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Saturday, July 11, 2020

‘The greatest pleasure of my life was playing for my flag’: Balbir Singh

Balbir Singh Sr. has lost and found many things in life. But it’s his stolen medals that rankle the most. At the age of 93, the former India captain still harbours a childlike enthusiasm for hockey.

Written by Siddhant Kalra | Updated: May 26, 2020 8:26:22 am
Balbir Singh captained India in the 1956 Olympics to a gold medal. (Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

As a child, Balbir Singh Sr. could never sit still. Almost every single hour in the day was spent playing pranks, climbing trees or just running around. But, come evening, the boisterous child would sit in silence and watch older kids play hockey near his house in Moga.That young boy in pre-Partition India grew up to be the hockey legend, Balbir Singh Sr. “She [hockey] found me at the age of five and since then, I have loved her, respected her and worshiped her,” says Singh Sr., whose childlike enthusiasm for the sport belies his age of 93.

Balbir Singh Dosanjh was born on October 10, 1924 to Karam Kaur and Dalip Singh Dosanjh. His father was a freedom fighter and educationist, who travelled extensively and was frequently in and out of jail. As a result, Balbir’s early childhood was spent at his maternal village, Haripur Khalsa. At the age of five, his father moved the family to the small town of Moga for the sake of Balbir’s education. Little did he know that Balbir would spend his time daydreaming about scoring goals rather than studying. “My father was strict and unshakeable in his values. But he never put a limit on doodh and jalebi, which I loved,” he says. But when he failed his Class X exams, his father sought the help of a friend who lectured at Sikh National College, Lahore. Having seen Balbir’s game, the lecturer offered him full scholarship and a spot in the hockey team. Singh Sr.’s father, with no money to afford college otherwise, agreed.

The Sikh National College team was promoted to the first division soon after Balbir’s inclusion. He was soon poached by the rival Khalsa College. Balbir became captain of the Khalsa College team, which remained all-India champions under his command between 1942 and 1945. Sir John Bennet — the inspector general of Punjab Police at the time — was impressed by Balbir’s game and commanded his officers to ensure his recruitment to Punjab Police.

But Balbir had grown up detesting the police, which had jailed his father and other freedom fighters on multiple occasions. So he ran away to Delhi and joined the Central Public Works Department team in 1945. But one day, he found officers with handcuffs at his doorstep. He was arrested, taken to Jalandhar and presented before Bennet. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to play hockey for Punjab or go to jail?’ I chose hockey”. He ran away multiple times in protest, but was handcuffed and brought back every time.

The undivided Punjab team, which hadn’t won the nationals in 14 years, got lucky in 1946, when Singh joined. Playing under Colonel AIS Dara and alongside Shah Rukh — two of his closest friends from the future Pakistan team — Balbir won the national championships for Punjab again in Bombay, 1947. But the team returned only to find their homes bloodied and burning.

Just the previous year, Balbir had married Sushil, his college sweetheart from Lahore. When the team arrived at the Lahore railway station in 1947, it was the future Pakistan captain, AIS Dara, who drove Balbir to his wife in Model Town. On the way, the car was stopped by mobs a couple of times, presumably because of Balbir’s turban. Dara stepped out and spoke to them, while he sat in the car, unaware of everything. After a heart-breaking farewell to the house, Sushil came away with Balbir to Ludhiana.

In Ludhiana, Balbir resumed his duties with the Punjab Police and witnessed the horrors of Partition. “Brothers and sisters, who lived so lovingly before, were killing each other. It was shocking how human beings can change so suddenly. Good people are those who retain their humanity even in a climate of hate,” he says.

The contours of the undivided Punjab team also changed with Partition. Many players from the team donned the colours of Pakistan. “The same players with whom I passed every waking hour, were gone. Azam, Maqbool Hashmat, Aziz, Masood, Dara, Anwar, Shah Rukh were such great friends of mine. They all left.”
Balbir would go back to Pakistan many times later in life. The most memorable visit was when he accompanied the Indian contingent during the India-Pakistan series in 2005-’06. “I met Shah Rukh again and it was overwhelming. We spoke as if we had separated just yesterday. The language was the same, the person was the same,” he says.

