Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Daredevil

The last of the Marshals of the Indian Armed Forces is also the only one still alive today, a living legend who had many firsts to his name. Soft spoken, avoiding controversy and enjoying his golf, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh is the Indian Air Force's first and to date only five-star officer, a man whose career oversaw the growth of the air wing of the Armed Forces into the sixth-largest Air Force in the world today.

A New Force
But it wasn't always like that. In the year 1919, when Arjan Singh was born in Lyalpur in what is now Pakistani Punjab, British-India did not have an Air Force. The Air Force in the British Empire in India was formed only in 1932 as an auxiliary Imperial force, being upgraded to the Royal Indian Air Force in 1945 after World War II and the Indian Air Force after the formation of the Republic of India. When he finished his early education in Montgomery, near Lahore, and joined the RAF College Cranwell in 1938, air warfare was still very new to the subcontinent. He was one of the first Indian officers to fly in the air.

However, there was little time to learn. In 1944, he was the Squadron Leader in the No. 1 Squadron IAF in the Arakan Campaign, the first campaign by the Allied Forces to retake Burma from Imperial Japan. For his stunning bravery and success, he was immediately awarded the Distinguished First Cross (DFC), a lifetime honor. With Partition, his family moved to India and received land to farm on, but as a soldier, he continued his service to the new country. On 15 Aug., 1947, he had the unique distinction of leading a fly-by of over a hundred IAF airplanes over the Red Fort in Delhi to commemorate Independence.

In 1949, he was promoted to the rank of Air Commodore, having completed a course at Staff College, UK. He took over as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of Operational Command, which later became the Western Air Command. He once again held this post from 1957-61, the longest officer to serve in that position, when he was promoted to Air Vice Marshal.

The year 1962 was a dark day for India, for it was then that India was defeated in the Sino-Indian War. Arjan Singh has always held the failure of the Ministry of Defense to use the Air Force as a major cause of that defeat, believing that India had a superiority in air power over the Chinese and could have reversed the tide if New Delhi had used that superiority. After the massive defeat, with Defense Minister Menon being forced to step down after huge public pressure of the kind that even PM Nehru could not resist, Singh was made Vice Chief of Air Staff. The next year, in 1964, he became Chief of Air Staff, an Air Marshal-equivalent rank. He was awarded a Padma Vibhushan in the year 1965.

The Second Kashmir War
In 1965, India and Pakistan once again plunged into war over Kashmir. For the Indian Armed Forces, so recently humbled by Mao's People's Liberation Army, it was a testing time. With Operation Grand Slam, Pakistan began its invasion of Indian border towns and the Indian Army was still not fully prepared to repel it. It was then that the Cabinet requested CAS Arjan Singh to deploy his forces, which he did in an hour in the strategic town of Akhnur. This played a major role in stopping Pakistani Field Marshal-President Ayub Khan in his tracks as he tried to seize Kashmir.

For its leadership role in the Second Kashmir War of 1965, the rank of Chief of Air Staff was upgraded to the four-star rank of Air Chief Marshal, in line with the practice in the Royal Air Force in the UK, and Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh became the first Indian to hold that rank. The same year, he became Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, his highest military honor for another four decades.

Civilian Life
After retirement, ACM (Retd.) Arjan Singh was posted as Indian Ambassador to Switzerland and the Vatican in 1971, beginning a new phase of life. In 1974, he became Indian High Commissioner to Kenya, members of the Minorities Commission of India from 1975-81 and finally Lt. Governor of Delhi from 1989-90, when he finally resigned from public life over disagreements with new Prime Minister Chandrashekhar.

Arjan Singh was a fine officer of the Air Force, having flown over 60 types of air crafts in thousands of sorties. In 2002, to honor him for his services to the nation, the President of India conferred upon him the rank of Marshal of the Air Force, a lifetime, five-star rank that he continues to hold today, the first and only such Air Force officer. The move came as a surprise to him and his family, but it was a pleasant one for the Forces.

He continues to live today, remembering his deceased wife, occasionally visiting Air Force installations. His deep knowledge of tactics makes him a formidable warrior even today. As the highest-ranking Officer of the Indian Armed Forces, second only to the Supreme Commander, the President of India, he receives the highest honors.  

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