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The instructor who put Pan Singh on the track

india Updated: Mar 23, 2012 01:47 IST
Saurabh Duggal
Saurabh Duggal
Hindustan Times

He saw him running, introduced him to the head coach and the rest is history. This is how former national champion-turned-dacoit Pan Singh was introduced to competitive running.

It was in the mid-1950s that a young Pan Singh joined the 100 Field Company unit of the Bengal Engineers Group (BEG) as a rangrut (Army slang for trainee sepoy) and was spotted by instructor, Sarwan Singh, a 1954 Asian Games gold medallist in 110m hurdles.

"It was in 1955 that Pan Singh joined the Army and was sent to our regimental centre at Roorkee for training. I was an instructor and during one of the drills I saw him running. Though he was raw, any seasoned coach could judge the potential. I introduced him to our group coach, Naranjan Singh, a retired captain from the Maharaja of Patiala's army," recalled the 85-year-old Sarwan.

"At that time, Pan was not included in the camp, but Naranjan Singh used to give him regular tips. On November 7 next year, during the BEG athletics meet, Pan finished among the top and was picked for the camp," he added.

The inclusion of Pan, who went on to become a naib subedar, in the camp gave the country a class athlete, whose national record in 3000m steeplechase remained unbroken for more than a decade. His best timing in 5000m was 14:37.2sec and in 3000m steeplechase he clocked 8:53.4 sec (which at that time was better than the Asian record).

"After he got into the camp, there was no looking back for Pan. He was the Services champion in 5000m and 3000m steeplechase and also created the national record in 3000m steeplechase. He represented the country twice, first at the Indo-Ceylon meet and at the Tokyo Asian Games (1958)," said Sarwan. "Pan was a jovial person and used to call me chacha ji. Because of the age difference, he maintained a distance but he was close to Joginder Singh (400m Asian Games medallist)."

It was a killing in Pan's family, which forced him into lawless ways. "It was in the late 70s that he ran away from the Army," said Sarwan.

If one is to go by Sarwan's account, Pan was not killed in an encounter in 1981 with the Madhya Pradesh Police. Sarwan next met Pan in 1982-83 at the Delhi-Ambala national highway. "At that time I used to drive a taxi and one day a group of sadhus was passing by when someone called out chacha ji. It was Pan. He told me that he had become an ascetic and was proceeding to Nainital. After that, I never heard from him," said Sarwan.