Narinder Kaur is seventy-something but looks older and tired. For the most, it’s been a difficult life for the widow of Bakshish Singh Sandhu, who did what a very miniscule number of Indian sportspersons managed.
He had an Olympic gold to his name as part of the 1956 men’s hockey team and an Asian Games silver two years later. But then Sandhu died in 1970 at the age of 41, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters and nothing much else.
“My husband played many tournaments but I had no idea about them. I only knew that he won gold in the 1956 Olympics,” Kaur told the Hindustan Times. And then, clearly upset, she continued. “What I don’t understand is what this medal was all about. For my family and me, it meant nothing more than some pride that my husband contributed something for the country. But for the Government of India, it didn’t even matter that much.”
Bakshish Singh’s family disowned his wife after he died of a heart attack and she was left with just five acres of agricultural land. The wife of the Olympic gold medallist then took on a job as an attendant in Chandigarh’s Virka Milk plant, a job she held for 20 years before having to retire in 1992. After that, she’s been totally dependent on her daughters, who are taking care of her.
Narinder, incidentally, isn’t the only one of many widows of national and international sportspersons from the hinterlands of Punjab and elsewhere to have been left without any support. While the Indian government did begin a pension scheme for Olympic, Asian and Commonwealth Games medallists in 1994, that pension is only valid for the sportsperson’s lifetime. His widow has no claim to it when most come them from economically deprived families and have been totally dependent on their husbands for everything.
Kaur says that 1948 Olympic gold medallist, Tarlochan Bawa, did try and push her case in 1994 but nothing happened. She was refused pension by the Punjab Sports department on the same grounds, that her Olympian husband was no longer alive.
All she got in toto for her husband’s achievement was Rs 21,000 from the then Chief Minister of Punjab in 1994.
So what is Kaur’s story? It is the story of those countless Indian women who give up their identity to become someone’s wife. She married Bakshish Singh in 1953, when he was with the Punjab Police. After about 10-12 years, he resigned as an Inspector and joined the Punjab Sports Department, where he worked about three years before resigning in 1968. So, he was not entitled to a pension in both those jobs, as he hadn’t worked long enough at either place to qualify.
“As there was no regular financial support for me after my husband died, I decided to shift to Chandigarh from Amritsar and did a job in Verka Milk bar. But there too, the pension scheme began only in 1995.”
Now, for every single expense, she is completely dependent on her daughters.
“I received Rs 32,000 from my provident fund in 1992. Before that, in 1988, I sold my land for Rs 1.25 lakh. Everything though, is finished now.”
And then comes the anger. “My daughters do take care of me, but what about the government.”