In the 1948 London Olympics, the first for independent India, Balbir Singh got his hammered in six of nine goals. (Source: 1947 Partition Archives)

When asked how many goals he must have scored in his career, Balbir chortles. “To give you an idea, the Indian team played 16 matches in Singapore in 1954. They scored 121 goals, out of which he scored 83. In the Australia-New Zealand tournament the following year, he scored 141 out of 203 in just 37 matches,” says Prof. SK Gupta, his friend and a sports historian. However, his effortless goal-scoring didn’t always ensure him a place in the squad.

In the 1948 London Olympics, the first for independent India, Balbir got his chance in the second game and hammered in six of nine goals. But in the following game against Spain, he was pulled back before stepping onto the pitch. In the next game against Holland, he was just about to bully-off when he was called back. Indian fans in London expressed their dismay at his unjust exclusion, which forced the management to include him in the final against hosts and former rulers, Britain. Balbir lapped up the opportunity and scored two of the four Indian goals. Britain didn’t score. “When I saw the tricolour unfurled at Wembley, I was overcome with joy. It was the greatest pleasure of my life, playing for my flag instead of the Union Jack.”

India had scored 13 goals in all in London, a number Balbir swears by. In the 1952 Helsinki games, he donned jersey number 13. He was warned by a Finnish fan that it would bring him bad luck. He promptly replied that 13, tera in Punjabi, was a word for God, and narrated the story of Guru Nanak chanting tera, tera, tera in a divine trance. The fan didn’t make much of the story, but Balbir set the unbeaten record for most goals in an Olympics final, with five of the six goals against Holland. The Helsinki Olympics were also the 13th Olympic Games (excluding the two cancelled due to war).

In 1960, Balbir was in the fittest condition of his life and was still scoring goals in a flurry. But despite being in prime shape, he was appointed to the selection committee. He didn’t protest. India lost the final that year. The then chief minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon (being guarded by ASP Balbir Singh at the time) was asked how India’s streak ended. He replied, “How would they have won? The man who could have won it for us is here guarding me”.

In 1964, Balbir took on the responsibility of coaching the Olympic squad. He brought the team into its finest form, but, just a night before flying to Tokyo, he was instructed to stay back in India and was replaced by a new coach. India won gold at the Olympics, but Balbir’s contribution was never acknowledged. Despite the humiliation, he responded to every request to coach the Indian team and won India’s solitary World Cup in 1975.

The gravest injustice came in 1985. He was approached by a representative from Sports Authority of India (SAI) to hand over all his medals and memorabilia for a sports museum. Unsuspectingly, he acquiesced and handed over 36 medals, his 1956 Captain’s blazer and hundreds of rare photographs. It was only in 2008 that his family realised that no museum of the sort had been set up and all his belongings were lost. Multiple inquires and many years later, there’s still no sign of them. “It felt like a part of me had died when I found out,” he says ruefully.

After trying the RTI route since 2012, the family recently discovered that SAI never had Balbir’s belongings. Earlier this year, SAI and its academic wing NIS, promised to file an FIR about Balbir’s belongings. Instead, they filed only a missing article report which does not warrant a police investigation. In a meeting this week, SAI and NIS promised to file an FIR yet again.

Looking back, Balbir says he is filled with gratitude, both for the people in his life and to hockey herself. But he finds it difficult to mask his disappointment, even through all his calmness. Asked about his most treasured accolade, he points to the smallest trophy in the room — his first ever from a local tournament in Moga. “I was 10 at that time and used to play full-back or goalkeeper. In that tournament, the centre forward spot was open in my cousin’s team and there was no one to fill it. By chance, I played there. As luck would have it, I scored lots of goals and never looked back.”

Siddhant Kalra is an independent writer and researcher for the 1947 Partition Archives. This interview is part of that project.

Roll of honour
* As a player, he won three Olympic golds.

* As coach and manager, he helped the Indian team win two Olympic golds and the only World Cup victory to date.

* He was recognised as one of the 16 most iconic Olympians of all-time at the 2012 Olympics — the only Indian and hockey player on the list.

* Led the Indian contingent as the flag bearer in two consecutive Olympic Games (1952 and 1956)

This interview was published on September 10, 2017.

Siddhant Kalra is an independent writer and researcher for the 1947 Partition Archives. This interview is part of the project.

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