Tomar was born in the village of Bhidosa near Porsa, a small city in the Morena district of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Paan Singh Tomar was a Subedar with Bengal Engineers at Roorkee. He was a champion sportsman, a national-ranking athlete, back in the 1950s and '60s.
He represented India at the 1958 Asian Games at Tokyo. Paan Singh Tomar was not interested in steeplechase running at first, but discovered it in the military. He went on to be the national champion of steeplechasing for seven years. His national record of 9 minutes and 2 seconds in the 3000 meter steeplechase event remained unbroken for 10 years. He was not allowed to fight in the 1962 and 1965 wars due to his career in sports, which ended in 1972.
After retiring, he returned to his village Bhidosa, District Morena. There arose a land dispute between him and Babu Singh. Babu Singh was the head of a 200 member family, and, had seven licensed guns. To solve the dispute, a panchayat was held with the collector where Tomar was asked to give ₹3,000 to Babu Singh for his own land; Tomar obliged. However, his nephew retaliated as he was paying money for his own land. The collector promised to return in 15 days. In the meantime, Babu Singh came to Tomar's house and beat up his 95-year-old mother. She asked Tomar to take revenge by morning if he was truly her son. Balwanta and Tomar went to the fields where they found Babu. Tomar shot Babu, who continued to run for about a kilometer before he fell down. He later gave an interview to a local newspaper in Gwalior which may have prompted the administration to start taking his case seriously, considering this an act of defiance. At that time, there was a price of ₹10,000 on his head. As per an interview he gave, he did not want to kill the eight villagers whose family tip-off led to the killing of his elder brother Matadin, but he could not stop his nephew Balwanta, who was Matadin's son. During the entire interview, he toyed with a bullet.
On October 1, 1981 the Circle Inspector Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan and his special team of 500 men trapped and killed Tomar. 14 other members of his gang were also killed. The gunfight lasted over 12 hours. Chauhan had been tipped off about Tomar's arrival by Motiram Jatav one of the village Jatav at that time.
According to newspaper reports, Tomar was shot when he was alive and was asking for water: "Any Rajput here who could please give me some water?"; Hawaldar Tribhuwan Singh started walking towards Tomar with some water but the Circle inspector shouted at him: "Tribhuwan, dacoits have no caste." And he was left to die.
Paan Singh's son, Souram Singh Tomar (b. 1959) is a retired Indian Army subedar who lives in Babina in the Jhansi District of Uttar Pradesh.
A biographic film, Paan Singh Tomar, released in 2012 to much critical acclaim. It was written by Sanjay Chouhan and directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia. It starred Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar, and Mahie Gill as his wife.
On 18 March 2013, actor Irrfan Khan received the Best Actor Award for 'Paan Singh Tomar' at the India National Film Awards. The award citation reads, "A unique delineation of transformation of an international sportsperson to a dacoit. A difficult role very convincingly played. A well-calibrated performance that was masked by remarkably subtle underplay."