A born leader

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

THIS is an authorised biography of one of the most highly respected leaders of our armed forces, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, DFC, written by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, AVSM, VrCVM (retd). As a biography of a remarkable personality alone, it deserves to be read widely. What invests it with added importance is that it quotes extensively from the Air Marshals papers, and his jottings penned down at crucial times throw much light on the wars with China in 19 62 and with Pakistan in 1965. In 2002, the President appointed him Marshal of the Indian Air Force, which is equivalent to Field Marshal of the Indian Army.

The book would not have suffered in quality or worth if the author had been more restrained and less gushing in his praise. Arjan Singh does not need silly excesses of this kind. His character and achievements speak for his stature. In a sense, the book is also a biography of the Indian Air Force.

The book fills a void. We needed to know the story it tells. At places some cross-checking or scepticism would be in order. The author mentions V.K. Krishna Menons behaviour and writes: The officials of the Ministry, no doubt taking a cue from Krishna Menon, had started to take decisions on operational matters, often without consulting the Armed Forces chiefs.

For example, Mr. H.C. Sarin, an outstanding civil servant, as the Joint Secretary, drafted the letter from the Prime Minister to the U.S. President, seeking the loan of 12 squadrons of combat aircraft to defend India during the Sino-Indian War. He discussed the contents of the letter with Maj Gen (then Brig) D.K. Palit, the Director of Military Operations (DMO) in Army HQ. But he did not think it fit to consult Air HQ for a professional opinion before the letter was drafted and issued.

The author cites in support Major General D.K. Palits book War in the Himalayas (1991) on pages 342 and 381. The latter has no reference to this episode. On page 342, Palit claims that as he entered Sarins office, he handed us a sheet of paper and asked us [Palit and John Lall, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence] to offer our comments on it. It was the draft of Jawaharlal Nehrus letter to John F. Kennedy pleading for the active participation of the U.S. Force for the defence of India.

In 1984 was published the third volume of Sarvepalli Gopals biography of Nehru, which asserted that Nehru consulted none of his Cabinet colleagues or officials, apart from the Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai.

Gopal was close to Nehru and is more credible than Palit, whose conduct was suspect. That apart, Palits text does not aver that Sarin drafted the letter. It is unthinkable that with M.J. Desai by his side he was known to be close to the Prime Minister Nehru would have asked a Joint Secretary in the Defence Ministry to draft so sensitive a document. Nor is this an example of Ministry of Defence officials acting on their own as the author alleges. It is a pity that he should be so confidently slipshod on so important an episode.

On other episodes the author does well to nail some falsehoods to the counter, for example, the claim that a phone call from Air Marshal Asghar Khan averted a full-scale bust up in the Rann of Kutch War.

The best parts of this excellently produced book are the accounts of the Rann of Kutch and the 1965 war, beginning with Pakistans covert Operation Gibraltar and open attack, Operation Grand Slam. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto prodded Ayub Khan but the President cannot avoid responsibility. These accounts make the book indispensable to any student of Indias diplomacy and military strategy.

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