Described by most as a pioneer, and a man whose life was characterized by a total devotion to his country, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee’s story, who also was the first Chief of the Air Staff of the IAF (Indian Air Force), is both inspiring and exciting.
Subroto is one who the people had respect for, based on his courage, even his men loved him for humanity. He was a pace setter as far as the Indian Air Force is concerned, it is no surprise he is remembered unto this day as the ‘Father of Indian Air Force’
Subroto was born on the 5th of March 1911, to an illustrious family in Kolkata. Dr. PK Roy, her maternal grandfather was the first Indian Principal of the Presidency College, Calcutta. Nibaran Chandra Mukherjee, who was his other grandfather, was a popular social and educational reformer. Subroto’s father, SC Mukherjee became a member of the Indian civil service in 1892. His uncle, Indra Lal Roy, turned out to be the first Indian to ever receive the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for having joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
Subroto was the youngest child in his family and he had three older siblings all chasing great careers for themselves. Renuka Ray, his sister was a freedom fighter and later became a respected parliamentarian of her own right. Prosanto, his older brother was the Chairman of the Railway Board in his time.
Being the youngest, he was always found carrying out menial tasks for his siblings. According to his sister Nita Sen, “And as the youngest one he had to do all the chores in the household and we never took him seriously. We never quite got used to him being the Air Marshal. To us, he was always the youngest.” Subroto was educated both in India and in England and led an idyllic childhood.
Subroto’s family had always wanted him to study medicine. They sent him to prepare for a medical career at Cambridge University in England never knowing what the future had installed for young Subroto. It turned out that at the time, the British governments, pressured by Indians in need of greater representation in the Army, announce that it was going to begin the IAF where only Indians would be selected to serve. He received the notice from his father and it caught his interest. Regardless of his mother’s doubts, he took part in the entrance exam in 1929 and soon he was one of six Indian recruits to be trained at the Royal Air Force in the UK.
The Indian recruits suffered discrimination against by those serving in the Royal Air Force. Those like Subroto, serving in the IAF had to bear humiliation and harassment and kept on doing extremely well in their field to be reckoned with. By the year 1939, Subroto had gained promotion to squadron leader, becoming the first Indian ever to get to that position. He was the first Indian to lead an RAF station in 1942 and became an Officer of the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1945.
At the end of a hard-fought independence, people like Subroto took the responsibility of setting up a number of functioning bodies to be vacated by the British Empire. Those serving in the IAF itself had to be separated for some to serve in India while the other heads to Pakistan.
According to reports, when Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, asked Subroto about how long he would want the senior British officers to stay back in the Indian Air Force, Subroto requested that they stay behind for a period of 5-7 years. Despite the fact that he was the highest ranked Indian in the IAF at the time, he showed no interest in his own promotion but had the interest of the country at heart as he was willing to assist senior members in reorganizing IAF. He attended the Imperial Defence College in England for further training in 1952 and returned in 1954 and officially became the Commander-in-Chief of the IAF. A designation that was later changed to Chief of the Air Staff, IAF in 1955 becoming the first Indian to reach that office.
Subroto’s death came as a terrible shot to the nation as a whole. He was one of the passengers of Air India’s first ever flight to Tokyo in 1960. On the 8th of November, during the course of this trip, he was having a meal with a friend in a restaurant in Tokyo, where he got choked on a piece of food that had lodged in his windpipe. All effort to revive him proved futile as he was met with an untimely demise.
Subroto served his country for a period of 28 years and he was commemorated by the country and homage was also paid to him from across the world. Defense Minister VV Krishna, personally paid rich tribute to him, having this to say “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 Mukherjee has left his mark on his Service, which is a greater tribute than I or anyone can pay in words.”
The legacy of this great leader had ever since lived on in many ways. Despite his vision of promoting football and conducting a tournament for children across the nation in 1958, the Subroto Cup Football Tournament was first held after his death. This tournament is still known to be one of the most famous inter-school football tournaments in India unto this day.