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Legal When Indira Wondered Why Sikhs Play Hockey!

Chaan Pardesi

Oct 4, 2008
London & Kuala Lumpur
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When Indira wondered why Sikhs play hockey!


“In 1974 when I was an Inspector-General in the Border Security Force I received a call from the Prime Minister’s Office that Mrs Indira Gandhi wanted to see me urgently that evening.

“I was on an inspection visit to some border posts in Kashmir near Gulmarg. I was stunned at this SOS from the PMO. A chopper flew me from Gulmarg to Srinagar from where I took a regular flight of the Indian Airlines to New Delhi.

“I could not guess the reason for the summons. There was not much happening in either the Border Security Force or Jammu and Kashmir. Anyway, I reached Delhi and went to call on the Prime Minister at the appointed time.

“After a formal exchange of greetings, I mustered some courage to ask the Prime Minister: ’Madam, you asked for me. Is there anything specific?’

“No, nothing much. The only reason I have called you here is to tell you that the Education Minister recently pointed out to me that you have been recruiting too many Sikh hockey players,’ said Mrs Gandhi.

“I kept quiet though I was very upset. I returned to the guest house and signed my letter of resignation from the presidentship of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and sent it immediately to the then President of the Indian Olympic Association, Raja Bhalendra Singh. All my friends in sports in general and hockey in particular advised me against this step. But I was determined. I had so much faith and trust in my hockey players, most of whom were Sikhs. I could not have left them down.

“The contribution of Sikhs to Indian hockey has always been immense and I salute them.”

This is a part of the speech Mr Ashwani Kumar, who was once the doyen of Indian hockey, made at a function held in the union capital in April, 2006, to felicitate the top 10 Sikh hockey Olympians of India. The second part of his speech was how he and other members of his family fought violent protestors and arsonists during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984. He then eulogized the contribution of great Sikh hockey players like Sahib Singh, Sarup Singh, Udham Singh, Harmik Singh and Ajitpal Singh to Indian hockey.

He complimented Sikh hockey players for their devotion, commitment, sincerity and hard work.

I do not think there could have been a more appropriate tribute to Sikhs who remained a part of every gold medal winning Indian Olympic hockey team since the country entered the competition in 1928.

It is not only Indian hockey but also international hockey which owes a lot to the Sikhs. Many Asian, African and North American countries emerged on the world hockey scene, thanks to the efforts and hard work of certain enthusiastic and energetic Sikh hockey players, administrators and sponsors.

In 1992 during the Barcelona Olympic Games, I met the then President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), Etienne Glichitch, and presented him a copy of my book,” Indian Hockey 1991 – Road to Barcelona”.

He asked me about the wellbeing of some of former Indian players, especially Sikh players with whom he had played in Olympics and other international matches. He remembered Prithipal Singh, Dharam Singh, Gurdev Singh, and a few others.

He recalled some of his memorable moments with some Sikh Olympians. He was saddened when told about the murder of Prithipal Singh in 1983. “He was a great player,” was all Etienne could say.

Without going into history, it may be pertinent to mention here that wherever Sikhs went, both as a part of the British Empire or otherwise, they carried with them their game and hockey sticks. Interestingly, the British brought hockey to India, especially in military cantonments. That is how Sansarpur, the nursery of Indian hockey, earned its name and fame.

Let me quote the example of a family which has been associated with the game in three continents – Asia, Africa and America.

Hardev Kular, who retired from the police as Chief Prosecuting Inspector, represented Kenya in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. His son, Harvinder, donned Kenyan colours in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

It all started in 1920 when Hardev’s father migrated to Kenya. “I was born and brought up in Kenya. Though my elder brother, Hardial, came to India for studies, I went to England. Then I joined the Kenyan police. In 1962, I accompanied Kenya’s national team on its first official visit to Pakistan. Two years later, we came to India to play hockey.

“There used to be an overwhelming response to Test matches between India and Kenya because the strength of our team used to be either Punjabi or Goan boys. In Bombay we were leading India 2-1 in front of a jam-packed stadium before a controversial goal was awarded against us,” laments Hardev.

Hardev Kular’s younger brother, Jagjit, played in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, while his elder brother, Hardial Singh, not only remained the Chairman of the Kenyan Hockey Union for many years but also headed the African Hockey Federation. He also remained the Vice-President of the International Hockey Federation.

When India organised the first Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad a couple of years ago, Hardev accompanied the Kenyan contingent. At present Hardev is also the Chairman of the Kenyan Olympians Association, which was previously headed by Kepcho Keino, the Olympic gold medalist.

No other family in the world has perhaps contributed as much to hockey as much as the Kular family has done. Hardial remained a coach as well as an administrator of hockey in Africa for three decades. After the death of Hardial in 1998, Hardev Singh became the Chairman of the Kenyan Hockey Union and retired last year. Jagjit Singh Kular, who later moved to Canada, is still connected with the promotion of field hockey there.

This one example illustrates the point I am making. And if Kenya is no more a force to reckon with in international hockey, it is just because Punjabi expatriates have moved with lock, stock and barrel to either Canada or the United Kingdom.

The same is the case of Tanzania and Uganda which went to the Olympics or FIH tournaments mainly on the basis of the strength of Sikh players.

If England or Canada made a mark in world hockey in the last few decades, Sikh players must be given their due.

Back home in Asia, Malaysia, which continues to be among the top six teams in the continent, has always prided it in including versatile Sikh hockey players. Some other Asian nations, including Singapore and Hong Kong, were able to enter world-level tournaments, including the Olympic Games, because of Sikh hockey players.

The contribution of Sikhs to hockey never remained restricted to players. Many national teams in Asia, Australia, Africa, North America and even Europe had the benefit of being trained by Sikh coaches. Prominent among them were Balkrishan Singh, Baldev Singh, Ajitpal Singh, Gian Singh and Kartar Singh.

Principal Gursewak Singh, Gurdev Singh Brar, Tarlok Singh Bhullar and Avtar Singh “Tarri” are some of the international and Olympic hockey umpires the Sikh community has produced.

If Hardial Singh rose to be the Vice-President of the FIH, Raj Kumar Singh headed the Indonesian Hockey Federation. I met him by chance in 1986 in Brussels at the headquarters of the FIH.

Even today, the Kenyan Hockey Union is headed by a Sikh, Mr Resham Singh Bains. In Hong Kong, Honorary Secretary of the national hockey association is Mr Sarinder Singh Dhillon.

In India, Raja Bhalendra Singh was perhaps the first Sikh to head the Indian Hockey Federation. Mr KPS Gill was the next. In between Principal Gursewak Singh remained Honorary Secretary of the Federation.

*This is from my forthcoming book “Untold story of Indian hockey”.

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