GP CAPT TARUN KUMAR SINGHA VSM & BAR
On the eve of Republic Day each year, a grateful nation acknowledges the contribution of our armed forces and honours a select few for their distinguished service or gallantry. Among those who figured in the list of Presidential awards on January 26, last, included Group Captain Tarun Kumar Singha, a serving Manipuri Indian Air Force (IAF) officer from Assam.
Gp Capt Tarun is the son of Keithenlakpam Harendra and Basonti Singha from Silchar, Assam. Gp Capt Tarun is a second-generation IAF officer. His father was among the first Manipuri youth to join the IAF in the technical trades as early as 1960. He retired in the rank of an Honorary Flying Officer, a distinction that is awarded to those with an extremely distinguished career.
Gp Capt Tarun was conferred a ‘Bar to Vishisht Seva Medal’ (VSM), which signifies that it is for the second time VSM is being awarded to him. When he was first awarded VSM in 2006, it was for the first time that any Manipuri officer from the armed forces hailing from Assam was given such an award.
With the award of a Bar to VSM, Gp Capt Tarun does proud to his Manipuri community and Silchar, his birth place, yet again. This rare achievement can be judged from the fact that he is the ninth IAF personnel ever in the history of IAF to receive this honour out of the nearly 1250 VSMs awarded till date since 1960.
The first Manipuri fighter pilot from Assam, Gp Capt Tarun was commissioned in the IAF on June 14, 1985. He later also flew the helicopters and was posted in a flying unit in Guwahati, where only the best IAF pilots are posted to fly VIPs.
His natural flair for writing and other media-related interests made him the right choice to be selected as a spokesperson for Ministry of Defence (MoD). He began his tenure as the Public Relations Officer from April 1999 at Shillong, just months ahead of the Kargil War.
He subsequently raised a new PR Unit for the in MoD Ahmedabad in 2003. Later, he was nominated the spokesperson for IAF From 2009 to 2011, in New Delhi. He is presently the Chief Public Relations Officer for the Defence Ministry at Kolkata since August 2011.
An avid documentary maker, Gp Capt Tarun has the rarest distinction of having been also commended by all the three Services and also by the Indian Coasty Guard. He has been Commended by the Chiefs of the IAF and the Indian Army, by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of South Western Air Command (Air Force), Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Western Naval Command (Indian Navy) and Commander Coast Guard (West) in his illustrious career.
Brief account of Gp Capt Tarun Kumar Singha’s life in his own words:
I was born in Silchar town, Assam, on May 31, 1964, as the second son to Keithenlakpam Harendra and Basonti Singha. My brother Tapan is elder to me by a couple of years.
Our origins are as humble as those of several others from the several Manipuri-inhabited villages that dot the periphery of Silchar town in Cachar District of southern Assam.
My father, Harendra, who is known by his nickname ‘Aounda’ was born in Lamargram. It is a small village of roughly 50 families of farmers nearly 12 kilometres away from Silchar.
It takes only about 15 minutes of brisk walk to cover the village from one end to the other.
I recall my early childhood days playing ‘mona-dhena-tena’, a feisty game akin to ‘gilli-danda’ played in other parts of India, which is played wielding a small wooden baton while juggling and striking away a wooden bale with carved and pointed ends far beyond the reach of your opponents.
I also vividly recall witnessing gory village buffalo fights (now banned, mercifully), the vibrant ‘sumang-leelas’ (courtyard performances), the nights spent in the small huts made of haystack in the harvested fields before setting them aflame around the time when Sankranti is celebrated elsewhere in the country.
Among the endless memories from early childhood, the most poignant memory that I also carry from the nondescript village is the reality of the struggle that my father endured to overcome various odds in his life and scripting for himself an honourable future despite the loss of his father, Laljit Singha, early in his life.
My father and his two younger siblings, my uncles, were very young when my grandfather died. All six, i.e. his two older sisters and an elder brother who have all since passed away to the nether world, and others including my father and uncles were raised by a resolute and mightily strong-willed woman, my late grandmother, Kunjarani Devi.
