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How Independent India won their first Olympic gold medal 70 years ago

Despite suffering from the ravages of Partition, the 1948 Indian men’s hockey team won independent India’s maiden gold medal at the Olympics.

other sports Updated: Aug 12, 2018 10:16 IST
K Arumugam
K Arumugam
Hindustan Times
Olympic gold medal,India,Indian men’s hockey team
India's centre forward Balbir Singh (2R) tries to score a goal during the men's Olympic Games Hockey match against Great Britain, at Wembley Stadium, London, Aug. 12, 1948. Britain's goalkeeper D.L.S. Brodie saved the attempt and India won the match 4-0. (AP)

England, the undisputed hockey champions of the world by virtue of winning the first two Olympic gold medals at London 1908 and Antwerp 1920, suffered cold feet when they learned that India had entered the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

The English had a close look at the silken-skilled Indians at the Folkestone Hockey Festival just prior to the Olympics and the spectre of humiliation at the hands of their colony prompted the inventors of modern hockey to withdraw and thereby preserve their pride.

India went on to win three pre-war Olympic hockey gold medals as the English kept away with pride a huge barrier.

But there was no escape when the Olympics came calling in 1948 in London. They formed the British Hockey Board with four countries to collectively combat India. While their untested rival was pulling all its might, the developing scenario in India was quite opposite -- depletion and division. India achieved freedom, but it came at a cost -- partition and the exodus of Anglo-Indians, the backbone of its hockey legacy.

Most players, as was the case in 1947, came from motley clubs like Brothers (Lahore), Spartan (Rawalpindi), Independents (Delhi), Lusitanians (Mumbai), Youngsters (Lucknow), besides institutions and states. These clubs had players of every creed, region and religion. Partition shook everything up. Hockey players were no exceptions when a chunk of the population had to abandon property, flee homes and seek new settlements. Lives were in disarray, so was hockey.

Undivided Punjab was then the undisputed king of Indian hockey. The province held the National Championship, the Brothers club, the Invitation Cup, the Spartan club, the prestigious Aga Khan Cup. Vast areas of the region had now become Pakistan.

There was a problem at hand. The winner’s trophies could not be retrieved for the next year’s competitions! Only the Aga Khan organisers were lucky. The Maori Shield given to the National champions was stuck with the Lahore-based Punjab Hockey Association, never returning to India.

Lahore and Lyallpur based players like Keshav Dutt and Grahanandan Singh were stranded. They were touring the country with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) XI and then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) midway in 1947 when partition precipitated.

Their cities in flames, their families advised them not to return. Star players like AIS Dara, who represented India at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Abdul Aziz, Jamshed and others cried out of the next event, the East Africa tour, to avoid being part of an Indian team. People were still migrating, blood was being spilled and princely states were playing truant when it came to joining the Indian dominion (Kashmir, Junagarh and Hyderabad in particular).

The refugee influx and settlement were raging issues when hockey was sought to be kept alive by the IHF headed by Naval H Tata.

All the good work the IHF had done to prepare for the London Olympics until then -- the Nationals, trials, new tournaments like Pentangular, national team tour of the country and abroad -- came to a naught because of the dissipation of talent. They had to start everything anew and the process earnestly began with the Nationals in early 1948.

Parts of Punjab that remained with India, then known as East Punjab, managed to put together a new team to retain the title in Bombay, the team being a pale shadow of its past.

And it told. East Punjab was eliminated in Round 2 itself. Only five players from the winning team featured in the competition. Others were still active, playing their own Nationals. When Punjab won the first Nationals of the new nation, the team looked like the winners of Bombay.

Bhopal took Punjab’s place in the Nationals. They beat Bombay for top honours (1-0). Despite roping in stranded stars like Keshav Dutt, domicile changers Amir Kumar (Punjab) and RS Gentle (Delhi), Bombay failed again in the final.

Bhopal’s left winger Latif-ur-Rahman, centre-forward Abdul Shakoor, defender Akhtar Hussain were outstanding and could not be overlooked for a strong Indian team.

When the Indian team for London was finalised it looked like any other team of the past -- players from every walk, hue, creed and religion were present. Despite communal undercurrents and disharmony that was sweeping the subcontinent, the Indian team was not impacted.

It comprised Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Anglo-Indians and Sikhs. Such a merit-oriented team was destined to make history. And London was the setting.

The problem the IHF faced was the lack of funds. The requirement was a princely sum of Rs.3 lakh. The Princes, Kings, Nawabs, Diwans, Pramukh and the elite ruling class contributed substantially in the past to Indian hockey’s campaigns that ended in glory at three Olympics (1928, 1932, 1936).

Having lost their clout and influence in the newly independent nation, funds were not forthcoming. The IHF, meanwhile, decided to send the team by air to circumvent the problem of losing ‘all the gains made in the first ever three-week Bombay camp in the 20-day travel by ship’.

Costs escalated. Gates, grants and fee from provincial hockey associations (BPHA Rs.15,000), private donations (Naval Tata Rs.10,000), the Cooperage Ball and other endeavours helped the cause.

Every hardship the IHF had, every pain the players endured paid dividends. The combined might of four nations (England, Wales, Scotland & Ireland) broke Pakistan (in the semi-finals) but fell before India.

Amid full stands at the Wembley Stadium, 70 years ago on this day, it became clear -- Indian hockey was class apart, they were true masters of the game they nurtured and modernised.

Three days later, the team celebrated the first anniversary of its country’s independence with unbounded joy lined by Olympic gold.

(The writer is a hockey historian)

First Published: Aug 12, 2018 10:03 IST