Paan Singh Tomar was an athlete and soldier in the Indian Army who later became a Baaghi (rebel). The police record may term him a ‘Daaku, ‘ ‘Farar, ‘ or ‘Baaghi,’ what is little known is his sporting feat, records, and remarkable achievements as an athlete. He was resurrected by the Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s eponymous film “Paan Singh Tomar” in 2012. This seven-time national steeplechase champion attained celebrity status in the country after representing India at the 1958 Asian Games, held in Tokyo, Japan. Paan Singh was, in fact, a true champion sportsman, a national-ranking athlete, back in the highly competitive 1950s and ’60s. Paan Singh’s life transcended from being the king of the track to the ruler of the ravines.
Like a mythical demigod emerging from the scarred earth, with his enormous stamina and steeplechase leap, Subedar Paan Singh Tomar of Bhidosa lives on in the Chambal, his strange legend as a champion athlete and dreaded killer within the same lifetime refusing to sleep.” – a ballad often recited in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh
Paan Singh Tomar was born on Friday, 1 January 1932 (age 49 years; at the time of death) in the small village of Bhidosa, near Porsa city of Tonwarghar District, Northern Gwalior Division, Gwalior State, British Indian Empire (now Morena District, Madhya Pradesh, India). He grew up near the ravines of Chambal in Morena, an area where death was no big deal; for an instance, when a judge once asked Laxman Dixit, alias Lukka Daaku (a Chambal dacoit) that in his 14-year career, how many people he had killed, Dixit replied –
आपको याद रहता है आप महीने में कितनी चपाती खाते हो ?”
Paan Singh went on to serve the Indian Army as a subedar and eventually, ended up as a renegade.
Family & Caste
Parents & Siblings
Paan Singh Tomar’s father was Eashwari Singh Tomar. Paan Singh’s paternal grandfather had two wives – the first one gave birth to Eashwari Singh, and the second one gave birth to Dayaram (uncle of Paan Singh). Dayaram had five sons, including Havaldar, Babbu, and Jandel (cousin brothers of Paan Singh), and nearly a dozen grandchildren. Paan Singh had an elder brother, Maatadeen who was the black sheep of the family.
Relationships, Wife and Children
Attakali is one of the daughters of Paan Singh. Both his son served in the Indian Army. Hanumant Singh was the firebrand son of Paan Singh who died in a road accident in 1985; four years after Paan Singh’s death. Paan Singh’s younger son, Souram Singh Tomar (born in 1959) is a retired Indian Army subedar (captain) who lives in Babina, near Jhansi along with his mother and children. Reportedly, Paan Singh had an affair with a woman, and he often used to secretly visit her in the absence of her husband at Rathiankapura, a village where Paan Singh was killed in a police encounter. The Times of India
Paan Singh served the Indian Army as a subedar (Warrant Officer) under the Bengal Engineers Regiment at Roorkee. For his exceptional running ability, he was assigned to the sports wing in the Indian Army where he brought laurels both at the national and international platforms in the steeplechase. In 1977, he took premature retirement and returned to his village where he turned out to be a Baaghi. india together
Reportedly, Paan Singh’s entry into sports was the outcome of an argument with an instructor of Bengal Engineers Regiment at Roorkee. Legend has it that the instructor ordered him to run numerous laps of the parade ground, and as Paan Singh ran, his exceptional running ability caught the eye of the officers. Impressed by Paan Singh’s athletic skills, they shifted him to army’s sports wing and put him on a special diet. Thereafter, he went on to become a seven-time national champion in the steeplechase, and he even represented India at the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games. Paan Singh was not inducted into the combat fleet to fight in the 1962 Sino-Indian War and Indo-Pakistani War of 1965; because of his sports career. He made a national record in the 3000-metre steeplechase event, which he achieved in 9 minutes and 2 seconds; a record that remained unbroken for the next ten years. His 2,000 strides (as compared to the 2,500) for the challenging 3,000-metre run is still the benchmark in the steeplechase in India. His sports career ended in 1972.
