Dear Sir Arjan Singh, I am ashamed

My personal sense of shame set in a few months ago when I started researching for a writing project. And last night, that sense of personal shame transformed into a sense of collective chagrin when, after the passing of Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Sri Arjan Singh, the countrymen he fought for, and the politicians he fought under, couldn’t even get his rank right.

The first and only Marshal of the Indian Air Force, the first and only 5 star rank officer with the Indian Air Force, got demoted to a 3 star ‘Air Marshal’ rank or a 4 star ‘Air Chief Marshal’ rank, in people’s thoughts and prayers not owing to malice but to ignorance.

I was reminded of all the times I had to call up a friend from the Army and ask him about military details, I knew none of. Of ranks and even the hierarchy of officers. Some of the questions I asked seem dotty in hindsight. In the event of a terrorist attack on an army camp (I later found out that by ‘army camp’, in the context, I meant COB; Company Operational Base), how would the army respond? Would it be the Company Commander (I was fuzzy on the rank of a Coy Cdr, I was also unaware they were abbreviated as Coy Cdr), or the Commanding Officer (Again, fuzzy on the rank). I had no idea that every company would have a QRT, Quick Reaction Team, to respond to such situations. I had a look of utter confusion on my face when the ‘unified command structure’ was mentioned. I was left amazed when I read the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces or even our Doctrine for Sub Conventional operations.

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While I was fed information at a dizzying speed that left me breathless, every moment I paused, I wondered if my love for the armed forces was superficial and unthoughtful.

Imagine staring into the barrel of the enemy’s gun or drowning in nature’s wrath, being protected, over and over and over again, by the very people you know nothing of?

Yes. I did feel like a fraud. Not because my love for my protectors was diminished. But because in my 30 years of existence, I hadn’t bothered finding out much about them.

I wonder then, are we one of the most militarily illiterate bunch? While average citizens being unaware, though tragic, is still understandable, what ails the political class, that too the top leadership in some cases? Why is it that we live in times where the political class, from the midst of whom the supreme commander or the defence minister might be chosen, shouldn’t get basic details right?

Does this culture stem from the earlier political days when leaders thought the armed forces weren’t required at all? Were the armed forces increasingly opaque in order to protect itself from maliciously being used as political tools?

Whether it was the betrayal of General Thimayya, or the fact that none of our top politicians bothered to attend Field Marshal Maneshaw’s funeral, or yesterday, when politicians get the rank of the first and only Marshal of IAF wrong, what is it that makes them so nonchalant?

Is it because the citizenry doesn’t demand higher standards? Or is it because we as a country have learnt to take our men and their service for granted? With statements like “they’re paid to do their job” flying around, with politicians asking the army for proof of operations, with questions being raised on the most professional army as to how they function in an area diseased with insurgency and terrorism, I shouldn’t be surprised that this is the culture of doubt and degradation that we seem to follow.

But as a citizen who is eternally grateful, I am. I am surprised, and I am ashamed.

Ashamed at our collective ignorance. Ashamed that for decades, while the politicians fiddled with the sanctity of the forces, we stood mute. Ashamed that we don’t demand higher standards from our political class. Ashamed that we don’t care enough.

An officer of the Indian Army vows to protect the country. To go wherever he is ordered to go, by land, sea or air. He vows to obey commands, even to the peril of his life. He earns his rank with blood, sweat and tears. And that phrase, blood, sweat and tears, is quite literal with the soldiers who protect. It’s not a punchline that we might use during conversations drowned by the clanking of champagne glasses.

My research for the writing project so far has given me the honour and the privilege to interact with some veterans who changed my perception not only towards what “Going beyond the call of duty” means, but also towards my own life.

Not too long ago, I spoke to a 1971 war veteran whom I wished to interview. That interview couldn’t really happen because he was headed for a surgery on the same leg that he had lost during the war. A leg he had severed with his own khukri, while at war on the eastern front. 46 years later, he struggles with the same wound. Proud of the institution he belongs to. Proud of the country he served. Proud of the countrymen he protected. When it is said that our soldiers earn their ranks, it is meant in quite the literal sense of the word.

Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Sri Arjan Singh started his illustrious career of service in 1938 as a flight cadet. He served in the Forces right from the World War II to the 1944 Arakan Campaign, to the 1965 India Pakistan war. It took him 32 years of active service and another 32 years of retirement, to be honoured with the rank of Marshal of Indian Air Force.

It took the expertise, confidence and resilience of a soldier to say “In an hour..” when asked how long it would take for him to strike the Pakistani forces in 1965. It took discipline. Love. Courage. Grit. Determination. And an unwavering sense of patriotism and duty, for Sri Arjan Singh to be conferred with the title.

The first and the only 5 star officer of the Indian Air Force earned his rank. He deserves to be remembered as such.


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