The Flying Sikh

Khushwant Singh

Milkha Singh Former Indian Track and Field Sprinter (Gold Medalist)

The Army Beckons

After three rejections, seventeen-year-old Milkha Singh was finally recruited in the army in November 1952. His recruitment happened after his brother mobilized whatever resources he had in the army to get his younger brother in. ‘I told my brother that he needed to get me into the army if he wanted to see me leave the bad company,’ claims Milkha. Milkha was recruited as a sepoy/cook at the army recruitment camp in Kashmir, where his brother was posted. He was soon dispatched to the Electrical Mechanical Engineering core (EME) Centre at Secunderabad. In between the phase of joining the army, Milkha had toiled in rubber factories at a meager salary of rupees fifteen per month. Even though he was not healthy, and had remained ill off and on, the events of the previous five years had transformed Milkha immensely.

Once in Secunderabad, adapting to the disciplined and rigorous army life was initially tough for Milkha Singh. He even considered abandoning the barracks, as many had done since they couldn’t cope up with the hard life. ‘However, a thought held me back. I realized life in the army was tough but was unlike the suffering I had undergone before joining the army. This thought inspired me and soon luck favored me,’ says Milkha. He vividly remembers that Saturday morning in 1953 when an announcement was made about a six-mile run to be held the next day. Also, that the top ten in the run would be exempted from fatigue duty and given an extra glass of milk. This was enough to inspire Milkha. Interestingly, all the Punjabi recruits discussed that they couldn’t let the Bengalis, Biharis, or Tamilians overshadow them. On the day of the race, Milkha came sixth. He felt proud of himself, after a long time, when his name was announced before a large gathering of recruits. This was also the time when he connected with his running instructor, Havaldar Gurdev Singh. Gurdev Singh, who had been in the army for fifteen years and responsible for training new recruits went on to become Milkha’s mentor, teacher, and inspiration in the coming years. A hard taskmasterGurdev Singh never hesitated using a stick or an abuse to spur his students to perform according to his expectations.

Soon more races came his way, and the big one that inspired Milkha to take running to a higher level was when he was asked to participate in the brigade meet of all the units stationed in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. Coach Gurdev trained and mentored Milkha hard while explaining how to compete in competitions. It was at this meet that Milkha shifted his goalposts and decided to aim for a national place in athletics. The sight of a few players who had ‘India’ inscribed on their vests sparked a desire in him. He too wanted that privilege for which he decided he would work hard.
Milkha stood fourth in the brigade meet race, but his desire had got the better of him. He started practicing for hours, devoting all his energies to fulfill his aim. He would run till late night, without anyone knowing about it, taking countless laps of the four-hundred-meter track. However, it was during these secret runs that he was spotted by Brigadier S.P. Vohra who was out on his evening walk. Surprised by a recruit running at this hour he enquired from Milkha what was he upto. On being told that he was practicing at that odd hour since he didn’t get time during the day, this chance meeting turned into a boon for Milkha. The brigadier soon exempted him from fatigue duty and expressed a desire to meet him in office. This incident, however, had its pitfalls, since Milkha’s ustad thought he had complained to the Brigadier about him. To give vent to his anger he made Milkha carry a knapsack full of stones on an uphill track for two hours. When Milkha finally met the Brigadier, the latter ordered that Milkha to be groomed as an athlete. The rise of Milkha as India’s premier athlete was not far away.

A Phase Fraught With Jealousies and Challenges

Describing his first towering success, which Milkha also calls his first tryst with fame was when he won the EME Centre Sports Meet in Secunderabad in December 1954. He had clocked fifty-four seconds. There was no stopping Milkha, as in the Brigade Meet race a month later he stood second, the first being Sohan Singh of the Sikh Regiment, who incidentally was also the national four-hundred-meter champion. Milkha, who had cut his time to fifty seconds, fell one second short of coming first. His rise was soon to turn into a reason for heartburn and jealousies amongst his peers. His rise made even top national athletes, especially Sohan Singh, insecure as they became resentful towards a rising star.However, there was no stopping Milkha. His continuous success in the army athletic meets saw him qualify for the national games representing the Services, to be held in Patiala in 1956. The most prestigious event in the country, the national games was also a gateway to international fame. ‘I remember being this rustic village boy being lost in a big fair,’ says Milkha recalling what it was like being at the big stage the first time. He also recalls Patiala’s ruler Maharaja Yadavindra Singh’s statement whereby he had said that the selections for the 1956 Olympics to be held in Australia would be made on the basis of the performance of the sportspersons at these national games. Milkha, who was anxious as well as determined to perform well, unfortunately, injured his heel after a stone pierced it, as he would run barefoot. So keen was he to participate and make a mark that he ran the race against medical advice. Obviously, he did not perform well and stood forth, which in other words meant that he would not be asked to join the coaching camp. Kismet, however, had something else planned for him. Maharaja Yadvindra Singh, who had spotted him running barefoot and was impressed with his style, ensured that Milkha attended the coaching camp, which was held at Sri Kantreeva Stadium in Bangalore. It was here that he made a transformation from running barefoot to spikes.

Khushwant Singh
  • Insightful write-up dear Sir
    Very much needed. My respect and regards