The enormity of the loss that India suffered with the passing away of Milkha Singh on the June 18, 2021 cannot alone be weighed by the medals earned by the track and field sprinter. For in the ruthless world of sports, a fourth position finish, even when the difference is of 1/10th of a second, does not translate into a tangible adornment. So a quantitative measure of the number of top 3 finishes Milkha achieved would fail to do justice to the man whose influence transcended his sporting exploits.
Maligning the much-awaited Independence of India from over a century of British colonial rule was the bloodied legacy of Partition. The division of the subcontinent into two independent dominions, India and Pakistan, was attended by vast sectarian violence, resulting in widespread carnage and mass exodus. Originally hailing from undivided Punjab’s Govindpura village, post-Partition with his homeland falling within the geographical boundaries of Pakistan, Milkha Singh saw his parents and 8 of his siblings butchered. Uprooted from home and confronted with the numbing loss of such a huge portion of his family, Milkha managed to combine the duality of flight and fight adaptive response to escape death as he reached Delhi. While the echoes of such a trauma could have had a haunting effect on his existence, Milkha Singh summoned all his resilience and fought on. As the country was slowly endeavouring to come to terms with the massacre it had borne witness to, it found its reflections in the struggles of this 15 years old boy.
Leading a hand to mouth existence didn’t deter him from dreaming of joining the Indian Army. And though rejected thrice, he persevered on to finally make it in 1951. His indomitable spirit wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to representing and winning laurels for the nation, be it as an Army-man or an athlete.
Though August 15, 1947 signalled the dissolution of the British Raj, awaiting the country was another battle. The need now was for India to rid itself of Eurocentric ideologies that had been thrust upon it. The process of colonisation adopted as its vehicle Eurocentrism. It involved making the colonised internalise the idea of racial inferiority promoted by its coloniser, thereby making the oppression self perpetrating. Though set in motion centuries ago, it did not immediately follow the exit of the British. To counter this ‘epidermalisation of inferiority’, India first and foremost needed role models in each field. These had to be people who could, with their achievements, inspire their countrymen to rise above the situation they were born into. Answering that call in the sporting arena was Milkha Singh, whose gold at the track in the 1958 Commonwealth Games assumes greater importance when considered in the light of it being India’s first gold medal in the competition’s history. A quadrennial event serves to bring together sportspersons belonging to the members of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which all but two countries have shared histories of Britain colonialism. Among the various expressions that the assertion of national identity assumed, exploits on the sporting field also occupied a significant position. In front of 70,000 spectators, Milkha pipped South African Malcolm Spence to gold in 440 yards at the 1958 edition of the Games held in Cardiff, Wales. The thought of having made India proud brought forth an outpouring of emotions as Milkha, unheralded at the start of the competition, became the reason why India’s tricolour was hoisted up the flagpole, and its anthem rang out in the stadium. The empire had begun writing back, and the language of sports was also marking its contributions.
Leading a hand to mouth existence didn’t deter him from dreaming of joining the Indian Army. And though rejected thrice, he persevered on to finally make it in 1951. His indomitable spirit wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to representing and winning laurels for the nation, be it as an army-man or an athlete
Milkha Singh had previously won gold medals in both 200m & 400m at the 1958 Asian Games held in Tokyo. He then successfully defended his 400m title at the 1962 Jakarta edition. At the Tokyo Games, Milkha met Pakistani runner Abdul Khalid. While Khalid grabbed gold in the 100m, Milkha finished atop the podium in 400m. Following that was the 200m, in which, in a photo finish, Milkha left behind Khalid at the second spot to seal gold. With Milkha & Khalid rivalry gathering steam, the Indian received an invitation for a rematch in Pakistan. Initially reluctant to visit the country, which had been a site of immense misery for him as a teenager, Milkha agreed to the race when apprised of the need for the two countries to maintain friendly relations. In this 200m race Milkha comfortably got the better of Khalid to secure the gold, while the latter had to settle for bronze. Later, when Pakistan's then-President General Ayub presented Milkha the medal, he whispered in Punjabi, “You didn’t run today, you flew”. Thus Milkha’s nickname ‘The Flying Sikh’, saw its genesis in what was also his land of birth. While sports is considered an escape from reality, the warm welcome and subsequent affection that Milkha received in Pakistan for his exploits on the track contributed in helping him reconcile with the painful associations the country evoked from his past.
Milkha Singh Set The Bar
For me, like most Indians who got into the sport, Milkha Singh was a great legend and an inspiration. But it has to be said, for me, he was also a historical figure. Most of his great accomplishments happened a good decade before I was even born. I found out about him and knowing that an Indian athlete had competed successfully at the Olympics, you know it inspires you. We all are inspired by those who come before us, and they give us a pedestal from which to reach further. As time went by, I found out more about him, the struggles he faced, his circumstances, especially what happened during Partition.
It must have been a very different India; sport was still not very developed when I got going. So, it must have been even more so then. So, he must have many more difficulties pursuing his discipline. And that makes his achievement all the more impressive. And just like he inspired other Indian sportspersons, I have no doubt that every track and field athlete is constantly thinking about him in one way or the other when they aim for something knowing that he set the bar. And on top of that, he seems to have always inspired people with his kindness. You hear so many stories about how he encouraged people; he spoke warmly to them. He was an example of what a true legend and great sportsperson should be.
(Viswanathan Anand spoke to Sanjeeb Mukherjea)
Though Milkha’s show at the 1960 Rome did not yield him a medal, it did make him the first Asian man to feature in the 400m Olympic final. The race also saw its gold and silver medalists breaking the world record. The year was to usher in a decade which would see India evict Portuguese from Goa, thereby freeing it from four centuries of colonial control. Following that came the emphasis on local level agricultural practices courtesy of the Green Revolution. In this context, it is important to consider one of the most prominent policies of imperialism which involved turning the colonised land into a source of cheap raw materials and then also a market for the coloniser’s expensive finished products, thereby plaguing local industries. While in the agriculture sector, British Raj pushed for commercialisation, which prompted a shift from cultivation for home consumption to cultivation for the market. The farmers were pressured to produce cash crops like indigo, opium, cotton and silk. It though promoted massive exports but also left Indian farmers vulnerable to famines. And thus, farmers with small landholdings were often found battling destitution and deprivation. With Milkha’s father too, being a small farmer in Govindpura in Muzaffargarh district, Milkha’s early childhood was spent in poverty where many of his siblings lost their lives to poor health and a dearth of medical facilities. It would require Milkha to run 20 Km per day to continue his schooling. However, all that only served to toughen him up. And thus, as a professional athlete, he would respond to disappointments on tracks with a training regime that would leave him vomiting blood on some occasions and unconscious on others.
Milkha’s story has been of converting adversity into success. A story that, at its each retelling, has taught the nation hope. One in which the protagonist’s quest for purpose and meaning in life located its satiation on the running tracks. One in which parallels could be found between a nation’s history and an individual’s experience. Declared 91 by his passport at the time of his passing away, Milkha’s actual age remained a piece of information he himself was never in possession of. Contributing to creating a sense of timelessness to his existence, a feature often associated with his country. Thus even in his passing away, there is an assertion of the immortality of his story.
(The writer is sports anchor)