Remembering Balbir Singh Sr

Was this Indian hockey idol denied his due allegedly for being a Sikh?

HockeyImage Courtesy:mumbaimirror

When Balbir Singh Sr, breathed his last on Monday, May 25, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi left immediately tweeted his condolences to the family of the deceased and his well-wishers. After all, Singh was a towering field hockey icon. A triple Olympic gold medalist, he was awarded with Padma Shree, the fourth highest civilian award of the Indian republic for his contribution to the field of sports.

Singh died at a Mohali hospital in Punjab. Some of his close relatives live in British Columbia and he had a huge following in Canada. Singh had a home in Burnaby. The North Delta MLA and a former field hockey player Ravi Kahlon is one of those in Sikh diaspora who were influenced by him.  

What was ironic about Modi’s message was that Singh had faced discrimination for being a member of a minority community in Hindu-majority India. This was despite the fact that he brought many laurels to the country. His supporters have always believed that he deserved the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna considering his performance, but he was neglected allegedly because of his religious background in a country where polarization has grown ever since Modi came to power in 2014.

Modi is the leader of currently ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is known for its anti-minority prejudices. A book on Singh, authored by a Canadian journalist Patrick Blennerhassett looks much deeper into this question. Titled as “A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr, Triple Olympic Gold and Modi’s New India”, the biography goes into the history of India and links it with the present where attacks on religious minorities have grown under BJP government. Published in 2016, the book reveals how Singh also felt the pain of being constantly ignored. 

Although Modi cannot be singled out for what happened with Singh as the country has long been ruled by Congress party that claims to be secular, he had enough time to at least get him the highest civilian honour during the past six years. This can be partly blamed on Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the mainstream Sikh regional party of Punjab which is an alliance partner of the BJP.  

Interestingly, the Modi establishment conferred Bharat Ratna on a highly controversial political figure Nanaji Deshmukh last year. Deshmukh was the leader of a Hindu supremacist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh of which BJP is a political wing. He had justified the Sikh Genocide in one of his writings.   

Thousands of Sikhs were murdered all over India in the first week of November, 1984 following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards who were seeking revenge for military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar in June that year. The ill-conceived army operation had left many pilgrims dead and historical buildings heavily destroyed. This act of sacrilege which the government boasted was aimed to deal with armed militants, who had stockpiled arms inside the shrine that was used as a hideout for insurgency that saw the murders of innocent Hindus in Punjab, had enraged Sikhs across the globe. For many in the community, it was designed to attract majority Hindu votes in the impending general election while other reasonable measures could have been adopted to prevent the conflict.

The mobs led by the slain leader’s Congress party with the help of police targeted Sikhs in different parts of India. The BJP supporters also allegedly participated in the killings to avenge the murders of Hindus in Punjab that were blamed on Sikh extremists. This explains why BJP lost the election that followed and Congress got a huge mandate. It was a clear indication of the shift of BJP’s hardcore Hindu vote bank to Congress in the aftermath of Sikh massacre.  
Singh himself survived the 1984 violence, as he was in Delhi at that time. Blennerhassett mentions in detail about this whole episode in his book and its impact on the sensitive mind of Singh who felt as an alien in his own home country. While we celebrate Singh’s legacy, we must also recognize the challenges faced by our heroes from minority groups and marginalized sections in a society that is unevenly divided with some more equal than others. 



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