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Lost heritage

Legendary hockey player Balbir Singh’s search for his memorabilia, which he donated for a national museum that was never set up, looks endless. But he has not lost hope

He made his country proud and is regarded as the one of the greatest hockey players of all time. His name finds place in the Guinness Book of World Records. He won gold in the Olympics not once or twice, but thrice. His record in the Olympics for most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic men’s hockey final still remains unconquered. The recent Akshay Kumar starrer Gold depicted independent India’s first Olympic gold in 1948 — the one which Balbir Singh Sr was not only a part of, but played a pivotal role.

The way our nation ‘honours’ our sportsmen leaves much to be desired. In his nineties now, Balbir Singh Sr — the legendary hockey player — is running from pillar to post in search of his lost memorabilia. He is seeking legal help to know the whereabouts of his treasure: his 1956 Melbourne Olympics captain blazer, 36 medals and more than 100 rare photographs. All these remain untraced. For four years, he and his family have been struggling to find these prized possessions.

Tracing back
It all started in 1985, when the Sports Authority of India (SAI) requested Balbir Singh Sr to donate his memorabilia for the purpose of showcasing them in the ‘soon to be opened’ National Museum of India in Delhi. He donated all he had, except his Padma Shri and Olympic medal, without any hesitation.

Sushbir Singh, daughter of Balbir Singh Sr, spoke to Patriot on behalf of his father, who is not keeping well. “He donated it to them (SAI) because they requested. They claimed that these items will be put up in the National Museum, which has not been established yet, to inspire the youth. When you are honest, you believe everybody. So, my father gave it away and never even enquired about it,” says Singh.

 

Shocking revelation
During the London Olympics in 2012, the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Museum wanted Balbir Singh’s Melbourne blazer to be showcased in the official London Olympics exhibition. “He was the only Indian, the only Asian and the only hockey player chosen among 16 iconic Olympians across the world. It was a great honour. They said that they wanted to put it on display at an exhibition in London’s Royal Opera House for two weeks, so that the world can see the supremacy of India in hockey. That was the first time my father requested Ajay Maken, the then Sports Minister, for his blazer that he had given to the SAI. He thought that after the exhibition in London, he would give it back to SAI,” explains Sushbir, adding, “But at this age, when he is in his nineties, he found out that all that he earned is not there anymore!”

When SAI was asked the first time, the reply was that they didn’t have anything. That came as a great shock to Balbir Singh and his family. “After that we started working on it. As his only daughter, I was very much concerned about it. These things are not just family legacy, it is the country’s rich sporting heritage,” says Sushbir, adding, “So, we have been working on it from 2012. Since then, there have been five different Sports Ministers and we have met all of them!”

Mismatch of statements
First, they took the RTI and appellate route. They filed several RTIs. It was suggested to them that they file an RTI to both — Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS) Patiala and SAI Delhi. “The reply of the first RTI, where one of the questions was ‘was there ever a proposal to setup a Sports Museum, and what all they received from Mr Balbir Singh Sr.?’ But they replied that they had no such plans of a museum,” recalls Sushbir.

She further adds, “But NSNIS Patiala said that they have got some items in 1998 from Delhi. Then we checked with the list of things sent by them, but there was no mention of anything that belonged to Balbir Singh Sr. After persuasion, the SAI again sent a list which had the blazer mentioned. It was mentioned that it was sent to NSNIS Patiala. But the blazer is not in Delhi, neither in Patiala. Where has it disappeared? Even if I come to terms with the fact that the blazer got torn or worn out, what about the 36 medals?”

Fortunately, they have a newspaper clipping where Balbir Singh is handing over the memorabilia to the then SAI Secretary. “So, they cannot go back and deny receiving them,” says Sushbir.

FIR lodged
SAI has filed an FIR against NSNIS Patiala. “But only the blazer has been mentioned in the FIR, and nothing about the other items. So now we have to work on that. But, this is the first positive development I could see after so much of struggle,” says Sushbir.

She further explains that after so much pressurising, and even when media highlighted the issue, SAI assured them that if an FIR is lodged in Patiala then police will get a chance to investigate from every level. “My father is such a patriotic man and loves his country so much that he did not want to file an FIR. He thought this would amount to disrespecting his own country and the whole world will come to know about how India cannot even safekeep memorabilia of a sportsperson,” regrets Sushbir.

She also expresses her doubt and says, “Now, how far the police will carry out their duty is another question. If they really want to, I believe they are competent enough to find out anything from any corner of the world. But I do not know whether it is a sincere effort or it is again an eyewash.”

National Sports Museum – a distant dream?
The donated items were meant for a National Museum of Sports, which was to be set up at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Singh was told that this Museum will be set up to inspire the youth and draw their attention towards the rich heritage and history of Indian sports.

“I still hope that the government will look into the need for a proper National Sports Museum and make requisite efforts for preserving items submitted by the sportsperson of this country. India still strives to be the helm of sports in international arena and I personally feel disturbed looking at the management of archives and sports history being in danger,” says Rishi Raj, travel writer, blogger and author of the book ‘Patriotic Pilgrimage of India’

Legal Perspective
“Why a country of millions of sports fans does not have a national sports museum where memorabilia of sports legends are publicly displayed and preserved, is still a question which remains unanswered by the government,” says advocate Mohit Kumar Gupta, who is representing Balbir Singh’s case. He further adds that the loss of blazer of Balbir Singh Sr is being considered as a personal loss, whereas it is a national loss.

He also believes that there is no denying that an exploding grey market for invaluable sports items may be behind it, facilitating transaction of such valuables. “I believe that donations made by sportspersons without receiving an acknowledgement is a matter of serious concern. It might jeopardise the future of national sports history. Missing Report to police and FIR are still being projected as same things by the authorities – which again is a national concern. Many stories may yet be pending, yet to be unravelled,” says Kumar.

Hope remains
“My father is not getting any younger. A person who deserved the highest honour in India in sports, was not given that. Apne hi country mein, apne hi logon ne loot liya (His own countrymen looted him). This is pathetic,” says Sushbir.
She believes that his biggest regret is that the purpose was not served – the purpose of motivating and inspiring the younger generation. “He says that even if he gets all his memorabilia back, he will again give it to them so that the youth can see them and be drawn into Indian sports and its rich history. We are still hopeful. And we look forward to a positive result.”