‘Fearless & exceptional pilot’
The IAF history of its operations acknowledges that it “suffered disproportionately higher losses” than PAF during the 1965 war, but says the force showed “resilience and determination” to gradually turn the tables with effective counter-strikes till the ceasefire came into effect on September 22. Arjan Singh, who was IAF’s third chief, oversaw the transition of the force from propeller craft to a jet fleet and was given diplomatic assignments after he retired at the early age of 50.
Arjan Singh, the original “air warrior”, inspired IAF to achieve great heights during his service. After retirement, he remained an awe-inspiring figure for the armed forces as a whole and was a highly respected public figure. Asked by TOI what the secret of his life was when he turned 90, he said, “Moderate habits and a very happy family life.” And then, he added, with a mischievous twinkle, “My wife Teji...she is being more helpful than usual now.” His lifelong companion Teji passed away in 2011. The Indian defence forces have had only three Marshalrank officers, the highest honorary rank possible, till now.
The first, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, regarded as the architect of the swift military operation to liberate Bangladesh in 1971, died in 2008 at the age of 94. Field Marshal K M Cariappa, the first commander in chief of the Army, died in 1993 at the age of 94. Arjan Singh was IAF chief from 1964 to 1969 and the first one to be promoted to the Air Chief Marshal rank in December 1965 after he successfully steered his force during the Indo-Pak war.
Commissioned into the Royal Indian Air Force in December 1939, similarities between Manekshaw and Singh, in fact, are quite striking. Both won their military spurs during the Burma campaign of World War II. If Manekshaw won a Military Cross, Singh was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Later, conducting themselves with rare elan, both reached the very top in their service. Singh later also served as India’s envoy to Switzerland and Kenya in the 1970s. He was also the Lt Governor of Delhi in 1989-90.
He was awarded the distinguished flying cross by the Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, who described him as “a fearless and exceptional pilot”. He has also served as India’s ambassador to the Vatican. In 2002, Arjan Singh became the only IAF veteran to be given the five-star rank.
Soon after his demise, condolence messages poured in from all over. “My thoughts are with his family and those mourning the demise of a distinguished air warrior and fine human, Marshal of the IAF Arjan Singh. RIP,” tweeted PM Narendra Modi. President Ram Nath Kovind said, “Sad at the demise of a great air warrior and Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh.”
“He was an exceptional person. He was inspirational. He maintained the dignity of a soldier. His positions and the work he has done are very rare,” defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said. BJP president Amit Shah tweeted, “Marshal of IAF Arjan Singhji led the Indian Air Force through his exemplary leadership. His rich contribution to motherland is venerable.” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said Arjan Singh was an “outstanding soldier and a diplomat who led from the front”.