Milkha Singh

Milkha Singh, the renowned Indian athlete, died of Covid-19 on June 18, 2021, aged 91, five days after Nirmal, his beloved wife of 58 years, had died of the same disease.

Milkha Singh became world famous after he won India’s first track and field gold medal in Wales in 1958, a race at the time run over 440 yards, beating his nearest rival by just six inches. “Everyone was shocked at how this boy from rural India, who used to run barefoot and who had never received any training, had won gold”, he said.

He went on to win gold medals in the 400m at two Asian Games and a gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, as well as setting a British record of 46.5 seconds in the AAA Championships at White City.

At the Rome Olympics in 1960, the 400m final was one of few races that Singh did not win, yet his finish in fourth place, in 45.6 seconds, set an Indian national record that stood for nearly 40 years.

According to his obituary in The Times of 21 June 2021, “Asked what reward he would like from the prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he replied: ‘A public holiday.’ One was duly granted but Singh came to realise that he should have requested 200 acres in Punjab or two or three bungalows in Delhi for him and his family. They would have deserved nothing less, because their lives had been irredeemably affected by the partitioning of India and Pakistan”.

Milkha Singh, born in 1929, was one of 15 children of a farmer with a smallholding. “I was good at running because we lived 10km from school,” he recalled. “So every day we would run 10km there and 10km back.” He used to wade through two canals with his schoolbooks balanced on his head.

However, when he was 16, the partition of India and Pakistan took place, with Pakistan being designated as a land for Muslims, while India was for Hindus and Sikhs.  This led to baying mobs on both side of the border engaging in mass murder of people on the basis of their religion.  Singh’s family, as Sikhs, lived in what became Pakistan and found themselves on the wrong side of the border. “My village was surrounded,” he recalled. “We were told to convert to Islam or prepare to die.”

According to his obituary in the Telegraph of 22 June: “In 1947, when the Punjab was split between India and Pakistan, he witnessed his parents’ throats being slashed and a brother and two sisters being hacked to death in the communal violence that ensued. ‘If I hadn’t run I would have been murdered,’ he recalled. ‘I wore the same bloodsplattered clothes for 10 days.’”

The Times (op.cit.) continued “His father had told him to run — ‘Bhaag Milkha, bhaag’ — and hide in the jungle, which he managed to do with some other boys. They boarded a train for Delhi, avoiding being spotted by vigilante groups by hiding under the seats in the women’s carriage, begging not to be turned in.

“In the Indian capital Singh survived for a month living at the railway station before deciding to join the Indian army. Initially rejected, he was eventually accepted because an elder brother had become a soldier. It was now that his athletics career took off. An instructor taught him how to run properly and he managed to come first in a marathon before attempting a 400m race”.

In 1960 he was asked to run in the 200m race in an international event in Lahore, Pakistan.  Understandably, he hesitated: “How can a boy who has seen his parents murdered before his eyes, their throats slashed in front of him, his brothers and sisters hacked to death, ever forget those images?”.  However, he was aware of the fact that atrocities had been committed on both sides, as well as the fact that on both sides there had also been kind and brave friends who sheltered their neighbours fleeing from the mobs and who helped to escort them safely through the border. So Nehru was able to persuade him to reconsider. saying “They are our neighbours. We have to maintain our friendship and love with them. Sport fosters these things and therefore you should go”.  So Milkha went back to Pakistan where he received an ecstatic welcome and, of course, won. It was in fact in Pakistan that “Singh received the compliment that became his nickname. General Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan, presented him with the gold medal and declared: ‘Milkha, you came to Pakistan and did not run. You actually flew. Pakistan awards you the title of the flying Sikh’” (The Times, op.cit.).

The Times continues: “The relentless effort he put into maintaining his fitness and standards led to him urinating blood and sometimes needing oxygen after practice. ‘My experience [of life] made me so hard that I wasn’t even scared of death,’ he said…

“After retiring from athletics, Singh became director of sports at the ministry of education in Punjab, retiring in 1998. In 1962 he married Nirmal Saini, who had captained the Indian women’s volleyball team. … They had a son, Jeev Milkha Singh, who is a professional golfer, and three daughters, Sonia Sanwalka, who co-wrote his autobiography, ‘The Race of My Life’ (2013), Dr Mona Singh, who works in a hospital in New York, and Aleeza Grover. In 1999 they adopted the seven-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh, who had died in the battle of Tiger Hill between the Indian and Pakistani armies. A film, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ (2013), was made of Singh’s eventful life”.

Farhan Akhtar, the actor who played Milkha Singh in that film commented: “Portraying Milkha Singh … made me understand that no matter what hand life deals you, it is up to you to decide if you’re just going to take part in the game, or choose to win.  Milkha Singh ji chose to win. And in doing so he defined his own destiny”. Indeed, he was an extraordinary man who refused to be outpaced by life or circumstances.