'When I saw the flag, I felt I was flying'

Balbir Singh Feature (1:18)

ESPN correspondent, Jonathan Selvaraj, talks about the role Balbir Singh played in one of India's most significant sporting achievement. (1:18)

"Wembley stadium, the final. Against our former rulers. Elizabeth, the future queen of England, was watching us play. Before the match started, there were shouts of 'Come on Great Britain, come on Great Britain.'

"So much noise. I scored after five minutes; a few Indians were there and they shouted 'Well done India, well done India.' Ten minutes later, I scored a second goal. Now the entire crowd shouted for India. 'Come on Balbir, come on India. Make it half a dozen.' After half-time we scored two more and won the Olympic gold. Can you imagine it? To beat our former masters in their country and on their playing field?"

Balbir Singh Sr is one of Indian hockey's last links with its pre-Independence glory; he is also a witness to how Partition -- whose trauma and tragedy affected him directly -- splintered Indian hockey. Not merely the national team but the Punjab team, many of whose best players became Pakistanis overnight. Within a year, though, the hockey story would have a happy ending -- the one described by Balbir above.

On a muggy Chandigarh monsoon day, almost exactly 69 years after that London gold, Balbir -- 93 years old but with a sharp memory and a firm handshake -- spoke at length to ESPN on the events before, during and after Partition, and on that historic Olympic gold.

India had won three Olympic golds in hockey -- at Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. But the 1948 gold was extra special. "We were a British colony (for the first three Olympics). When we won, the honour went to the Union Jack. In London, the difference was the national flag," he says, his raspy voice smoothed by sips of lemon tea.

Balbir raises his palm and it wavers for the first time as he describes the moment of triumph. "For the first time in 1948, the Tricolour was hosted at the top of the world. At the victory ceremony. As the flag was going up, I felt as if I was going up too. Then I realized, no, I am on the ground. And I still remember how it felt, as if I was going up as well. I felt as if I was flying."


The story of the triumph in 1948, though, starts from the tragedies of 1947. Balbir had seen the freedom struggle at close hand. "My father Gyani Dalip Singh was a freedom fighter. My earliest memories of him are of a man coming home very rarely and playing with my hair. That was because he was in and out of prison. But he always believed we would be independent. That we would have our own flag."

The Undivided Punjab province had been racked by terrible riots in 1946, yet the idea of a separate country for India's Muslims still sounded improbable. In April 1947, Punjab province won the National Championships in Bombay, their second straight triumph. Balbir was the highest scorer both years, and things seemed normal as the train carrying the victorious team pulled into Lahore station.

"There was a grand reception waiting for us," he recalls. However, he was warned that things had taken a turn for the worse and his suspicions grew when he and Punjab captain Col AS Dara shared a ride into town, where his wife lived with her parents.

"There were many stops we made while he was congratulated by people he knew. But on no occasion did he introduce me. I was made to wait outside the gates of the neighbourhoods. It was as if they were discussing something secretly. It was a strange feeling. They were probably already thinking of Partition. I never knew," he recalls.

Balbir was based in Ludhiana and soon his wife joined him there, though her mother and sisters insisted on staying on. "Sandhu Sadan (the family's home in Lahore) was a very big house. She was protected by her neighbours for many months but eventually they couldn't protect her anymore so she came to India." All of Balbir's relatives from his wife's side would lose all they owned when they made their way to the Indian side of the border.

"As they returned from the carnage, close to midnight, Balbir asked his party of policemen to unload their weapons. One jittery rifleman discharged his weapon by mistake, the bullet piercing Balbir's turban and grazing his hair."

It wasn't just property that was lost. Friendships cultivated over years were snapped too. "It was very tough. I had many friends. Mohammad Azzam from Moga (where Balbir had been born) was a far better player than me. My team-mates in the Punjab team, Khurram and Shahrukh, were from the Afghan royal family. Shahrukh was good to me. I never felt that he had any inclination towards Pakistan. Rather he saved a lot of Hindu and Sikh players by keeping them with him. But they all chose to make their home in a new country," he says.

The unprecedented violence would shock Balbir, not least because as an officer in the Punjab Police he would visit the scenes of some of the worst atrocities. "A lot of poor people were coming in towards India. Dur se aa rahe the. Adhe mar jate. Ladki piche reh gayi toh khinch diya. (They were coming from afar. Half were dying on the way. Women who fell behind were abducted)."

It is a period of history Balbir, naturally, doesn't want to relive. "Blood everywhere. Murders. Disturbances. Fights. Everything was burning. Every few hours we (police) would be sent somewhere. It is so strange to believe now. We are friends one day and all of a sudden we become enemies."

