Legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh dies from Covid, aged 91

The incredible life story of the ‘Flying Sikh’ exemplified the triumph of determination over adversity.

Lalkar writers

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Milkha Singh unveils his Madame Tussauds wax statue.

Lalkar writers

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Milkha Singh, the renowned Indian athlete, died of Covid-19 on 18 June 2021, aged 91, just 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: “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.” (21 June 2021)

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.” Every day he waded through two canals with his schoolbooks balanced on his head.

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 sides of the border engaging in mass murder of people on the basis of their religion.

Singh’s sikh family lived in what became Pakistan and thus 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: “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 ten days.’” (2 June 2021)

The Times 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, Milkha was asked to run 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, and also that on both sides there had been kind and brave friends who sheltered neighbours fleeing the mobs and helped 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, where he 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 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.

Long live the glorious memory of Milkha Singh. May he continue to be an inspiration to everyone to strive to be the best they can be.