Tribute to an iconic leader, soaring air warrior
Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif (1923-2018)
Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif, an exceptionally- gifted ‘ peoples’ leader, towering air warrior, former Governor of Maharashtra, and Ambassador to France flew into eternity on 30 April 2018 at Hyderabad after a brief illness quietly and courageously borne. He would have been 95 on 9 June. India lost a great son, an elder statesman and a much-admired public figure of exalted stature.
Idris Latif clocked many ‘ firsts’ in independent India: first Muslim as armed forces Chief; first retired armed forces Chief to be both Governor and Ambassador; and the first retired armed forces Chief to be asked (in great confidence by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) if he would agree to be the Vice President of India, an offer he very politely declined, “as his insistence on a high standard of discipline, which had become so much a part of him, may well [prove] to be, in the Rajya Sabha, a cause of serious embarrassment for the government.” This was the quintessential Idris Latif !
Rewinding to early years, soon after commissioning in 1941, he was under training in the UK for air operations to support D Day landings at Normandy. But the gravity of the situation on the Burma front took him there, and he completed his full combat tour on Hurricanes with No.3 Squadron. He flew some 22 aircraft types in his career, with the Spitfire—on which he had the maximum flying hours—being his all-time favourite.
Idris Latif commanded No.4 Squadron, Air Force Stations Begumpet, Hakimpet, Poona, Operations ( J& K) and was Air Attaché, in Washington (1961-64) where he persuaded Head of Mission BK Nehru to fly a familiarisation sortie on the F-104 Starfighter that earned him the sobriquet “supersonic ambassador”! In staff and higher command assignments, Idris Latif kept unfailingly in touch with flying fighters, bombers, transport aircraft and helicopters of all varieties. I had the privilege to fly with him on most of his sorties on the Canberra with No.35 Squadron at Poona when he was Base Commander. These invariably meant live armament work, including heavy-weight bombs.
After tenures as ACAS (Plans), AOA, AOC- in- C Central Air Command and Maintenance Command and a short stint as the VCAS, Idris Latif took over as Chief of the Air Staff in 1978. “It was an epochal event”, avers Air Marshal ‘Rags’ Raghavendran, “the morale of the personnel changed dramatically with Latif’s professional, fair and caring approach.” Key procurements across a wide capability spectrum like the Jaguar, MiG-23, MiG-25 (which trisonic aircraft he also flew) and the heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopter came to fruition during his tenure which also witnessed the initiation of cases for the Mirage 2000, An-32 and the Il-76. In recognition of his exemplary work and the respect he enjoyed in the Government he was appointed Governor, Maharashtra, and later India’s Ambassador to France.
So, what was iconic about Chief Latif ? Not for him leadership through hard coercive authority. His working culture, unfailing pursuit of excellence, easy sense of humour, highest standards of professionalism and utmost caring for others, particularly subordinates were truly inspiring. There were many instances of his firmness, ‘loyalty downwards’ and moral strength to stand up for his juniors, whom he always encouraged to speak freely if they had suggestions to offer for improved operational preparedness.
Idris and his charming wife Bilkees Latif were unquestionably a couple extraordinaire, epitome of civility and culture with wide ranging interests. He embodied the richest values and core belief systems of a democratic and inclusive India founded on a rich and plural civilisation. Their home bespoke of highly refined and aesthetic ambience. Shrinivas S Sohoni, who was Secretary to Governor when the Latifs adorned the Raj Bhawan in Mumbai, saw them as “perfect for the role of Governor, Maharashtra and his spouse…few indeed would have held any different view of that remarkable and charming couple.” Sharat Sabarwal, former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, who was First Secretary when Chief Latif was Ambassador to France, echoes in a similar vein, “the Latifs were an exceptionally gracious couple and excellent representatives of the country with admirable warmth and a generous nature. He provided incomparable leadership for his team.”
In conclusion what the Greek General and statesman Pericles said nearly 2,500 years ago, is so tellingly apt for the redoubtable Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif:
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments
But what is woven into the lives of others you touch