Amongst the horrors Balbir recollects was a massacre in a cluster of villages near Ludhiana. Even the cattle had been burned in their sheds. Smoke billowing from the flames could be seen from several miles away. Howling dogs were the only sign of life. As they returned from the carnage, close to midnight, Balbir asked his party of policemen to unload their weapons. One jittery rifleman discharged his weapon by mistake, the bullet piercing Balbir's turban and grazing his hair.


The sport of hockey would have appeared too insignificant amid the tragedy, yet soon after the first Independence Day focus shifted to the 1948 Olympics. Indeed, two provisional teams had been formed soon after the Nationals in April to provide the pool of players who would eventually travel to London. After Partition though -- with players of British India divided between Pakistan, India and those who migrated to the United Kingdom -- the two teams were disbanded.

Balbir's daughter Sushbir brings out a black and white photograph of the pre-Independence India 'A' team, which Balbir was part of. He points out the names of the young men in the frame -- the players who represented the last team of an undivided India.

"That's the right half Kalat... This one is Mehmood, Keshav Dutt.. Woodcock, Walter Dsouza... that one is Aziz who played for Pakistan -- he also played left in with me in Khalsa College. Raja Shekhar the second goalkeeper... Jamshed, the centre-forward from Delhi, Gentle... ," he rattles off the names. "Bahut tagdi team thi yeh (It was a very strong team). We played all over India and beat the 'B' team most of the time. We might even have won the Olympics," he says smiling.

Independent India would stage another National Championships, but Punjab had been gutted by Partition. "We lost Anwar (goalkeeper), Shahrukh (left half), Dara (inside right), Aziz (inside left) and Khurram (left extreme). We lost in the early round of the tournament. But what could we do, we had to play with a completely new team."

There was more personal bad news for Balbir when the Indian team was picked for the London Games. "When the initial team of 39 was created, my name was not included. I was very disappointed but I kept it to myself. There were others who stood up for me. Dickie Carr, an Anglo-Indian who had won gold in the 1932 Olympics, asked why I wasn't playing and they simply said they had forgotten to put my name in.

"Eventually, after the newspapers picked it up, I was selected for the camp. I joined two weeks after the camp started and was selected in the final team of 20. I considered myself lucky I was even there. I was just Balbir Singh then. It was the Olympics that made me Balbir Singh Sr, as I became the first of several Balbir Singhs to win an Olympic medal (there were in fact three other Balbir Singhs who competed for India in the 1968 Olympics, where India won bronze)."


And so to London, with the reputation of three consecutive Olympic gold medals to maintain. "We were looking forward to winning gold. We were determined that nothing less than that would do. To make sure we had had time to train in England, Naval Tata -- the Hockey Federation chief -- had us fly rather than sail by ship (Tata's cousin JRD Tata owned Air India, the country's only airline). We were going to the land of our rulers. We had to make a point," Balbir says.

They expected a hostile atmosphere, but it never materialised. "When we landed at Heathrow, we were greeted by Sir John Bennett, the former Inspector-General of Punjab Police. When I saw him I was worried," says Balbir. As a student at Khalsa College, Balbir had refused to join the Punjab Police team on the invitation of Bennett, then also the chairman of the Punjab Hockey Association.

"How would it have looked that I, the son of a freedom fighter, was joining the same people who had imprisoned my father. I ran away to Delhi to avoid joining but Sir John read my name in a newspaper report about a club game and sent two policemen to get me. They handcuffed me and brought me to Jalandhar where I was drafted into the police. Later, to make sure I didn't run away again, they took my fingerprints too."

In London though, Bennett was nothing like the officious police chief who had Balbir handcuffed. "He said it was so good to see me. He smiled and then he hugged me. It was not something I expected him to do," Balbir says. Bennett would then share some advice. "He told me 'Balbir, the grounds in England are very heavy. So you have to run hard with the ball. They are not hard like in India. So you can't just hit the ball here.' He told me to tell my team-mates."

He can only guess at what caused Bennett's change of heart. "I couldn't imagine him being so friendly when he was my superior in India. But there, we were his inferiors. Now we were his equals. We were an independent nation, I was a player representing an independent country. He introduced me to his friends. In England, never once did they make us feel like we were from a Third World country. The British can be cruel rulers but they are also wonderful friends."

Sadly, though, relations with his former team-mates now playing for Pakistan were distant. "We spoke the same language but we were a bit hesitant to speak so soon after Partition. Sometimes we would bump into them and say hello. They were another country but they were different from other countries too. Because we were the same country and then had separated. I cannot explain it."

Relations with his own squad weren't smooth either. "In the first game, my name was included in the team but at the last minute I was pulled out. When I was given a chance in the game against Argentina, I scored six goals and we won 9-1. After that I felt that I had secured my place. But I was once again dropped in the third match. In the semi-final, I had reached the centre line (on the pitch) when I felt a tug on my shirt. 'Tum nahi kheloge (you won't play)', I was told, 'the captain wants Nandi Singh to play. I wanted to hit him on the head with the stick but I agreed."

