OBITUARY: Marshal Arjan Singh

US President Obama greets Arjan Singh, Marshal of the Indian Air Force, at the At Home Reception on the Central Lawn of Mughal Garden in New Delhi

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Bangkok – He was a fourth generation warrior, and the oldest serving official of the armed forces in India. An Air Force station was named after him in his lifetime, and he became only the third Indian to be elevated to the 5-star rank. An officer who had fought all three major Indian wars — that was the legend of Air Marshal Arjan Singh.

Two images of Air Marshal Arjan Singh will remain etched in public memory for a long time. As a 5-star officer and Marshal, one never retires and continues to serve till death. So when President Barack Obama came visiting India in 2015, his reception included a meeting with India’s highest-ranked member of the armed forces and the country’s eldest serving officer. The 54-year old President Obama greeting the 96-year old Marshal Arjan Singh was an immensely popular photograph. A year later, when former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam passed away, Marshal Arjan Singh laid a wreath in an highly televised emotional moment. He wasn’t in the best of health, but assisted with a walking stick and a fellow soldier, he walked up in full regalia to pay tributes to the man known as the father of India’s missile program.

The armed forces were in his blood. His great grandfather had enlisted in the Guides Cavalry in 1854, which technically predates the British rule in India. Martyred in the Afghan campaign, he was followed by his son who joined the same cavalry. The grandson joined the Hodson’s Horse, and Arjan Singh became the fourth generation in the armed forces when he entered RAF College Cramwell in 1938.

Becoming the Chief of the Air Force at the age of 45, he quit from active service before half of the Indian population was born. But a Marshal never retires, and this honor made him the oldest serving member of the Indian armed forces.

In the Second World War, it was the Southeast Asia sector where he played a key role in thwarting the Japanese assault in the Arakan campaign, eventually earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross from Lord Mountbatten. The Arakan campaign was the first Allied attack in Burma, and Arjan Singh led the No 1 Squadron, the oldest squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

In India, he is famous for the 1965 war where the Indian Air Force would engage in an active combat with the qualitatively superior Pakistan Air Forces (PAF). IAF was not equipped with superior fighters, and yet his leadership resulted in penetration attacks right up to Peshawar and Mauripur (Karachi). With PAF losing aircrafts regularly, he advised the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri against signing a peace agreement. The war ended in a stalemate with both forces withdrawing to their original positions, but by that time Arjan Singh had helped establish IAF as the pre-eminent air force in the region.

Not one to rest on his laurels, in his later years, he sold a portion of his land to establish a corpus to help retired Air Force personnel.

Only three members of the armed forces in India have had the honor of being elevated to the rank of 5-star generals — Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in 1973, Field Marshal K M Cariappa in 1986, and Marshal Arjan Singh in 2002. Both Sam and Cariappa were from the Army, and Arjan Singh was the only one from the Air Force.

Air Marshal was born in Lyallpur and he was educated in Montgomery. Today, Lyallpur does not exist. Neither does Montgomery. And neither do the mortal remains of the fourth-generation warrior Air Marshal Arjan Singh.

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