A Brilliant Runner Who Could Never Touch The Finish Line
Paan Singh ran, ran, and ran throughout his life; be it the track field, the Asian Games, or the ravines of Chambal. Running was, in fact, in his gene, and he would often visit his village by running. Coaches still swear by Paan Singh Tomar’s rhythmic style of running, and his effortless leap over the hurdle and across the water obstacle in one single fluid movement. During his stint at the Roorkee regiment, the new inductees would often get the morning message –
जागो, जागो पान सिंह साहब तो सहारनपुर से दौड़कर भी आ गए।”
While talking about Paan Singh’s philosophy for running, his son, Souram Singh says – When I was small, after his evening practice, Pitaji and I would sit on the banks of the canal in Roorkee and talk. I would ask him, ‘How do you run? Saans nahin phoolti?’ And he would reply,
साँस कहाँ फूलती है, भागने से साँस पक्की हो जाती है।”
Although Paan Singh was a brilliant runner and a seven-time national champion in the steeplechase, he could never touch the finish line in the race of life in the manner he would have wanted.
Land Dispute: Making of a Baaghi
The reason behind Paan Singh becoming a Baaghi was a two-and-a-half bigha of land beside the village stream, a piece of land that his elder brother, Maatadeen, a ganja-lover, had sold to his uncle Dayaram’s scion for a sum of Rs. 3, 000; as he was in urgent need of money. By the time Paan Singh Tomar returned to his native village; after his premature retirement from the Indian Army, his cousin brothers, Jandel Singh, Havaldar Singh, and Babbu Singh Tomar had become powerful landowners. Sahab Singh, the childhood friend of Paan Singh Tomar, once said about Paan Singh’s cousins –
बहुमत उनका था, चलती इनकी थी।”
When Paan Singh wanted them to return his piece of land to him, a feud started between them. To resolve the dispute, a Panchayat was commenced in the village, which was presided by the district collector of Morena who asked Paan Singh to give Rs. 3000 to Babbu Singh in order to get his land back.; however, later the Panchayat overturned the demand of Paan Singh to get the land back for Rs. 3000. It is said after his pleas for help was ignored by both the panchayat and local police, Paan Singh then never approached police; opting to become an outlaw and take the ravines instead. On 16 March 1979, when Hanumant (Paan Singh’s son) was out in the fields to relieve himself, Jandel’s brothers and cousins beat him. The firebrand Hanumant reached home, grabbed the family 12-bore, and set out to take revenge and in the anguish, he fired at a person named Jagannath. On 17 March 1979, sensing a new threat, Paan Singh decided to flee along with his menfolk; leaving all the harvested Sarson, Arhar and Bajra, the cattle, and even the womenfolk, behind. A few days later, Babbu Singh, along with his goons, stormed into Paan Singh’s home and assaulted his 95-year-old mother who was alone at that time. When Paan Singh returned home, his mother commanded him that if he was her son in the true sense, he should take the revenge of her dishonour by the next morning. The infuriated Paan Singh swore to take revenge and within months, Paan Singh shot three of his cousins dead – Havaldar, Jandel Singh, and Babbu Singh. While describing the incident, Birender Singh Tomar, son of Jandel Singh and the Sarpanch of Bhidosa village says,
My father Jandel Singh was tending to his fields on his tractor. Paan Singh pumped four bullets into him. He was using by a. 303, probably stolen from the police. Within an hour, his older brother Havaldar Singh in the nearby field was shot when he was with his bullocks. This time it was with a. 315. Paan Singh gave us no time.”
