Almost a year back, when I spoke to Air Marshal Randhir Singh (retired) informing him about the death of Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh, at the age of 98, he reacted by saying, “I thought he would turn 100”. On Tuesday, when Air Marshal Singh (retd) passed away at 96, the same thought crossed my mind.
Having interacted with him for close to 20 years, one word that comes to mind to describe the veteran aviator well in and out of uniform is tenacious. He was one of the few retired defence officers, settled in Chandigarh, who chose to fight for civic amenities and take the administration head-on. His almost unending stint as the chairman of Federation of Sector Welfare Associations of Chandigarh (FOSWAC) saw him lead several battles against Chandigarh Municipal Corporation and Chandigarh Administration and usually emerging as the victor.
Even after moving on from the FOSWAC, he continued to take on the municipal corporation authorities, through RTI applications forcing them to part with information, by appealing at the Central Information Commission in New Delhi. Air Marshal Singh (retd) had the typical ‘long and distinguished’ career in the Indian Air Force, and then some more, retiring as the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command. He was one of the last surviving gallantry award winners dating back to the first India-Pakistan war in 1948. He was awarded the newly-independent India’s third highest gallantry award – Vir Chakra. Posted with the No. 7 Squadron as a Flight Lieutenant, he had flown a number of sorties – 185 hours in the Tempest aircraft attacking the Pakistani intruders in Jammu and Kashmir.
He would often recall those moments of combat, gently throwing in bits and pieces of the times when his aircraft was hit. The old-world fighter pilot that he was, he would coolly describe the damage he caused on the ground among tribal invaders.
As the Commanding Officer of 106 Squadron, equipped with the newly-inducted Electric Canberras in the strategic reconnaissance role, he excelled in detecting the Chinese troop movements in Tibet, leading to the 1962 war. One of his prized possessions was a panoramic view of virtually the entire Himalayan range taken by him flying high over them. “He would often come back from one of these missions over Tibet with a shaken expression on his face. He would not say anything, but I would know that today he has taken some fire from the ground,” his late wife once told me with a chuckle.
Air Marshal Singh (retd) was decorated with the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) for getting this squadron to operational status in a short time and flying numerous sorties with commendable results till the end of the Chinese aggression. He was also commended for his contribution towards the air operations in the western sector in the 1965 war. But the one stint that he was most proud of was in the 1971 war when he commanded the Adampur Air Force Station in Punjab in the rank of Air Commodore. Not only was Pakistan Air Force unable to attack the air base due to the meticulous defence organised by him, but the IAF squadrons on the base also flew maximum attacking sorties in the western theatre of the war. He was awarded the PVSM after the war.
Former Chief of Pakistan Air Force, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, was a roommate of Air Marshal Singh back in 1943-44. Both took part in the anti-tribal operations in North West Frontier Province while flying with No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Indian Air Force. He was very thrilled to speak to Khan over the phone last year and was sad to know of his death in January 2018.
“Asghar was a good guy. Never smoked, never drank, never womanised,” said Air Marshal Singh (retd) with a twinkle in his eye when I met him at his home for the last time.
A fit man who took his daily walk seriously and drove his car himself till the very last, he commented casually about himself at that last meeting we had, “Aur 6-7 maheene reh gaye hain (another six-seven months to go). He got that nearly right, as usual. Farewell, sir and happy landing.