He saw him running, introduced him to the coach and the rest is history. This is the story of how former national champion-turned-dacoit Pan Singh was introduced to competitive running.
It was back in the mid-1950s, when he joined the 100 Field Company unit of Bengal Engineer Group (BEG) as a rangrut (army slang for trainee sepoy), that a young Pan was spotted by his instructor Sarwan Singh, 1954 Asian Games gold medallist in 110m hurdles and then a Naik in the BEG.
"In 1955, Pan joined the army as a rangrut and was sent to our regimental centre at Roorkee. During one of the training drills, I saw him running. Even though he was totally raw back then, any seasoned athlete could easily see that he had potential.
So, I introduced him to our Group coach Naranjan Singh, a retired captain from Maharaja Patiala's army," recalls the now 85-year-old Sarwan. "At that time, Pan was not included in the athletics camp, but coach Naranjan Singh used to give regular tips to him.
Then, on November 7, 1956, during BEG's group day athletic meet, Pan was among the best finishers, and was picked for the camp, after which there was no looking back for him." Asked about Pan's personality, Sarwan recalls, "Pan was a very jovial person and always used to call me chachaji with respect. Because of the age difference, he used to maintain a distance but was close to Joginder Singh (400m Asian Games medallist)."
Pan, who later became Naib subedar, created a national record in 3000m steeplechase (8:53.4s), which at that time was better than the Asian record; he also broke the Services record in 5000m (14:37.2s). "He also represented the country twice, first at the Indo-Ceylon meet and then at the Tokyo Asian Games (1958)," added Sarwan.
Turning dacoit and later a sadhu!
It was when one his family members was killed that Pan became a dacoit. "In the late 70s, he had gone to Kalka to fetch the army's treasury. On his way back to his unit, he ran away, taking with him a weapon as well as some money from the treasury, and turned into a dacoit," said Sarwan.
As per the old man's memory, Pan was not killed in the encounter in October 1981; even the Madhya Pradesh police had only reported him to be absconding in their records. Sarwan met the athlete-turned-dacoit in the early 1980s, near the Ambala bus stand on the Delhi-Ambala national highway. "At that time, I used to drive a taxi.
One day, a group of sadhus was crossing me. Suddenly, one of them called me chachaji - it was Pan. He told me that he had become a sadhu, and was proceeding to Nainital with Pawaha sadhuji," said Sarwan. "That was the last time I met him."
Sarwan never sold Asiad medal
At the end of Paan Singh Tomar, the movie based on Pan's life, it is mentioned that Sarwan Singh had sold his 1954 Asian Games gold medal due to financial difficulties. This is factually inaccurate, as the medal is still with him. After retiring from the army in 1970, he drove a taxi to earn a livelihood for nearly two decades.