Singh was born on 21 November 1929 according to records in Pakistan, although other official records
various state 17 October 1935 and 20 November 1935. He was born in a Rajput family of Rathore clan. His
birthplace was Govindpura, a village 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Muzaffargarh city in Punjab Province,
British India (now Muzaffargarh District, Pakistan). He was one of 15 siblings, eight of whom died before
the Partition of India. He was orphaned during the Partition, when his parents, a brother and two sisters
were killed in the violence that ensued. He witnessed these killings.
Escaping the troubles in Punjab, where killings of Hindus and Sikhs were continuing, by moving to Delhi,
India, in 1947, Singh lived for a short time with the family of his married sister and was briefly
imprisoned at Tihar jail for travelling on a train without a ticket. His sister, Ishvar, sold some
jewellery to obtain his release. He spent some time at a refugee camp in Purana Qila and at a resettlement
colony in Shahdara, both in Delhi.
Singh became disenchanted with his life and considered becoming a dacoit but was instead persuaded by a
brother, Malkhan, to attempt recruitment to the Indian Army. He successfully gained entrance on his fourth
attempt, in 1951, and while stationed at the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre in Secunderabad he
was introduced to athletics. He had run the 10 km distance to and from school as a child and was selected
by the army for special training in athletics after finishing sixth in a compulsory cross-country run for
new recruits. Singh has acknowledged how the army introduced him to sport, saying that "I came from a
remote village, I didn't know what running was, or the Olympics".
Milkha Singh was promoted from the rank of sepoy to junior commissioned officer in recognition of his
successes in the 1958 Asian Games. He subsequently became Director of Sports in Punjab Ministry of
Education, from which post he had retired by 1998.
Singh had been awarded the Padma Shri following his success in 1958. In 2001, he turned down an offer of
the Arjuna Award from the Indian government, arguing that it was intended to recognise young sports people
and not those such as him. He also thought that the Award was being inappropriately given to people who
had little notable involvement as active sports people at all. He said that "I have been clubbed with
sportspersons who are nowhere near the level that I had achieved" and that the award had become devalued.
While sharing his wealth of experience in a college in Goa on 25 August 2014, he also said, "The awards
nowadays are distributed like 'prasad' in a temple. Why should one be honoured when he or she has not
achieved the benchmark for the award? I rejected the Arjuna I was offered after I received the Padma Shri.
It was like being offered an SSC certificate after securing a Masters degree."
All of Singh's medals have been donated to the nation. They were displayed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium
in New Delhi but later moved to a sports museum in Patiala, where a pair of running shoes that he wore in
Rome are also displayed. In 2012, he donated the Adidas shoes that he had worn in the 1960 400m final to a
charity auction organised by actor Rahul Bose.
As of 2012, Singh lives in Chandigarh. He met Nirmal Kaur, a former captain of the Indian women's
volleyball team in Ceylon in 1955. They married in 1962 and have three daughters and a son, the golfer
Jeev Milkha Singh. In 1999, they adopted the seven-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh, who had died in
the Battle of Tiger Hill.