Milkha Singh: India's 'Flying Sikh' will be remembered as a symbol of making it through - of quiet determination

Milkha Singh has died at the age of 91. Credit: AP

It is not only India that weeps for The Flying Sikh today.

Those of us whose parents and grandparents experienced Partition, the bloody severing of India in 1947, and who have grown up on those stories, all know of Milkha Singh's astonishing life, the very definition of triumph out of adversity.

Born a Sikh in what was then still British India, now Pakistan, Singh witnessed the murder of his parents and three siblings before he literally ran for his life, his father’s last words to him were Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - run Milkha run - words that would later become the title of an acclaimed and inspiring film about his life - watch it and weep as I have done many times.

That he managed to escape, and then went on to achieve huge success as an athlete, winning India’s first Commonwealth Gold in the 400m, winning numerous other medals, competing in three Olympics - he famously narrowly missed out on a bronze in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but set an Indian national record that stood for 40 years - all of these made him a legend.

The Olympic sprinter won India’s first Commonwealth Gold in the 400m. Credit: AP

He would return to race in Pakistan some years after his escape, he won and it was there that he was given the name The Flying Sikh.

It is hard for South Asians and the diaspora, sometimes to talk about the terrible events of Partition when violence erupted amongst Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

But for me, Milkha Singh represents a rare moment of light in that, a symbol of making it through, of healing, of quiet determination, of the power of sport to transcend politics and hatred.

That it was Covid related complications that claimed him, aged 91, just as it did days before with his wife, Nirmal Kaur, herself a former Volleyball Champion, is simply devastating.

But what a legacy. He was a man who ran for his life, his country and then into history.