Losing the Marshal of the Air Force

The nation grieves the loss of Marshal Arjan Singh (IND/1577), who died in Delhi on 16 Sept 2017. His loss will be keenly felt. The editor of the IAF site and author of "The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965" recollects his brief but memorable encounter with the Marshal of the AF three years ago..

Losing the Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh yesterday was a sad, but inevitable day. The shock of losing him has been tempered by the response from the nation - the out-pour of feelings , memories and remembrances from people of all walks of life in India. This was not an anonymous air warrior lost to the times but someone loved and adored by many, those in the IAF and outside. Much will be written about him , so I will restrict myself to recollecting my three brief encounters with the Marshal over the years. Personally not meeting the Marshal would have been one of my greatest regrets of my life. Fortunately that was not to be the case.

The Marshal was someone I had always followed and studied for years. Starting in the early 90s as a young rookie researcher - trying to put together a history of the 1965 Air War, which soon blew up into a full fledged research project. Having spent almost a decade researching about a conflict that the Marshal was personally associated with, I would have loved to have met him during the research phase - But the distances involved in India at that time and other constraints meant that there was no direct link that could be established. Fortunatly just before we wrapped our book, my Co-Author Samir Chopra had actually met the Marshal in 2003 for an interview for our book. Some of the content was updated based on his observations and thoughts.

The first time I 'met' him was when I was 'foot slogging' on the grounds of Yelahanka at Aero India 2005. I was told about an event being held by Vayu Aerospace at the press center/ auditorium and I was walking my way over. Just about nearing the event, i saw an airforce blue ambassador pulling in - What caught my eye from a distance was the five star flag and plate on the Ambassador - which was enough for me to start jogging on a slow trot to the auditorium.

2005 01

The Ambassador with the five star plate pulling into the Auditorium.. that was my cue!

I reached just in time to catch the two occupants get out - Legendary Historian Pushpindar Singh - "Uncle Pushy" to us youngsters and the Marshal himself, dressed in a suit. Pushy sir recognised me when i approached - and he gladly obliged my request for a photograph of both of them standing next to each other.  

2005 02
Mr. Pushpindar Singh and Marshal Arjan Singh, just after they alighted out of the car

I forget what I was introduced as - probably some "young.. upcoming... whatever"... the Marshal acknowledged me briefly and moved on for the main event. My memories of the event are blurry - but I did wangle another photo of the Marshal with late Wg Cdr I M Chopra and Air Marshal Mally Wollen. I was so much in awe of that meeting that I didnt even have the thought process to have my own picture with him that I could cherish.. ("Selfie" would have been a disrespect - and it never existed in the dictionary at that time).

2005 03

With Wg Cdr I M Chopra (Left) and Air Marshal Mally Wollen (Right)

Ten months later, in December 2005, I ran into the Marshal again, this time at the Passing Out Parade at AFA Dundigal. At the meet and greet after the main Parade, I was standing in the hangar where the refreshments were served, when the C-in-C Training Command, Air Marshal S Bhojwani graciously pulled me aside and introduced me to the Marshal.  By this time the "India Pakistan Air War of 1965" has been published - and while there was no fanfare behind its launch or publicity, enough copies made their way around that it was known among the 65 war veterans. When Air Marshal Bhojwani introduced me, it took a few seconds but the Marshal recollected - "Ah yes, the 1965 India Pakistan Air War Book - You wrote it?".  I had no idea if he had seen it or read it, but surely he had heard about it. That was that -it was a brief meeting and sadly again no photos in my collection to remind me of that visit. Though I remember managing a video of him as reviewing officer in the Parade. During that time I used to carry my personal copy of the "India Pakistan Air War of 1965" that I used as an autograph book for 1965 war veterans. However I didnt have that book with me on that day - and I cursed myself for not having the foresight! In my defence, I never even thought I would get close to the Marshal on that day. (Though I recall, my friend Sree who was with that time scored his signature on a copy of "Touching the Sky" .. I remember i had to prod him to go back and ask him for it)

Fast forward about seven years, while working on a side project, I emailed Sqn Ldr Rana Chhina pitching a book project I had in mind - The Westland Wapiti in the Indian Air Force. Chhina Sir not only said yes, but mentioned the possibility that Marshal Arjan Singh can be requested to write the foreword and possibly even attend the book launch! That was a thought that never would have crossed my mind - something that wouldnt have been possible in my life even if I had tried hard for it.. now  suddenly it was thrown out there as a possibility , have the Marshal write the foreword, attend the book launch and finally to meet him in person. That offer of meeting the Marshal at a book launch was always at the back of my mind - during the next two years as I flung myself into this book project. The Wapiti book was completed around 2013. Rana sir helped in getting not only the foreword written but also got the Marshal to contribute some of his memories of flying this aircraft that was reproduced in the book.

Finally the book was completed and scheduled to be launched in September 2014 at a CAFHR event in Delhi. I would be flying in from the US to attend this event, and I was keenly looking forward to meeting the Marshal in person. However ahead of the trip there was some disqueting news. It was mentioned that the Marshal was not feeling well, as he had some back problems and that he wont make the book launch. He had cut down on all public appearances and the event will go on without him.

Even before the disappointment of the news could sink in, my mind was feverishly working on alternatives. I knew the book launch was for two books, the other one being "Spitfires in the Sun" - written by Air Vice Marshal Vikram Singh. The Marshal had written the foreword for the Spitfire book as well. I promptly suggested that since the Marshal had written and contributed to these two books, wouldnt it be prudent if both authors could personally meet the Marshal at his residence and present him with copies of the book? The suggestion was accepted and sure enough, a few days later in Delhi, I found myself at the residence of the Marshal , in the company of AVM Vikram Singh and Sree Kumar to present the proof copy of the Wapiti Book to him.

While waiting for him in the study, All three of us were in awe of the memorablia surrounding us. The citations, certificates, mementos etc.. There were bookshelves containing works of Military History. Coffee Table books, The works of Winston Churchill. Some books that were made about the  life of the Marshal himself. And then.. there... tucked in between the many books was a copy of "The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965", right next to R D Pradhan's "Debacle to Revival" - a book that I knew the Marshal personally liked. ... That was it.. can this day get any better?

2013 04

As Sree mentioned - though his Personal Staff Officer, Wg Cdr Rana[1] told us to expect only 10-15 min of the Marshal's time, but the Marshal went beyond that and spent nearly 45 min with us. Both me and AVM Vikram Singh got to spend a few minutes at his side going over some of the contents of each of the books.

2013 01

The Marshal graciously shared some of his memories and thoughts on both these aircraft. He also dwelved a little bit more about his thoughts on the 1965 war - it was after all the 50th anniversary of the war that was approaching within an year.

When time came to leave, we requested if we could take a couple of group photographs with him seated in the center. He would have none of it and insisted he would stand for the photographs! And there we are the three of us, Myself, Sree and AVM Vikram Singh proudly standing next to the Marshal.

2013 03

And before we left, I had one last request. Stuffed in my bag was my personal copy of "The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965". This copy was what i designated "Copy Number 1" and in the nine years I have had it, it had collected over 30 signatures of IAF veterans, including half a dozen WW2 veterans. Having the Marshal sign it would be the icing on the cake.

So I pulled it out and I asked him if I could get his signature on it. I was nervous and apprenhensive. we had already overstayed our visit by some time.. and the Marshal has been standing for the last few minutes despite his bad back. Add to this fact was that our book though assailed as an eye-opening book on the war was a departure from the regular histories on the war - it included criticism of some of the aspects of the war including the handling of the war by the IAF top brass. For all I know the Marshal may not have liked some of the observations in the book that we made. All this was weighing on me but there was no hesitation from the Marshal's side - nor any from his Staff Officer who promptly provided him a pen and set it up on the table. The Marshal could have got away with just putting in a signature and date. But he went all the way and wrote down a long note - "I admire your effort to put on record the 1965 War, I have no doubt it would be of much use to our younger generations - Arjan Singh 6 Sept 2014" .   

2013 05

Even as we walked out of the house, (Thanking his PSO on our way out for making this happen )..  I was in disbelief. I had met the Marshal, presented him my latest book, had him write on my other book. - There is a phrase in Telugu that probably summed up how i felt "Janmam dhanyam aiyipoindi" - for a life long aviation nerd - My "Life long wishes have been fulfilled!"

It has been three years since that meeting, I had been closely keeping tabs on the Marshal's health and progress. In some ways we all knew that his passing away is an inevitable part of our lives. and when it finally happened - I shared the grief with many of my friends, veterans who served alongside him, and fellow historians . I also have an inner peace - The Marshal has to go to the heavenly abode - and he did it after earning the whole hearted love and affection of the forces and the nation. I was also at peace as I had my personal 'meeting' with him - and I am grateful for all the friends[2] who made it happen.


[1] The PSO was Wg Cdr Mohan Rana , who had this post for a few years and had become quite attached to the Marshal over the years - He was a caring and protective person who utmost priority was the Marshal's health. Thus his word was final - when it came to the meeting durations! 
[2] The friends who made it happen - are three - Sqn Ldr Rana Chhina (Secretary CAFHR), Air Marshal Bharat Kumar (Retd) and AVM Vikram Singh (Author of Spitfires in the Sun)