweeted, “ How can my generation explain what Milkha Singh meant to us? He wasn’t just an athlete. To a society still suffering the insecurities of post-colonialism, he was a sign that we could be the best in the world. Thank you Milkha Singh ji for giving us that confidence.”

Article by Tripti Nath, senior journalist

(Syndicated by WordSword Features & Media)

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