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Flying High

A good book to understand India’s past and present security and defence concerns

By Pravin Sawhney

Flying High It is difficult to separate a man from his work, especially someone like late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh who was passionate about India’s security and defence. So, when the book, India’s Sentinel came my way for a review, I could not help recall the numerous encounters I had with him starting 1989 when I entered journalism after over a decade in the army.

I was fond of him for many reasons: His persuasive skills which underscored a broad-based understanding of strategic and defence issues, his patience to listen to people who argued illogically, his accessibility and willingness to reach out, and his humbleness. I especially remember his talk in the Royal United Services Institution, where I was a visiting fellow, in September 1996 on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It was heady time when the international debate was stuck on the CTBT; the US, with help of the western world, was pushing India to sign on the dotted line. Singh argued India’s case against the CTBT, especially when New Delhi had made it known that it would not come in the way of the treaty coming into force. I am not sure how many visitors agreed that day with Singh, but, surely, all genuinely praised him on his presentation.

Another meeting worth remembering was in his office at CAPS towards the fag end of his life. As we at FORCE were toying with the idea of starting a workshop for young Member of Parliaments (MPs) to educate them on security and defence issues, I met him for his advice. Much unlike him, he appeared neither enthused nor optimist of the outcome. He told me that all his life he had endeavoured to raise the level of security and defence debate in the Parliament with unsuccessful results. Politicians, he said, make use of this issue to score brownie points to beat the government, rather than raise the debate level. I agreed with him and gave up the project.

Regarding his writings, his singularly unique contribution was to make Indian Air Force an interesting subject for readers. His first book on air power written in the Eighties was my favourite. Few would know that he had propounded the need for the Strategic Air Command in the Eighties, and this could well have influenced the then chief of air staff, ACM S.K. Kaul to make the case to purchase SU-30 aircraft. Even when the army chief, ACM N.C. Suri talked about the IAF being a tactical force in support of the land forces, Singh argued that the IAF should raise its sights to strategic levels. He mentored a generation of air force officers. For his life time contribution to national security, the government honoured him with Padma Bhushan, a prestigious award which he carried lightly.

Against this backdrop, India’s Sentinel, which is a collection of his essays on nuclear issues, Kashmir and Pakistan, put together by his admirers, is a welcome contribution. It will serve well as a stepping stone for readers to delve deep into his writings to understand what India’s security and defence, starting with 1983 when he took to the pen, was about.

I, however, cannot help but share three drawbacks of this book. It does not carry his thoughts on defence against China, a subject on which he wrote numerous articles for FORCE magazine. Singh was convinced that air power alone could provide both deterrence and dissuasion against China. I agree with him. Singh was also passionate about the need for a vibrant indigenous aerospace industry on which he wrote books and discerning articles. And, surely, there was little need for the editors to insert their own articles in a book meant to carry writings of Singh. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the book is highly recommended, especially to young enthusiasts, who want to understand India’s security and defence.

India’s Sentinel: Select Writings of Air Commodore Jasjit Singh
Edited by Manpreet Sethi and Shalini Chawla
Knowledge World, Pg 346, Rs 980


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