Readers will be surprised to see homage to an African leader and an Indian athlete in one blog. Mr. Kaunda died on 17th June and Milkha Singh ‘The Flying Sikh’ on 18th June. The died in the same week or both were well into their nineties when they died are not the reasons to put them in one blog. Both inspired a nation of millions, one to become independent and the second to inspire its citizens to excel in sports.
Growing up in the seventies, we used to read about some great leaders of the world, not necessarily who were in power, but also of leaders who were fighting to get their country independent. Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Nelsen Mandela of South Africa, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Robert Mugabe would join the list later.
For nations, the quest for independence peaked after World War II. India and Sri Lanka were the first two nations to become independent and subsequently republics. But the struggle in Africa for independence continued. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and Zambia in 1964 and Mr. Kenneth Kaunda became the inaugural President of the Zambia. Before her independence, the country was called Northern Rhodesia, named after Mr. Cecil Rhodes, a businessman. I believe the north of the great Zambesi river was called Northern Rhodesia and the Southern part of the river, Southern Rhodesia. So much for a country who forms rules to limit immigrants to its country but went as businessmen all over the world, conquered, ruled them and named the countries (which were among the oldest civilizations) after their businessmen. It did not stop there. They started calling the most magnificent waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls which was originally called ‘Mosi – oa – Tunya’ meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’ in Lohi language and ‘Shungu Namutitima’ meaning ‘boiling water’ in Tonga for thousands of years in local languages. They decided to name it after the Queen who probably never set her foot beyond Dover. Just like calling ‘Uluru’ as Ayers Rock after a Governor who did not set his foot beyond the Metropolitan limits of Adelaide.
Against this backdrop, Mr. Kenneth Kaunda, who was born the youngest of eight children in a Christian preaching family, entered politics in 1949. He was an excellent orator and often quoted Gandhiji and Lincoln in his speeches. He became the head of ANC (African National Congress) and became Zambia’s first President in 1964, when the British decided to leave the country for good.
Mr. Kenneth Kaunda photographed during his visit to India in 1980. Seen here with the then Prime Minister and the President of India, Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Sanjeeva Reddy. Photo courtesy – The Indian Express.
He ruled Zambia during difficult times. His economic policies were mixed and he had a tough time when the world oil prices increased and the copper prices fell (Zambia’s biggest mineral wealth). He resorted to what would become common in African countries after independence, banned all political parties except his own and ruled till 1991 when the first independent elections happened. He lost the election, but he was not a quitter. He tried to make couple of comeback but was defeated in his attempts. His other major contribution was to persuade the Mr. Botha of South Africa to release Mr. Mandela from prison and this did happen after Kaunda’s second meeting with Mr. Botha.
The more we see and read about how most of the leaders who headed the independence movement in their countries could not function effectively as Head of State, we realize how clairvoyant Gandhiji was. He advised that Congress should be disbanded after independence and did not want any role in administration. Or at least they should have followed the precedent set by George Washington that is limit the terms they could be in office. That would at least prevent disasters like Mugabe from happening for a many years.
Adieu Mr. Kenneth David Kaunda who was an inspiration to the people of Zambia and to the history students of the world.
Here is the link to an excellent article in Indian Express on Mr. Kaunda. https://indianexpress.com/article/world/kenneth-kaunda-zambia-president-dies-obituary-7364687/
Till Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha or P T Usha as she is commonly known, lost the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second, we in India knew about only one Olympic athlete. Milkha Singh aka The Flying Sikh. We knew only two things about our Olympic performances over the years. That India was unbeatable for many years in Hockey till they found a way to switch to Astroturf and power game which was a death knell to the artistic Hockey we played and Milkha Singh was the fastest runner India has produced.
Not just running, even his life story is inspirational. He was born in undivided India and during the riots after partition, he lost his parents, a brother and two sisters. He was sent to India and e lived with one of his elder sisters in Delhi. A tough life and a short jail term for travelling without ticket in a train made him contemplate to become even a dacoit. On his brother’s persuasion, he joined the army and during his training, he was introduced to track and field. He did not know anything about either athletics or Olympics but running was in his blood. He ran ten kilometers to school everyday and that helped.
Soon he started winning races and won both Asian and Commonwealth games medals and the next step was Olympics. In 1956 Melbourne Olympics, he participated both 200m and 400m but did not progress beyond the heats. But meeting the top athletes and eventual champions introduced him to new training methods.
His next encounter in 1960 was with a famous runner Abdul Khaliq from Pakistan. Milkha was reluctant to go to Pakistan (he only had horrible recollections of his birthplace) but Mr. Nehru the then Prime Minister of India persuaded him to go. He went and won the race overcoming all odds and unpleasant memories.
He entered the book of legends after he missed the Bronze medal by a whisker in 1960 Olympics in Rome. His performance gave sense of pride and achievement to millions of Indians and during our high school days in the seventies, whenever we read about him (more than a decade after the race) and invariably we would be invariably awestruck. An epic proportion of achievement and an inspiration.
A Nation waiting for a Olympic Track and Field Success – Milkha Singh in 1960 Olympics.
A biopic was made on his life ‘Bagh Milkha Bagh’ – Run Milkha Run in 2013. Milkha Singh gave away the rights to make movie of his life for just Rupee at the request of his son, the famous golfer from India, Jeev Milkha Singh. Running/Jogging was just becoming popular in India (not just as sport but also as a way to keep fit) and Mr. Milkha Singh’s story and the biopic, made forty odd years after his famous run, inspired thousands of Indians to take to running.
Very few people can inspire us not only from the life stories but also from their achievements. Mr. Milkha Singh had manage to do both.
The Flying Sikh died last week and we bid farewell to him with full state honors. Adieu Milkha the first true Champion of Indian Athletics.
Bagh Milkha Bagh is streaming in Disney Hotstar. If you had missed seeing it, please do now.