Trib­ute to an iconic leader, soar­ing air war­rior

Air Chief Mar­shal Idris Hasan Latif (1923-2018)

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Aviation & Defence Inindia - Air Vice Mar­shal (re­tired) Kapil Kak

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

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