Balbir wasn't even expecting to play the finals. His name was not included in the team list and when several Indian newspapers carried the report the next day, they named Nandi Singh as the scorer of the first two goals because he was originally supposed to feature in the team.

"The only reason I played in the final was because there were a few Indian medical students who felt that injustice was being done. They took the matter to VK Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner in London, and he asked why this boy who had scored six goals was not playing."

Any jealousy or rivalry would be forgotten after the win against Great Britain. "It was a matter of pride that we had beaten England (sic). Although we had won the Olympics three times before, we had never played England because they did not want to lose to a colony. But now we had beaten them. It was thrilling. And now the world saluted our flag."


The tournament might have been over but the celebrations were only just beginning. The same evening, the High Commission threw a party for the winning team. Three days later they were the centre of attention at the country's first Independence Day anniversary celebrations at the same venue. Their return to India was by ship and took 26 days; the wait would get longer as their vessel was caught in low tide outside Bombay and had to wait a couple of days before it could enter the harbour. But the wait would be worth it.

"We had never seen this kind of celebration before. Everyone wanted to meet us. When we reached Delhi, we played an exhibition game in front of (Prime Minister) Pandit Nehru at the National Stadium. There were so many people that my Olympic blazer was torn in the rush. I was worried how I would look but no one was looking. We would wear our medals all the time too. We only stopped after our goalkeeper Ranganathan Francis had his medal stolen by someone in a crowd."

His hometown Moga honoured him with an open-top jeep parade. Writing in his autobiography, The Golden Hat-trick, Balbir mentions how an elderly woman looking on wondered whether he was a prince coming to wed his bride. On being told the parade was for winning an Olympic hockey gold, the woman declared the celebrants insane for honouring the winner of a game played by children.

"Right from my childhood, the flag meant everything. It was my flag. My flag."

Nehru, though, understood the significance of the victory. He and Balbir would meet once again in 1953, during the inauguration of the Bhakra Nangal Dam in Punjab. Balbir recalls what the Prime Minister told him: "You are the hopes of this nation. You will have to win again. We must continue to remain world champions. Tell this to all your team-mates. Tell them that India needs them badly."

Through all this there was little financial gain. Not that it mattered to Balbir. "Paise nahi mile par shabashi zaroor mili (we didn't get much money but we got the adulation). My wife kept all the garlands that were thrown at me. When the flowers fell off, only the threads remained so she wrapped them together. They were this thick," he says, pointing at his forearm.

Returning from London in 1948, Balbir only brought back one souvenir for his family. "We got five rupees a day as allowance. I saved all of it and bought a pram. My daughter would be born in September so I got a baby carriage. It was a double-seater with a hood, it looked like a small car. Everyone was surprised when I unloaded it from the ship but all my children would ride in that."

He wasn't as possessive of his other keepsakes from the Olympics. When Nehru called on the public to donate their jewellery as part of the war effort in the 1962 conflict with China, Balbir donated all three of his Olympic gold medals. "I had a family to support so I didn't have money (to donate). So I wanted the government to auction the medals. I left them with the office of the Chief Minister of Punjab," he recalls. The District Commissioner eventually returned the medal and he now keeps them in a safe.

His Olympic blazer, though, will likely never be traced. In 1984, Balbir visited his sons in Canada before flying home in December. He landed in New Delhi in the middle of the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"People asked me not to go to India. And I said why shouldn't I go, I have won three gold medals for my country. Nothing will happen to me there."

Stuck at the New Delhi airport, a relative who served with the paramilitary forces picked him up in a military convoy. "They asked him to hide so people wouldn't see his turban. But he stood up and said, 'I wore a turban when I won the Olympics for India,'" says his daughter Sushbir.

The riots, though, took something out of Balbir. "My mother had passed away a little bit before then and he was very lost at that point in his life. After the riots ended, some of the families had become homeless overnight. They were in different camps in Delhi. He decided to donate everything that belonged to himself and his wife. And we donated everything -- my mother's clothes, his clothes... he gave them away to the families. They were people who had lost everything. He said it reminded him of Partition. I think the blazer from 1948 was lost like that also," Sushbir recalls.

But the spirit was still strong in him. A few months before those riots, he was in Los Angeles watching the Summer Olympics; a scuffle broke out before the Indian hockey team's opening match, in one corner of the stadium. A man had snatched a small Indian flag from a boy who was handing them out among the crowd and stamped on it.

Balbir, seeing this, leaped off his seat, grabbed the man and ended the protest. "It was someone from the Khalistan movement. He wanted to tear the flag. When I caught him, he tried to bite it with his teeth. Eventually the fight was broken up by police.

"I was later asked what was the necessity to do that. It was instinct. Right from my childhood, the flag meant everything. It was my flag. My flag," says Balbir Singh Sr.