Safdarjung Airport was still the domestic flight hub of Indian Airlines Corporation, flying its Dakotas, till the early 1960s.
Long before I met and came to know Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh, I “knew about him” — and much before he attained his five-star rank, when he took over as air marshal in 1964 and showed glimpses of his future. Much before that fateful 22-day September 1965 India-Pakistan war. As an impressionable school-going teenager, I heard vivid stories about the future marshal’s exploits — in and out of battle — from my late maternal uncle, Air Commodore S.K. Majumdar, who was eight years junior in both rank and service to Arjan Singh, who was commissioned into what was then the Royal Indian Air Force in 1939, at the start of the Second World War. Both belonged to the Air Force’s flying branch.
In those days, the Indian Air Force foundation day used to be celebrated on April 1 (and not October 8 as it is now) and Air Marshal Arjan Singh, as Chief of the Air Staff (the head of the IAF was still an air marshal, like the Navy Chief used to be a vice-admiral, and it was upgraded to air chief marshal, with four stars, only in 1966) took the salute and inspected the guard of honour of IAF officers, men and machines in an immaculately turned-out parade in the then Palam Air Force Station, which was better known for military operations and deployment of IAF aircraft than for civilian air traffic. Safdarjung Airport was still the domestic flight hub of Indian Airlines Corporation, flying its Dakotas, till the early 1960s.
I still vividly remember the photographs in the newspapers the next day, Friday April 2, 1965, with the 6-foot-plus elegantly-turbaned Air Marshal Arjan Singh’s headgear, flanked by then Wing Commander Majumdar’s strapping 6-foot-plus frame wearing his Air Force cap in the slow-moving 4x4 embossed in the IAF’s colours. It was a super display of teamwork, with the body language of the commander and his officer coming across loud and clear, more than any verbal command could be. Though a man of few words, the wing commander, who was leading the parade, subsequently could not resist the temptation of telling me some stories about his chief, which I relished and heard with rapt attention.
As time ticked away, beyond the 1965 war, one continued hearing of the air marshal becoming air chief marshal 1966, retiring from the force in 1969, and then, many years afterwards, assuming the rank of Marshal of the Air Force (with five stars, equivalent to the Army’s field-marshal). He was also the first such in India, and till now the only one. All with dignity, sobriety, humility and confidence. Without an iota of either bragging or arrogance. One, however, began to get glimpses of, and exchanging a few words with, the towering marshal on occasions like the armed forces days, Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations.
However, the real break in getting to know Arjan Singh from close quarters came after 2009 in the quiet surroundings of the India International Centre library. Even at 90-plus, he was every inch an agile, alert, debonair-like Marshal who would refuse any assistance from the two “buddies” assigned to look after him. With his featherweight, controlled waist, steady gait, shining looks, rhythmic walk, graceful talk and straight, vertical posture, he always reciprocated greetings, sat for an hour, read and left. No relaxation. No deviation. The man was the machine, and vice-versa. Known in IAF jargon as “time over target”, or TOT, the Marshal, it appeared, was always on a mission. From takeoff to touchdown, with zero mistakes, and zero tolerance for error. In the flying branch, you have no runners-up — either you fly like a champion or you end up dead!
Both my son and I found the 90-year-plus war hero to be a magnet — no matter how busy he was, he never tired of offering his insights, after overcoming some initial hesitation. He would devour the international newspapers like a hawk, and whenever his views were sought, would express himself with alacrity and full situation awareness. We discussed Afghanistan to America; the Battle of Britain to the Chindit Bandits of Burma; the founding of the Indian Air Force to his pre-1947 flying colleagues in war and peace. He recalled every possible thing: the names of men, places, positions, locations and trials and tribulations. Best of all, the Marshal spoke fondly, and was highly appreciative of the stellar role of India’s early air warriors. He acknowledged them with glittering eyes and quiet pride.
Since, as Marshal of the IAF, a “rank for life” like field-marshal, he was on active service with full pay and perks, I once had the temerity to ask him why he did not make use of his position to have a full-fledged office either in South Block or Vayu Bhavan, to which he gave a typical Arjan Singh response. “I may be a Marshal, but the present generation is doing a wonderful job. They are professional par excellence. I can only advise if it is needed. It is their decision. They give me full respect and honour. They are the true torch-bearers of the glorious traditions of the IAF.”
Once, when asked about America’s war in Afghanistan, he was quick to say: “It’s a lost war for the West.” On Pakistan: “The less said the better. Act, don’t talk.” On the 1980s’ turbulence in Punjab: “A monumental blunder and error of judgment on both sides.” On India’s future: “Bright, but economics has to be the priority.”
We often talked, whenever possible, from 2009 to 2016, when he was past 97. The same sharpness, but with a slowing of reflexes at a later stage. The Marshal was not to be seen in the library for the past several months. We had a premonition that he was perhaps awaiting his final takeoff. That day arrived on September 16, 2017, when the Marshal took off for his final mission. Mission accomplished.
We will miss you in the IIC library.
The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College. The views expressed are personal.