When I called up Milkha Singh, who was much more than an athletics legend, on the landline phone of his Chandigarh home in the first week of August 2001 to get his reaction on being picked belatedly for the Arjuna Award, he poured his heart out, without being one bit diplomatic.
“I was expecting a higher award than the Arjuna since I won the Padma Shri in 1959 for winning the Commonwealth Games gold in 440 yards the same year," he said, referring to Padma Bhushan. And he said it with a solid, valid reason.
Milkha Singh, who passed away on Friday night aged 91, said he would have been happier with the Padma Bhushan for “lifetime achievement". For that matter, most people in his place would have thought multiple times before accepting a lesser prize than the one already received.
For those unfamiliar with the awards that Indian government confers, Padma Shri is the fourth highest civilian honour and Padma Bhushan the third highest.
“I was initially annoyed with the government because these days Arjuna Awards are given to almost anyone, and not on merit. They are being distributed like ‘prasad’ while the performances of some very good athletes have not been recognised," he had contended.
Then, after a pause, he had said: “Since the Arjuna Award has been announced, I am grateful."
You can interpret and dissect these comments in different ways. Either people would call Milkha Singh’s reaction high-headed, or simply conveying his true feelings, without using the mind.
I feel his reaction was perfectly justified. There are a few reasons for that.
First, he was a trendsetter in Indian athletics and a role model for the athletes. He set the standards amazingly high by finishing fourth in the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, missing the bronze in a photo finish.
He was logically and legitimately correct in declining the Arjuna Award: How could he agree to receive an award that was considered lower than the Padma Shri? His stature was too big to bow down to the dictates of the sports officialdom, or to the politics of sport.
Second, Milkha Singh could have given a tactful reply to my question, but he didn’t because he was not a diplomat. He chose to speak his heart out. Not only did his reply illustrate his honesty and a clear conscience, it also brought out his real feelings vis-a-vis sports awards that he might have suppressed for long.
For someone who won four Asian Games gold, one Commonwealth Games gold, held the 400m national record for 38 years and the 400m Asian record for 26 years, he was unjustifiably ignored for the top honours of the country.
Therefore, his frustration was perfectly legitimate in expecting Padma Bhushan or some other top honour. What is most unfortunate is that successive national governments ignored him.
Also, Milkha Singh was probably never considered for the Dhyan Chand Award for Lifetime Achievement in Sports and Games, launched in 2002. He qualified for this award, but perhaps successive selection committees felt that if nominated, he might decline this award as well. But you never know, he might have accepted it, if chosen.
He won gold in the 440 yards race at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. And then he ran that dream 400m race at the Rome Olympics. Had people who picked the winners for the Arjuna Awards, launched in 1961, been honest, he would have been an automatic winner in its first year itself, purely based on his achievements and performance.
But someone, somewhere played games with the simple and down-to-earth Armyman, and didn’t give him the due he so thoroughly deserved.
A look at those who won the Arjuna Award in 1961 would give you an idea possibly why Milkha Singh didn’t get the prize, as his accomplishments were no less than anyone of those 20.
It is also not that he was craving for the big prize money that the Arjuna Award carried in those days. In 1961, it carried only a monthly stipend of Rs 200 for 24 months, a bronze statuette of Arjuna, and a scroll. To put it in another way, some of the 20 sportspersons who were awarded the Arjuna in its first year didn’t really need that money, like shooter and prince Karni Singh.
Interestingly, six of the 1961 winners represented team sport. Milkha Singh, on the other hand, represented an individual sport that definitely required much more effort and weightage than team sport.
Moreover, he had set the bar so high in Rome that his name should have been the first one to be written on the Arjuna Awards’ list.
Instead, decathlete/hurdler Gurbachan Singh Randhawa was chosen as the lone athlete to be conferred the Arjuna in 1961. Interestingly, his biggest achievements came in the years that followed the award. At the 1962 Asian Games, he famously won the decathlon gold. And at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, he finished a creditable fifth in the 110m hurdles with a time of 14.0 seconds.
This is not to allude that Milkha Singh should have been chosen and Randhawa ignored. The point is that if 20 could be chosen, there would have been no harm in picking 21. Both could have been honoured in the same year. That would have been justice. Perhaps, Milkha Singh didn’t have people to support him when and where it mattered.
However, when years later, Milkha Singh said he wouldn’t accept the Arjuna Award, he received instant support from some prominent athletes, and a few of them said they too would return their prizes in protest.
Former India hockey captain Balkishen Singh, who as coach guided the Indian men’s team to the 1980 Olympics gold, and boxer Gurcharan Singh, who narrowly missed bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, were the prominent ones to come out forcefully in Milkha Singh’s support and said they too were ready to return their awards.
Gurcharan had received the Arjuna Award in 1999 and Balkishen in 2000, again too late like Milkha Singh.
There might have been many more athletes who deep inside their hearts must have supported Milkha, but didn’t come out in the open. One reason could be that Milkha Singh, besides writing a letter to then Sports Minister Uma Bharti declining the Arjuna, had also alleged that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power then, had “interfered" and influenced the sports awards. The PMO had denied the charge.
Barring the Arjuna Award episode, Milkha Singh lived a life rather quietly. He was a simple person, and was not articulate or diplomatic. In many ways he and cricket legend Bishan Singh Bedi share certain characteristics, not to accept any wrongdoing, and raise voice against injustice. Both called a spade a spade.
Milkha Singh knew the sport he practiced well. Apart from that, he spent some time in sports administration and played some golf — thanks to his golfer son Jeev. His weakness was his strong point — too straightforward and blunt.
People like Milkha Singh and Bedi are misfits in Indian sports, so to say, because they speak their minds without fear or caring for the repercussions. And there are people who hold a grudge and take revenge in their own ways. Milkha Singh, too, might have suffered like Bedi, who was never the blue eyed boy of the Indian cricket board.
Coincidentally, like Milkha Singh, Bedi too has not been picked for a higher government award than Padma Shri, though he received many other cricketing awards, like being inducted into the International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
While they might have been deprived of well-deserved accolades, deep inside they would surely be much satisfied at not going against their conscience. And that is what really counts.
Love them or hate them, both Milkha Singh and Bedi remain the ‘Bharat Ratnas’ of the sport they chose to excel.