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October 20, 2017
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Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh

The Legend Lives On
By Mahendra Ved Published: October 2017
 

New Delhi. Indian history records that kings who combine military prowess with good administration– from Chandragupta Maurya to Akbar, Shivaji and Ranjit Singh –have ruled longer and have left lasting legacies.

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Its modern context is one of political leadership running a modern state, learning from the past, but without harping on ancient or medieval times to draw mileage over political rivals, keeping a fine balance between the military and the civil bureaucracy and giving them their respective space, without unduly upsetting one or the other.

Lucky is a nation whose distinguished soldiers live long enough, serve in advisory and nonmilitary positions to become legends in their life-time.

Some may attain high political offices like Generals Eisenhower in the US and Vietnam’s Giap, who defeated three major powers – France, the US and China. Others, as is India’s tradition of civilian superiority established since
independence,serve the society and gracefully fade away.

Of that rare breed was Marshal of the Indian Air Force (MIAF) Arjan Singh, who passed away on September 17, at age 98. He was the last of the country’s three Five Star officers, the IAF’s only one, after the Army’s Field Marshals K M Cariappa and SHFJ Manekshaw. That all three belonged to different faiths is what makes India different.

I had met MIAF Arjan Sjngh a few times to discuss mainly history of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when the IAF was not used at all, of the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict when the IAF under his command distinguished itself and how it really came into its own during the 1971 war, achieving air superiority on two fronts.

A book on him, The Icon, by another distinguished flier, late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, should be read by every Indian – anywhere.

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In a fitting farewell, bypassing formalities, President Ram Nath Kovind placed wreaths and Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to a recent meeting he had with the man who was unwell and was fading. But long before that the nonagenarian had laid wreaths at the body of another distinguished Indian who had pinned the Marshal’s rank on his epaulette, former president APJ Abdul Kalam.

The highest military honours on passing away– or rather flying away into eternity – were most appropriate to the son of a Lance Dafadar, a foot soldier who, recruited as a Hawai Sepoy (flying cadet), rose to the highest post. He was part of history in that he had led a hundred-strong fly-past over the Red Fort (Lal Qila) on August 15, 1947. The occasion was India’s first Independence Day.

With him as the Chief, the IAF acquired supersonic fighters, strategic reconnaissance aircraft, tactical transport aircraft and assault helicopters many of which are still in service today.

He proved his valour during the Second World War, when he faced the Japanese Army while serving as a pilot officer in the British-Indian forces in Burma (now Myanmar). He received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for “fearless and exceptional” service in 1944.

Post-Partition, defending the western air space was, and remains, most crucial. In 1949, promoted Air Commodore, he took over as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of an operational command, which later came to called Western Air Command. He had the distinction of having the longest tenure as AOC of an operational base, Ambala, initially during 1949-1952 and then again during 1957-1961.

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He was the IAF’s Chief of Staff during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. When Pakistan launched its Operation Grand Slam, he was summoned to Defence Minister YB Chavan’s office with a request for air support. When asked how long
would it take IAF to react, he replied: In an Hour.” And indeed, his men struck to stall the Pakistani ground offensive within an hour. Flying MiGs, Gnats and Hunters, they took on the PAF’s superior Sabre Jets. The IAF thwarted Pakistan’s armoured thrust targeted at the vital Jammu and Kashmir town of Akhnoor.

Arjan Singh led the Air Force through the war with determination and professional skill, despite the constraints imposed on a full-scale use of its combat power.

Fifty-two years hence, Pakistan and PAF dispute the Indian victory. But they cannot deny that their aggression at Akhnoor was thwarted, and so did their overall plans, and bravado about bombing and capturing the Red Fort.

Commending his role in the war, Mr Chavan wrote, “Air Marshal Arjan Singh is a jewel of a person, quiet efficient and firm; unexcitable but a very able leader.”

Long after retirement, Arjan Singh recalled that he had advised the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri not to sign the ceasefire agreement. His boys were actually ready to decimate the Pakistan Air Force by then.

But Shastri was under great pressure – so was Pakistan – from the United Nations. In any case, the conflict that lasted 23 days could not have prolonged, as both sides would have run out of ammunition.

Arjan Singh was appointed the Air Chief Marshal at the age of 45. He is still the youngest ever officer and serving the longest as the IAF chief from August 1, 1964 to July 15, 1969. He was just 50 when he retired.

In a glorious career, Arjan Singh flew over 60 different kinds of aircraft and his zest for flying didn’t wane until the day he retired.

Post-retirement, he served as Ambassador to Switzerland in 1971, and to Kenya as High Commissioner in 1974, and later as a Member of the Minorities Commission. In 1989, he was appointed the Lt Governor of Delhi.

Arjan Singh was born in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan and called Faislabad.

Incidentally, Pajustani army Chief and later President, Ziaul Haq, was born in Jalandhar. But he left a troubled legacy of staged hijacks and fuelled militancy in his own country and abroad. The curse of fundamentalism he cast on his country has led to global terrorism.

Two top military commanders, born in India before independence, but with vastly different legacies in their countries post-independence.

MIAF Arjan Singh was, and is, greatly respected in India.

The Government accorded him a State Funeral, with a 17 gun salute, while three IAF combat jets flew in a Missing Man formation over the ceremonial farewell over Brar Square in Delhi Cantt.

You have passed into Eternity, Sir, but you will never fade away from our memories.

The Legend Lives On.

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