With farming and ploughing fields being the mainstay in Lamargram for most youth, my father was an exception who wanted to study. But that wasn’t going to earn him any concessions for without working in the fields there would be no grains at home and every helping hand was needed. Besides, affording his fees and books even in a government school wasn’t easy task for my granny.
I began my schooling from Holy Cross School, a Convent where my elder brother Tapan was already studying. Today I salute my father for having had the vision to put us both in an English-medium school that would lay the perfect foundation for us for life. With father being in the Air Force, we soon shifted to Bagdogra, an airbase near Siliguri in North Bengal before moving on to yet another airbase, Adampur near Jalandhar, Punjab.
It was here that my father prepared me for entry to Sainik School, Military School and Rashtriya Indian Military College. These schools usually prepare young boys for the armed forces way of life. I was a fairly bright student and easily qualified for the schools. Eventually at 11, I was to join Bangalore Military School, a residential Public School for boys. There are only five such schools in India. They are at Bangalore, Belgaum (both in Karnataka), Dholpur, Ajmer (both in Rajasthan) and Chail (near Shimla).
Life was tough and staying away from home was not easy at that age. Letters were the only means of communicating with family. By then my father had moved to Srinagar and it took a good six days of train travel and an additional day of road travel from Jammu to reach home. The journeys undertaken single-handedly and unescorted would instil a lot of confidence in me for major journeys of life.
Joining the Air Force was never in doubt or perhaps destined. I recall going to my father’s squadron (workplace) where I got to sit in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft as a child. I knew my calling was made. In school I joined the NCC in the Air Wing and got the first air experience at the Yehlanka airbase in an Avro transport aircraft.
School days were indeed happy and naughty days. There was so much to do, to play and to explore, besides academics. I must admit my academics suffered but I went on to develop other all-round skills of participating in dramatics, elocutions and debates. We had boxing, swimming, gymnastics and practically all sports in our school. The Indian hockey team used to practise in our school grounds. We had one of the most sprawling campus any school could ever have.
While studying in the XIIth class, I qualified for the National Defence Academy (NDA). I joined NDA in June 1981 in the 66th Course. Incidentally, I was the first boy from my class to join in the Air Force stream to be a pilot. It was at NDA that metamorphosis of a boy becoming a man od steely resolve took place. The military school background was helpful and a medal was also won in a sport like boxing, which I detested but fought well.
NDA will always remain a memorable experience. I recall attending banquets with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillips, King Carlos of Spain and several other visiting royalties and Heads of State including then President of India. I used to chuckle at the thought that here was this Manipuri boy who enjoyed the ‘bandra utsov’ seated on the floor with family and relatives in his village, is also equal at ease dining with such royalties. I wondered if my cousins would ever believe me.
NDA training was not so worrisome as was my flying training at Air Force Academy (AFA), at Dundigal, near Secunderabad. I remember my late maternal uncle, Hemanta, telling me that I was the first Manipuri youth from Cachar who would be a pilot. Suddenly the expectations began weighing heavily on my mind. I must mention that the attrition rate or the drop-out rate among flying trainees at AFA is extremely high even today. It is a highly demanding profession, especially when related to military aviation. We were nearly 110 at the start of the course and eventually only around 40 qualified as pilots. I was one amongst them and was commissioned as a fighter pilot at the age of little over 20, on June 14, 1985.
I breathed a sigh of relief! But it was short-lived. Suddenly here I was in Tezpur Assam training to be a fighter pilot. My uncle Hemanta also paid me a visit and curiously enough, wanted to see the Mental Hospital in Tezpur. I began flying the Mig-21 FL (also known as Type-77) aircraft and upon completion of a year’s training, was posted to a frontline fighter squadron in Rajasthan sector.
A road accident in December 1987 would eventually turn out to be a day that would radically change my life and destiny. I was home on leave. I was travelling in a bus from Guwahati to Siliguri. The bus met with an accident mid-way and I ended up spending nearly 18 months in various hospitals and also underwent eight surgeries. I had to change over to the helicopter stream due to the injuries.
