Gp Capt Dr R Venkataraman (Retd)
Lion of the Skies: Hardit Singh Malik, the Royal Air Force and the First World War is not just another book – it is a powerful story of an “Indian fighter pilot” who claimed “two kills” long before the Indian Air Force was born, if that can raise some curiosity.
It is indeed difficult to believe that a Rawalpindi boy from an orthodox Sikh family ended up fighting Germans, flying both for Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the First World War, at a time when military aviation was considered an exclusive privilege of the European elite. From the moment he set out sailing to London – all alone as a 14-year-old, until he breathed his last little short of his 91st birthday, Hardit Singh Malik’s voyage of life is an outstanding saga of self-belief, grit, determination, courage, patriotism, valour and more. It is a pity that our school history books don’t even mention his name, even though his story could be an inspiration for an entire generation.
Author Stephen Barker describes in great detail, how challenging it was for an Indian to serve in the British armed forces, fighting racial discrimination – both institutional and interpersonal. It is entirely to the credit of Hardit that he surpassed every obstacle with hope, enthusiasm, and the highest level of emotional maturity. As a young boy in school, he had to fight hard, just to keep his turban and faith intact.
Following the footsteps of the legendary Ranjitsinghji (Ranji), who successfully battled extreme opposition to play for England purely on merit, Hardit weathered many a storm before he could play for Sussex County Cricket Club. Being a Sikh, he had a natural liking for military service, but being denied soldiering for being a man of colour, he enrolled himself as an ambulance driver in France, ferrying volunteer nurses and wounded men to the hospital during the Great War. Little did he know then, that he would be the first Indian Ambassador to France, soon after Indian Independence.
Having heard many exploits of his war-hero, Guynemer, the ace French fighter pilot, Hardit cherished the dream of flying a military plane – a feat that didn’t seem possible, until the demand for pilots grew in the face of heavy losses, when some sympathetic voices in Whitehall supported enlisting Indians into the RFC. At the end of a great struggle, Hardit enrolled as a cadet in RFC during March 1917, soon graduating with an “honorary” commission, denying him the pay and status to command British troops.
Ignoring these irritants as trivialities and following his passion, Hardit earned the coveted ‘Wings’, his name etched in history forever, as India’s first fighter pilot. His exceptional performance during the war would later force sane souls such as Edwin Montague, and Lord Chelmsford to argue in favour of awarding a King’s Commission to Indians or simply Indianisation of the Officer Corps.
After his wedding Hardit was deputed to join the RAF in India on request, but destiny had different plans for him. Unrest in Punjab and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre necessitated RAF airplanes to secure British forces, which would mean Hardit would bomb his own compatriots in his own country, as the lone “Sikh” pilot of the RAF, a situation that he preferred to avoid. He flew back to London, and opted to join the ICS – soon earning the Order of British Empire (OBE) in 1938, followed by his appointment as a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) a few years later. After ICS was dissolved in 1947, he joined the newly carved Indian Foreign Service, shouldered numerous important assignments receiving multiple awards and honours until his retirement in 1957.
Stephen Barker has traced the life of Hardit Malik in detail, quoting intermittently from Hardik’s autobiography, A Little Work, A Little Play, published posthumously in 2011. Hardit comes out as a courageous Sikh, Westernised in thought but deep-rooted in Indian philosophy, a proud patriot who fought constantly for the dignity of Indians, supporting the cause of Indian Independence. His liberal education in Britain, his ability to excel in sports, speak multiple languages, make friends easily and foster long-term relationships fetches him an iconic status in Indo-British history. The book not only provides glimpses of India’s enormous contribution towards the British war effort during the WWI, but also provides limited insights into India’s freedom struggle, viewed from the perspective of young Indians pursuing an education in Britain during that tumultuous period.
The sequential interweaving of events, simple narration and engaging depiction of anecdotes, makes the book a “must-read”.
(The reviewer, Gp Capt Dr R Venkataraman (retd), is an IAF veteran)