Turn the clock back to August 12, 1948. India is just three days away from celebrating a very special Independence Day. Around 7,000 km away, in London, 11 Indian men are fighting a different war against their former rulers – the British. The venue is the Wembley Stadium, packed to capacity. The occasion is the Olympics final in men’s hockey. The irony was unmistakable. The British, before this, had refused to play a team from India since it was one of their colonies. On that day though, they had no choice. India was a free country, and the Indian players played like free men, thrashing Great Britain 4-0. India won their fourth consecutive Olympic gold, and the tricolour of an independent India made its maiden journey to the top of the pole at the Olympics. History was made.
Sub-inspector Balbir Singh made his Olympics debut in 1948, and by the end of the Games, he was a hero. The centre-forward scored two goals in the final, while Tarlochan Singh and Pat Jansen hit the other two.
“It happened 70 years ago, but it feels like only yesterday,” the 93-year-old legend said as he reminisced the moment while talking to Timesofindia.com.
“The Tiranga rose up slowly. With our National Anthem being played, my freedom-fighter father’s words ‘Our Flag, Our Country’ came flooding back. I finally understood what he meant. I felt rising off the ground alongside the fluttering Tiranga,” he added.
(Balbir Singh Sr after scoring his second goal in the 1948 Olympics final)
Balbir went on to win two more Olympic gold medals – one in 1952 and as captain in 1956, but the top prize in the 1948 Games is the most cherished accomplishment for him. For a man who was once handcuffed by the Britishers to be inducted into the police force and play for Punjab, it was payback. Incidentally, the same British officer who ordered that arrest, Sir John Bennett, came to welcome the Indian team when it landed in London for the Games and hugged Balbir.
India’s 1948 gold medal was hailed by the entire nation. It was a special moment for independent India.
The country had paid a heavy price for its freedom from the British Raj. India was partitioned for the creation of Pakistan. In one of the largest movements of population in history, millions lost their lives, families and friendships were ravaged and loved ones were lost or left behind as dead bodies.
After a catastrophe of that magnitude, hockey provided the country a sense of sweet revenge. Great Britain, who incidentally had beaten Pakistan in the semi-finals, had to once again kneel down in front of India’s resolve.
(1948 Olympic winners meeting Governor General C. Rajagopalachari)
Balbir, in his autobiography ‘The Golden Hat-Trick – My Hockey Days’, describes the moment when the umpire blew the full-time whistle at Wembley signalling India’s win.
“After the victory, VK Krishan Menon, free India’s first High Commissioner in London, who witnessed the match, came running to congratulate us,” he wrote.
The scenes that followed upon the team’s return home were soul-stirring.
“Bombay literally rolled out its biggest red carpet. It was natural, since the maximum number of players in the team were from that city” Balbir mentions in the book.
“We were swept off our feet and it was here that I realised what the victory meant to our nation, starved as it was of world class accomplishments. Hockey was the only sport that gave the country a ray of golden hope, something to cheer for and celebrate.
“In Delhi, President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to see a match that had been arranged at the National Stadium…The press claimed that 70,000 people watched the match that day…The enthusiastic spectators hoisted us on their shoulders, patted us and touched us, as if they were paying a tribute to heroes returning home from a fierce battle.”
Interestingly, Balbir was not selected in the 39 probables for the 1948 Olympics, only to be telegrammed later to join the national camp after the chorus of voices asking for his inclusion grew louder. Two days into the camp, he broke a rib and was hospitalised. However, he recovered soon and was named among the 20-member Olympic squad.
At the Games in London, Balbir was pulled out of the eleven at the last minute in the quarter-final against Spain and the semifinal against Holland. That was despite scoring six goals in the match against Argentina on his Olympic debut. The touring selection committee seemingly had some reservations about Balbir. But after another public clamour, he was included for the final. And the rest as they say is history.
In hindsight, the Britishers probably didn’t want to platy India internationally pre-independence because they knew how big a threat India’s hockey team was. In Balbir’s words, the British snub was due to a “sense of false prestige” and “haughty British traits”.
But it all ended after seventy minutes of hockey on August 12, 1948, and that too on British soil.
( Balbir Singh Sr receiving Padma Shri Award from President Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1957)
India Squad, 1948 London Olympics: Kishan Lal (c), Ranganathan Francis, Leo Pinto, Walter D’Souza, Tarlochan Singh Bawa, Akhtar Hussain, Randhir Singh Gentle, Kunwar Digvijay Singh Babu, Keshav Dutt, Amir Kumar, Maxie Vaz, Leslie Claudius, Balbir Singh, Patrick Jansen, Latifur Rehman, Lawrie Fernandes, Gerald Glacken, Reginald Rodrigues, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput