Kids Corner

Immediately below: Lord Mountbatten pins the Distinguished Flying Cross on 25-year-old Arjan Singh. Second from bottom - the Air Marshal surveys the area of operations of the 1971 Indo-Pak War.


Roopinder Singh's
Air-Marshal Arjan Singh

A Book Review by I.J. SINGH


ARJAN SINGH, DFC - Marshal of the Indian Air Force, by Roopinder Singh. Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002. ISBN 8-171-67938-2. 88 pages. Price: Rs. 95.


Of the multitudes that strut across the world's stage prancing as heroes, few really have what it takes. Air Marshal Arjan Singh belongs to the small band that has the right stuff, so he has deservedly become a legend in his own lifetime.

Arjan Singh has been honoured by two nations - Great Britain, where he earned his wings; and India, whose Air Force he served for 30 years and shaped into a world-class fighting machine.

He won the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross barely five years out of flying school at the young age of 25. At his alma mater, the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, UK, Marshal Arjan Singh has twice taken the salute of the passing out parade.

After the independence of India from the British, he served India, whose Air Force he commanded in the war against Pakistan in 1961, and was awarded the Padma Vibushan Award for his command and courage.

India's victory in that war was, in no small measure, due to the heroism of its Air Force and the vision of its Air Chief Marshal, Arjan Singh. But for some obscure reason, he had to wait until 2002, fully 33 years after retirement, to be accorded the highest honour that a grateful nation could bestow - the rank of Marshal of the Indian Air Force.

Such are the vagaries of politics and bureaucracy of India.

In his 30 years with the Air Force, Arjan Singh flew just about every plane that India had in its arsenal - from the Westland Wapiti to the much-vaunted Soviet MIG-21.

The colourful flyer Arjan Singh can also boast of an equally enviable post-flying career. He served ably as the Ambassador to Switzerland, with concurrent accreditation to the Vatican. He followed this by a stint as High Commissioner to Seychelles and to Kenya at a particularly critical time when Idi Amin ruled neighbouring Uganda. He was appointed a member of the Minorities Commission of India and later as Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi.

A distinguished man, a real hero, a life fully and purposefully lived - and all very ably documented by Roopinder Singh in very readable style, for which the author deserves immense appreciation and acknowledgement.

The book is apparently one volume of a series called "Charitavali Series" by the publishers, Rupa & Co. They briefly present the lives of great kings, leaders, artists and intellects - indeed, the movers and shakers who have dominated India and its colourful history.

It is an ongoing project and the 19 books in the series to date include those on Akbar, Amrita Shergil, Ashoka, Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa and M. S. Subbulakshmi. If others in the series are similar to this book, they will be rousing and stimulating to the young. And that seems to be the purpose of these small books.

An eminently attractive and useful project, I couldn't help thinking that the subject of this book (Marshal Arjan Singh) has depth of character and complexity of achievement that are touched upon, but not explored in detail.

As examples, I point to his sojourn as Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi, and, a few years earlier, his futile efforts to convince the Indian government to undertake active measures to restore peace in Delhi in November 1984, when thousands of innocent Sikhs were killed by mobs in a three-day murderous frenzy.

Marshall Arjan Singh drops cryptic comments and hints about the inexplicable behaviour of politicians; I wish they had been further explored.

I want to know what makes the man tick, what really turns him on and what can get his dander up. What touches his soul and what turns his stomach? And there must have been occasions for both in his enviable life.

Roopinder Singh, I know, has the talent and instincts of an outstanding investigative journalist. In this book, he does not go into as much detail as I would like. But perhaps I am being unjust; it does not appear to be his mandate for this small but inspiring and stirring book, meant primarily for young readers.

Roopinder, an editor at The Tribune writes well and smoothly. He captures the readers' attention and holds their interest. He does justice to his subject. I wonder if he would consider an enlarged, companion volume that probes Marshall Arjan Singh - the man underneath the veneer of the stiff upper lip and his formidable military aura.

Serious readers of Indian political bureaucracy or military history would welcome it and learn something.

While this book left me hungering for more, it is marvellous for young readers.


April 27, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Vigneshwaran (Kanchipuram, India), May 20, 2010, 9:59 AM.

Reading this, I want to join the Indian Air Force.

2: Harjit Sahota (Hounslow, Middlesex,, United Kingdom ), January 01, 2011, 7:35 PM.

I respect and honour Arjan Singh and I am grateful for his great contributions.

3: Manmohan Singh (Mumbai, India), June 30, 2012, 2:52 AM.

Air Marshall Arjan Singh was the personality who had honoured my late uncle, Sqn Ldr Harminder Singh who died in a tragic I.A.F air crash in Ladakh in 1977-78. He was just 32 years old when his AN 12 crashed. He left behind his wife and two daughters aged 5 and 6 years. Since I am in the event industry, I would like to honour Air Marshall Arjan Singh and all those brave Sikhs who lost their lives for the freedom of this land.

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