According to sources, Paan Singh chased and shot down Babbu Singh. While narrating the incident, Paan Singh Tomar’s son Souram says,
Pitaji caught Babbu in Lohri Ka Pura, a neighbouring village after chasing him for nearly a couple of kilometres. He easily outpaced him. “
However, Birender Singh (Jandel Singh’s son and nephew of Paan Singh) has another view over Babbu’s killing, he adds,
बब्बू को दौड़ाकर गोली मारी पान सिंह ने, पीछे से। बब्बू निहत्था था।
A Self-Proclaimed Baaghi
After killing Babbu Singh, Paan Singh declared himself a Baaghi, and the ravines of Chambal became the epicentre of his operations. He started kidnapping influential people for ransom. Legend has it that Paan Singh would often sign his ransom notes as –
दस्युराज पान सिंह तोमर, चंबल का शेर”
Whosoever came on his way, Paan Singh killed him. According to a close aide of Paan Singh, when police offered him to surrender, Paan Singh denied and said,
थाने में हाज़िर नहीं होंगे। गाँव में नहीं रह सकते। अब तो मरना और मारना है”
A Dacoit or Baaghi?
There’s a popular dialogue in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s eponymous film, Paan Singh Tomar (2012), in which Irrfan Khan says –
बीहड़ में तो बागी होते हैं डकैत मिलते है पार्लियामेंट में”
However, Paan Singh Tomar was a dacoit in police records. For the retired police officer, Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan, who fired the fateful bullet that finally killed Paan Singh Tomar in the police encounter in 1981, Paan Singh was just another criminal, more appropriately a dacoit. After the film’s release, when Chauhan was asked if he would like to watch it in theatres, he said,
It’s a movie about a criminal, and I am sure it glorifies a killer. Why would I go to the theatre to watch such a movie?” he asks indignantly, “Paan Singh had a criminal bent of mind right from the beginning. I don’t care if he served the Army or won medals for the country. He was a killer and deserved a violent end.” OPEN
But the kin and friends of Paan Singh consider him a hero. While explaining why Paan Singh took the rifle and became a rebel, his son, Souram Singh says,
My father took a plunge in the notorious ravines of Chambal because nobody listened to his problems. The whole system — the government, police, everybody — were responsible for the step my father took.”
While detailing the positive side of Paan Singh, Souram Singh adds,
My father was a good and kind person, not a criminal. Thirty years after death, he is still a respected person in the Army and you can find his photograph in a museum in Roorkee. He never hurt anybody except his enemies; not even their kith and kin.” Hindustan Times
On 1 October 1981, Paan Singh Tomar was killed at the age of 49 at Rathiankapura village in Madhya Pradesh. He was killed after a gunfight with a team of Madhya Pradesh Police led by the Circle Inspector Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan who was posted back then at Gohad police station (50 km north of Gwalior). Chauhan was later honoured with the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry by the then Madhya Pradesh Governor KM Chandy on the Republic Day in 1984. According to Chauhan, days before Paan Singh’s encounter, he had left a live sleeper cell in Rathiankapura village, and it was on the tip-off of an informer, Motiram Jatav, that he had ensued the encounter. OPEN
According to sources, the gunfight lasted for more than twelve hours in which Paan Singh was killed along with ten of his dreaded gang members. It was the afternoon of 1 October 1981, Paan Singh, who was on the visit of Rathiyankapura village where he stayed at the Sarpanch’s home, dressed in police khakis and white jogging sneakers was lying on a “Chataai” on the floor with a loaded .303 gun on his left, and a megaphone, which he often used to warn the villagers about his arrival, on his right. According to his menfolk, Paan Singh looked unusually sluggish on that day, and the reason they cite was the poisoned liquor that he had consumed served by the Sarpanch; though police and autopsy reports did not mention poison and alcohol in his body. Around 5 pm, Balwant (Paan Singh’s nephew) sensed the threat and rushed to him and said,
The dogs are here, must be six or seven of them.”
Paan Singh stood up and asked the villagers to let their cows loose in the fields. He said,
They won’t fire at cows if they are Hindu policemen.”