Somewhere around this time, while I was recovering from my injuries, I would meet my future wife, Rekha, an Assamese from Tinsukia. She would be prove to be a great companion and partner in life. Sadly, our journey together would be tragically cut short as she succumbed to a serious illness in November last.
Meanwhile, coming back to my story of life on the Air Force, I was lucky to be posted back to Assam, and it was Tezpur all over again. I got to fly extensively in the northeast and my joys were manifold when flying over Silchar and my village. I was in the VIP flight at Guwahati where I had the privilege of flying several high profile dignitaries in the region.
I joined the Public Relations (PR) Directorate of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in April 1999. Kargil was happening at that time and so also a sudden media explosion in the country. I considered myself extremely fortunate to see the entire spectrum of northeast including far-flung and remote regions and was simply in awe of its beauty. I desperately wanted to share the beauty not just with my friends and relatives but also with the rest of the nation.
I embarked on documentary making and went on to produce several documentaries with my friends in Doordarshan. These were obviously based on defence related topics. But I enjoyed making them as it also involved extensive travelling and revisiting many of my favourite destinations, especially in Arunachal Pradesh. My work was appreciated and I was awarded a Commendation by the Air Chief.
I was then called upon to raise a new PR set up of the MoD in Gujarat for the South Western Air Command (SWAC). It was a new challenge and the new dimensions of the Navy and Coast Guard got included. I was again making new documentaries. My efforts were duly acknowledged and I received Commendations by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (SWAC), Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Navy’s Western Naval Command), COMCG (West) – Commander Coast Guard, Western Region. But the most coveted was the President’s award – Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) – for distinguished service of a high order on January 26, 2006.
In September 2007, I was to go to England on an overseas assignment, the first such duty by any Defence PRO. It was a joint air exercise between the Indian Air Force and the Royal Air Force. My father had earlier been to erstwhile USSR and my brother also to several foreign countries. It was my first and I wanted to make it count. I think I worked too hard on the assignment and forgot to have much fun. But it was extremely satisfying. I later also went to the Royal Sultanate of Oman on a similar assignment.
In the meanwhile, I also had a year’s break with young boys and girls at Varanasi. I was briefly posted at the Benaras Hindu University campus as the Commanding Officer of a National Cadet Corps Air Squadron. I had the privilege to be in the holy city and fly the microlite aircraft over it. It was such a joy to give my cadets the air experience, which will remain the one-time never forgettable experience for most. Many students belonged to extremely modest and poor backgrounds. But I thought they were luckier than those in the northeast as such facilities are hardly there in the northeast.
I was later appointed as the spokesperson for Indian Air Force in New Delhi. By now, I was pretty much a recognisable face thanks to my frequent showings on the television giving sound bytes. But my present tenure as the Chief Public Relations Officer at Kolkata, I must admit, has been the most professionally satisfying. Having projected the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, I was keen on giving all my expertise to the Indian Army and the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd., a Defence Public Sector Undertaking based in Kolkata.
I am presently here in Kolkata. The Indian Army Chief also awarded me a Commendation and the Bar to VSM is certainly an acknowledgement of my contribution to the Service.
If there is one thing that I have missed out is spending time back in my village. I have happy memories of my childhood days. Often during my visits, I notice that not much has changed in all these years. Ofcourse, the bridge to my village is now a more stable structure, the roads also metalled somewhat but it is still a far cry from the kind of development in villages that I have seen elsewhere in the country.
I feel happy that education has gained prominence among the village kids. But lack of exposure might be an impeding factor in further development. I certainly look forward to be with the children, if possible, and educate them on the kind of pace the world is in today. I may have had some better opportunities but I still had to grab them whenever it came. One thing is for sure I worked with passion and it is this passion that has given me all that I have today. Most of it, goodwill and blessings of all!
Tarun Kumar Singha
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