If you have ever watched India’s Republic Day celebrations, you’d have noticed an aged Sikh man in his wheelchair, sporting his Indian Air Force (IAF) uniform laden with medals, with a smile on his face and pride in his eyes. Despite his age, he’d always be there, celebrating India’s holy day with the same enthusiasm with which he served the nation at the highest level.
That man is one of three (and the only living) Indian military officer with a five-star rank, Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh. The other two being Field Marshal K.M Cariappa and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
Born on 15 April 1919 in Lyallpur, Punjab (now in Pakistan), Arjan Singh Aulakh entered the distinguished Royal Air Force College at Cranwell at the age of 19 and graduated as a pilot officer the following year.
A notable alumnus of the RAF College, his portrait now adorns the walls of the College’s west staircase.
During World War II, Arjan Singh showed exemplary courage in his two tenures in Burma, first as a pilot officer and later as the commander. Flying day in and day out, his efforts made sure that the British-Indian forces seize Imphal. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and the citation read:
When India became a republic in the year 1950, Arjan Singh was made commander of the ‘Operational Group’, the only fighting arm of the IAF, responsible for all air operations in India. He held the position twice, first as an Air Commodore and later as the Air Vice Marshal.
He served the position of Air Vice Marshal for six years, longest in the history of the IAF.
He became the third Indian Chief of Air Staff in 1964 and directed the battle of 1965 against Pakistan. It was due to his courageous leadership and immense experience that the Air Force penetrated deep inside Pakistan and destroyed many of their airfields.
Arjan Singh held the post of the Chief of Air Staff for 5 and a half years, the longest of any chiefs of the three services. In his glorious career, he flew 65 different kinds of aircraft and his zest for flying didn’t end until the day he retired.
Under his tenure as the Chief, the IAF acquired supersonic fighters, strategic reconnaissance aircraft, tactical transport aircraft and assault helicopters, many of which are still in service today. Work on modern radar and communication systems also begin under his tenure.
After retirement, Arjan Singh served the nation as an ambassador to Switzerland in 1971, and to Kenya in 1974. Later, he also became the Lt. Governor of Delhi in 1989.
Other than the various medals and honours, Arjan Singh was awarded the ‘Padma Vibhushan’ for his service to the nation during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. He was promoted to the five-star rank in 2002 and in 2016, the then Air Chief Marshal, Arup Raha renamed IAF’s Panagah (West Bengal) base after him.
A man of few words, Marshal Arjan Singh has always let his work do the talking. Coming from a family of military men, he made the nation proud by safeguarding its interests with every responsibility provided to him. The nation may have provided him with myriads of honours, but it will forever remain indebted to him for making our skies safer.