However, the end was near, the police had surrounded the village. After periodic rounds of gunfire, Paan Singh and his men planned to escape through the village canal; however, they didn’t know that the Circle Inspector Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan had a watch over the canal, and then a fatal mistake was made by Paan Singh Tomar when he used his megaphone and said,
ये सूबेदार पान सिंह तोमर का गैंग है। तुम सब मारे जाओगे।”
Through this megaphone voice, police traced his location and started using .303 and Mauser shots mixed with light shelling. Around half past midnight, the squad of police heard Paan Singh’s voice; he was asking for water –
My brother policemen, can someone give me some water? Is there any Thakur among you? Can you please give me some water?”
When a policeman named Tribhuvan tried to give him water, Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan restrained him and said,
Where are you going? Are you crazy? You’ll be shot. Like the police, dacoits have no caste.”
He Was a Casteist
The villagers of Rathiyankapura say that Paan Singh had not good terms with Dalits, and he would often misbehave with them. After he was killed, the upper caste Thakur community termed the village as the “village of traitors” Hindustan Times –
गद्दारों का गाँव”
Motiram Jatav, the informer who had given the tip-off to the police about Paan Singh’s hideout in Rathiyankapura village, says,
उस घटना के बाद किसी ठाकुर ने हमसे कभी बात नहीं की”
He Challenged the Chief Minister
When Paan Singh Tomar’s brother, Maatadeen was killed in a police encounter in 1977, Paan Singh challenged the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh that he would take the revenge of his brother, and he went on to massacre nine Gujjar men in Pawa Paota village; as he thought that the villagers had given a tip-off to the police about Maatadeen’s whereabouts. The incident bewildered Arjun Singh who vowed,
- Reportedly, Paan Singh was a jolly and humorous person, and he loved to play “Taash” (cards); his favourite was “Dehla Pakad.” Patrika
- He was not a binge drinker; instead, he preferred a peg or two daily, and he used to keep a small bottle of liquor in his pocket. The Times of India
- Paan Singh was known for his impatient attribute and in words of his childhood friend, Sahab Singh, he would seldom control his outrage. Sahab Singh says,
आदमी हीरा था, गुस्सा आ गया और बागी बन गया। निशाना तो ऐसा बांधता था, गोली खाली नहीं जाती थी।”
- On his anger, his son Souram Singh also wishes had Paan Singh practised restraint. He says,
वो डरते नहीं थे, उनकी वही एक कमज़ोरी थी”
- When Paan Singh turned a rebel, several gangs were active at that time, including the Mausi Gang, Putali Gang, and the band of Gabbar Singh Gurjar, the latter one is said to have inspired the cult movie Sholay.
- The area near Chambal where Paan Singh grew up is famous for instances like looting and kidnapping. The recorded accounts of these notorious acts in the region date back to Harshvardhan’s reign (606-647 CE) when the noted Chinese traveller Huen Tsang was robbed of his pockets near the present-day town of Dholpur in Madhya Pradesh, which is barely a few kilometres from Paan Singh’s main hideout. OPEN
- The famous Indian patriot Ram Prasad Bismil (1897-1927) who wrote “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” also belonged to the Chambal area and was from Rugar Barbai village in Morena, near Paan Singh’s village. OPEN
- Reportedly, Paan Singh was initially not interested in steeplechase running; however, his instructor later convinced him for the same.
- During his stint in the steeplechase, Paan Singh Tomar was often part of the same team as Milkha Singh.
- After portraying Paan Singh Tomar on the silver screen, Irrfan Khan said,
Thousands of stories live and die every day in India, unnoticed. And these stories are complex, fascinating, moving, heart wrenching and engaging. I feel they should be brought to light in whatever form possible.”
- Tigmanshu Dhulia first heard about Paan Singh Tomar’s story when he was working as the casting director in Shekhar Kapur’s highly acclaimed film Bandit Queen. After the release of the film Paan Singh Tomar, Dhulia said,
I think it will always be remembered as the first which brought faith in biopics.”