A pioneer, a leader and a man whose life was defined by his determination and devotion to his country.
The story of Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, the first Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force is thrilling and inspiring at the same time. A man respected by millions for his fortitude and loved by his own men for his humanity, Subroto laid the foundation for the Indian Air Force as it exists till date.
No wonder he is remembered even today as the ‘Father of Indian Air Force’
Image source: Facebook
A family of stalwarts
Subroto was born on March 5, 1911, to an illustrious family in Kolkata. His maternal grandfather Dr. PK Roy was the first Indian Principal of the Presidency College, Calcutta. His other grandfather, Nibaran Chandra Mukherjee, was a well-known social and educational reformer. His own father, SC Mukherjee joined the Indian Civil Service back in 1892. His uncle, Indra Lal Roy, was the first Indian to have ever been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for having joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
Subroto was the youngest of four children in his family, and all his siblings went on to chart incredible careers themselves. His sister, Renuka Ray, was a freedom fighter who would later become a well-regarded parliamentarian of her own right. He older brother Prosanto became the Chairman of the Railway Board.
As the youngest, he would often be tasked with doing menial tasks for his siblings. His sister Nita Sen once noted, “And as the youngest you know. He had to do all the odd jobs in the household. We never took him seriously and we never quite got used to his being the Air Marshal. To us he was always the youngest.” He was educated both in India and in England and led an idyllic childhood.
Selection to the Indian Air Force
Originally the plan in the Mukerjee household was that one day Subroto would take up a career in medicine. He was even sent to Cambridge University in England to prepare for a medical career. However, destiny had other plans as the British government, under growing pressure from Indians who wanted greater representation in the Army, announced that it would start the IAF wherein only Indians would be selected to serve.
Subroto’s father sent him a press clipping of the notification and it immediately piqued his interest. Despite misgivings from his mother, he wrote the entrance exam in 1929 and soon became one of six Indian recruits who were trained at the Royal Air Force in UK. During the training, he helped set up an Indian library for the Indian airmen and even wrote a letter to his mother soliciting old books from their home.
At the end, five recruits would become the pilots of the first ever Indian Air Force squadron.
— Matthew Ward (@HistoryNeedsYou) September 12, 2012
Breaking barriers and flying high
By 1939, Subroto had been promoted to squadron leader thus becoming the first Indian to ever achieve this position. And in 1942 he became the first Indian to lead an RAF station. In 1945 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
It has to be noted that despite his own standing, the Indian recruits were often discriminated against by those serving in the Royal Air Force. Those like Subroto who served in the IAF had to endure humiliation and bullying and yet had to continue excelling at their field to be taken seriously.
By the time India achieved independence, Subroto would be the highest ranking officer in the Indian Air Force by the time India achieved independence in 1947.
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Post independence work
After a hard-fought independence, it came down to people like Subroto to set-up a number of functioning bodies that would now be vacated by the British empire. The people serving in the IAF itself had to be divided into ones that would serve in India and the ones who would head to Pakistan.
It has been reported that when Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, asked Subroto how long he wanted the senior British officers to stay back in the Indian Air Force, he requested them to stay behind for about five or seven years. He made this decision knowing fully well that as the highest ranking Indian in the IAF, he was stalling his own promotion for more than half a decade. But he put the needs of the country ahead of his own, a trait that had always followed him through his life. In that period, he would help senior members in reorgnising IAF.
In 1952, he went to the Imperial Defence College in England for further training. He would return in 1954 to officially become the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force. This designation was later changed to Chief of the Air Staff, IAF in 1955 and hence he became the first Indian to hold both positions.
In 1957, VV Krishna became the defense minister of India. He was a man famously known for his suspicion of the armed forces.
In such a clime, Subroto came to regarded as a man with a tempered and yet humble personality who never showed outwardly the kind of stress he had to deal on a daily basis.
He was known to be incredibly considerate to the men that served under him and both he and his wife, Sharda Mukerjee (who served as the governor of Gujarat from 1978 to 1983), ensured the families of those serving in IAF were also taken care of.
A tragic end
When he had been younger, he had once tried to pacify his worried mother by noting that his death would not be caused by flying planes. This would turn out to be strangely prophetic as Subroto’s life was tragically cut short in 1960. He was one of the passengers of Air India’s first ever flight to Tokyo and was enjoying a rather uneventful trip when on November 8, while having a meal with a friend in a restaurant in Tokyo, he choked on a piece of food that had lodged in his windpipe. Despite every effort, he met with an untimely demise.
A rich legacy
Upon his death, his 28-year-old service was commemorated by the country and homages poured in from across the world. Defense Minister VV Krishna, himself paid rich tribute by noting, “The Air Force has lost an experienced and courageous officer and leader; the country, a patriotic and devoted servant and citizen; and his colleagues, a loyal comrade and an understanding leader. Air Marshal Mukerjee has left his mark on his Service, which is a greater tribute than I or anyone can pay in words.”
In many other ways, his legacy continues to live on. In 1958, he had envisioned the idea of promoting football and conducting a tournament for the children across the country. Upon his death, the Subroto Cup Football Tournament was first conducted. Today it still continues to be one of the most famous inter-school football tournaments in India.
Such was his footprint, that it continues to be felt to this day.