India's President Ram Nath Kovind pays tribute to Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, who breathed his last on September 17 in New Delhi. Photo: Courtesy Rashtrapati Bhawan
India's President Ram Nath Kovind pays tribute to Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, who breathed his last on September 17 in New Delhi. Photo: Courtesy Rashtrapati Bhawan

India’s sole Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh passed away just two years short of a century in New Delhi on Saturday. Singh, was the first and the only Chief of the Air Staff to be awarded this rank, a rare honor bestowed to only two army chiefs since independence.

Born on April 15, 1919 in Lyallpur, Punjab, now in Pakistan, Singh was a legend in the Indian Air Force throughout his career. One of the early pioneers who joined the Royal Indian Air Force, he took part in the Arakan campaign in Burma (Myanmar), before being posted as part of the force sent to defend the city of Imphal in India’s North East against the advancing Japanese Imperial forces.

Born in a traditional military family, Singh’s father had served in the Hodson’s Horse, a reputed cavalry unit that was converted into a armored regiment in independent India. Trained at the Royal Air Force College at Cramwell, Singh spent a few years in the North West Frontier Province, (now in Pakistan) before moving to the Arakan campaign. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, he was one of those handful of Indian pilots who would form the nucleus of the Indian Air Force.

A pioneer combat pilot

Singh was also known for his exceptional leadership as the Chief of Air Staff, when India and Pakistan went to war in September 1965. Using a motley fleet of fighter aircraft, Singh marshaled his outdated resources to take on the Pakistani Air Force, which was then armed with the modern F-104 Starfighter and the F-86 Sabres. However, the Indian Air Force gave a better account of itself with the tiny Gnat fighters earning the sobriquet of “Sabre killer”. After the war, Singh’s rank was upgraded to Air Chief Marshal, a first in India, and made equivalent to a full General of the Indian Army.

In 2002, the government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee took the historic decision to appoint him as  India’s first Marshal of the Indian Air Force. Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy was the Chief of Air Staff when the decision was taken. Krishnaswamy  spoke to Asia Times, reminiscing about how the decision came about, and what it meant for the Indian Air Force.

“His appointment did occur when I was the Chief, but the process had started years before I took over,” Krishnaswamy recalled. “My predecessors had taken up the issue and worked with the government to get it approved. By the time I had become the Chief, the decision went to the Cabinet and it was approved immediately,” he said.

“In the Services, we always look to our history and veterans as our anchors. We needed someone who exemplified all that was the best of the Air Force and its values, and Marshal Singh was easily one such personality. We had seen the impact of the earlier appointments of Field Marshals Sam Manekshaw and K M Cariappa on the Indian Army. Marshal Singh, matched their contribution as one of the key architects of the modern Indian Air Force.”

In fact, the Indian Air Force had not seen much combat since independence and was forced to sit out the war with China in 1962. Unsure how it would fare against the Pakistani Air Force, Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Air Marshal Asghar Khan had reached an agreement not to engage in the air and prevent any escalation of bilateral tensions. But once war declared the two air forces took to the skies.

“I was a young Flight Lieutenant with barely four years of service when the war broke out,” Krishnaswamy recalled. “I was in the 23rd Squadron, flying the Gnat out of the air base in Pathankot in Punjab and the Chief was too big a personality for us pilots in the cockpit. My squadron engaged the first Pakistani Air Force and I was the wing-man to Trevor Keelor, who shot down the first Sabre. But as the euphoria dissipated, we realized that it was Singh’s ability to carry out joint operations with the Indian Army that swung the war in our favor.”

Legend has it that the then army chief, General Jayanto Chaudhury and Air Marshal Singh jointly walked up to then defense minister Yashwant Rao Chavan and sought his permission to go to war. “The permission was promptly given and saw the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force carry out joint operations for the first time in the history of independent India.” Reportedly, when asked how long it would take the Indian Air Force to prepare for war, Singh quipped, “an hour”.

Philanthropist in uniform

Krishnaswamy worked closely with Marshal Singh at a time when India was on the brink of another war with Pakistan. “The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 saw us scramble to the border, and it was a tense period for us when I took over as the Chief. We had just launched Operation Parakram and we were all set to go to war. While the Marshal never sought any information on operational matters, he was constantly worried about the welfare of the air force personnel and their families,” Krishnaswamy said.

Known to only a few people, Singh started a Foundation with a generous grant of $317,400 (INR 2 crore) for the welfare of the air force personnel and their families. “The fund is very well managed and has grown significantly now, and helps scores of air force families every  year,” said Krishnaswamy.

“He was a man of impeccable ideals and integrity, and while he was a disciplinarian, he would also ease up if he knew that the mistakes were genuine. He was one of those rare Chiefs who had flown every aircraft in independent India’s inventory, from the Canberra to the Hunter and the MiG-21s as they arrived just before his tenure and were pressed into service. In those days, taking over as the Chief at the age of 45 was rare, but he earned the respect of his peers at a critical juncture of India’s history,” Krishnaswamy said.

After retirement Singh was appointed as India’s ambassador to Switzerland and the Vatican and then the High Commissioner to Kenya. Years later, he was also appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi for a year, before being appointed as India’s first Marshal of the Indian Air Force in 2002.

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