Arjan Singh (1919-2017) was Marshal of the Indian Air Force. He was born in Lyallpur in what became Pakistan. Before the Second World War, he served in the North-West Frontier and got to know Akbar Khan, later a leading figure in Pakistan's incursion into Kashmir (and that explains the initial questions in this interview). In late 1947, as the Kashmir conflict erupted, Arjan Singh was commanding the Ambala air base with the rank of group captain. At the time of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he was India's Chief of Air Staff.
This interview took place at Arjan Singh's home at Chanakyapuri in Delhi shortly after he had celebrated his 88th birthday. An incomplete transcript is posted below.
Air Chief Marshal ARJAN SINGH: partial transcript
Interviewed about Partition at his home in Chanakyapuri
Just celebrated his 88th birthday; tall, imposing, a little stiff on his feet, but hale, with genial face and kind eyes; wearing a light grey turban; softly spoken and thoughtful; not at all pompous. His wife – family also from W Punjab – tall, very graceful and articulate. Celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in Feb 2008 – and retold the tale of Sikh wedding flypast in Delhi, with Elmhirst present at the wedding and saying to AS, ‘don’t worry old boy, I’ve OK’d it’
Born in Lyallpur in what is now Pakistan on 15 April 1919. After college (? in Lahore) attended Cranwell in Linclonshire; group captain and in charge of Ambala in 47, with rank of Group Captain; later Chief of Air Staff, at time of 65 war; following year visited Rawalpindi and Peshawar; knew well and has kept in contact with two Pakistan air chiefs – Noor Khan and Oscar Khan
CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO ME AGAIN HOW YOU KNEW AKBAR KHAN [when serving in the Frontier pre-WW2]?
Well, Akbar Khan was an army officer naturally and at the time the system was there was always one army officer attached to the squadrons which supported the army in various operations and those very operations at that time were mostly on the North West Frontier. He was posted as what you call ground liaison officer or even people called him air liaision officer, ALO, and he was there with us for about a year or so –
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HIM?
Well, I thought he was very intelligent, very smart and he got extremely well with us – there was no doubt on that at all. He was of course at that time – I was only a pilot officer he was very much senior to me and, I don’t know, I was very much impressed with him. Even now. But I think he was probably over confident, you know – not about himself. But he mixed very well with everybody. But later on quite apparently I think he became over confident.
AND HE NOT ONLY LED THE LASHKAR, HE ALSO LED PAKISTAN’S FIRST COUP ATTEMPT. (1’32)
… They thought that Kashmir would go to them, and when they found in the scheme that Kashmir didn’t … they goa a bit worried. They started preparing. Akbar Khan was in charge of that formation. He must have volunteered because he had a lot of influence in the government at that time and even as a major in the Pakistan army at that time, he was quite senior. People listened to him. It was mostly by retired people, not serving people – serving people, even without uniform, may be a little more disciplined. These chaps who came in Pathan clothes,salwar kameez, they of course – their ambition was to capture Srinagrsr, which they nearly did. But we were able to – by using the air force and civilian aircraft – land just before the airfield was taken. That was the only airfield at that time over there. … ((fighting ouTside Srinagar)) … No what delayed is that a lot of people started looting and raping women at Baramulla. Now, their other aim was to loot. …
YOU WERE AT AMBALA AT THAT TIME –
I was commanding Ambala at that time. Ambala was not an operational station, it was a flying training station. And that was the main flying training station the Indian air force had. But we used to support them by a few aircraft, by small aircfart like Harvards, Oxfords, other aircraft, you see, Dakota and what not. Not based there – back … as one of the base stations. So that way I came in and I went to Kashmir quite a few times. It was very, very easy for us. Now, if you are talking about the participation of the air force, it was very easy – because there was no opposition. Pakistan air force never came in. Even with a small number of aircraft, had they come in it would have made our operations quite difficult. Because that place is – the whole of Kashmir is nearer the Pakistan border than Ambala or backward bases – Uri for example … even Poonch for example
DID YOU EVERY THINK THAT THE VALLEY WAS LOST?
That we never did, because once we landed there, once we landed a Brigade over there – and a well disciplined Brigade, under a very able genereal, General Kulwant Singh, at Thamaya was also there I think – Actually, the whole thing, we never lost any faith because, first of all, even that time we knew we were superior to them in military force … there was no doubt in our mind that it will stay
WHEN DID YOU FIRST TRAVEL TO KASHMIR DURING THAT CRISIS – YOU SAY YOU WENT TO KASHMIR …
I went to airport – airport.
IN A HARVARD OR A DAKOTA OR A –
We used to have a British aircraft transport, Oxford,
THIS IS A MILITARY PLANE OR A CIVILIAN PLANE?
Well, it was used for the military – no, not civilian – but it was used for civilian purposes. Like a Dakota could be used for civilian and military purposes. But the small aircraft involved could only take about five or six passengers.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER THE AIRPORT AT KASHMIR BEING LIKE – IT’S A VERY BASIC AIRPORT ISN’T IT?
Well, it was just a kind of – it wasn’t macadam, it wasn’t cement and so on, it was just very short, can’t be more than about seven-, eight-hundred yards. Aircarfat owned by the Kashmir government at that time used to fly from there. And there was no difficulty in operating Dakotas. The other aircraft we flew – mostly operational aircraft from Jammu.
SPITFIRES AND TEMPESTS WERE ALSO INVOLVED IN THE ATTACKS ON THE LASHKAR –
I thin Spitfire was always going on, but Tempest was the main aircraft that we used – Hurricanes also. … Whatever they wanted, we would supply from backward bases. Because we didn’t know for certain at what time their aircraft would come in. At ahta time we had no radar, nothing at all, everything was blind.
DID YOU SEE ANY SIGN OF THE ENEMY?
Actually impossible … ((when flying in the Frontier hardly ever saw a Pathan))
IN KASHMIR WHEN YOU WERE FLYING IN DID YOU SEE ANY SIGN OF SMOKE FROM BURNING VILLAGES OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT?
Very little actually. … ((more re Frontier, and Pathan difficulties operating in Kashmir, and fighting against Japanese in 1944))
((didn’t know that Sikh Regimental Centre had rebased to Ambala, didn’t know Dykes)) to 13’10
YOU WERE BORN IN PAKISTAN, YOU WERE BROUGHT UP IN PAKISTAN. DID YOU EVER THINK AT ANY STAGE OF OPTING FOR THE PAKISTAN AIR FORCE?
Myself. I was also a member of the Partition committee. I was a Wing Commander. I used to record and also help and so on. And Oscar also was a Squadron Leader – he was a member of the Partition committee, he represented Jinnah. … We were farmers, Lyallpur, very good land with canals and so on. It never really ocvcured to su. Because somehow I think they had got a kind of name that the communal disturbances cannot be stopped completely. … And in March – now Partition took place in August – in March and April, in March I was commanding Kohat. Royal Air Force, Kohat. And I saw actually a lot of killings of Hindus and Sikhs who were residing for a long time in those areas. Probably for centures. And there was a lot of communal trouble over there. So people like us never believed that our families would be safe.
SO YOU HAD NO DOUBT ABOUT JOINING THE INDIAN AIR FORCE? No, no – I was asked actually by, well, somebody or other. No, no not at all. It never occurred to me at all. There was just no question of that you see. (15’20)