On Monday, the 30th of April, the former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif, breathed his last at the ripe old age of 94. He was critically ill and was undergoing treatment for aspiration pneumonia in the ICU of a private hospital in Hyderabad since April 25. With the demise of this legend of the skies, a rich career with moments of triumph and victory and difficult choices comes to an end.
The celebrated IAF Chief is also an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, and the National Defence College, New Delhi. While the former is one of the oldest military schools in India, the latter is the highest seat of strategic learning for Indian Defence and Civil Services Officers of certain ranks.
Idris Hasan Latif was born in Hyderabad on 9th June 1923 to a well-known Suleimani Bohra family. He attended the prestigious Nizam College and applied to join the Indian Air Force as soon as he turned 17.5 years old–the earliest age permitted.
Selected in 1941, he went through initial flying training at Begumpet and was commissioned on 26th January 1942. The young Idris Hasan Latif few biplanes in the IAF. These planes had a fabric skin stretched over a wooden frame–a rudimentary setup at best, which the IAF was expected to go to war with.
Latif then trained in Ambala, after which he was posted in Karachi, in undivided India. Here, he flew vintage biplanes like the Wapiti, Audaxes and Harts, on anti-submarine flights over the Arabian Sea.
In June 1943, the erstwhile Flying Officer Latif was sent to the UK, as part of a batch of 25 Indian pilots who were to train on the famous Hurricanes and Spitfires.
The batch was also assigned operational experience with a British RAF squadron. The batch was preparing to be deployed to support the dreaded D-Day landings on Normandy’s beaches.
However, there was a change of events-as the IAF called them back urgently, to take part in offensives along the Burma front.
In 1944, Latif was back in India, flying the Hawker Hurricane in the Burma campaign. Flying with the No. 3 Squadron, he would perform interdiction sorties against ground targets. Flying during the Burma campaign was different from flying in Europe. Wider spaces and limited radar coverage ensured few air-to-air encounters. Thus, the pilots could concentrate on ground attacks and support troops.
After the campaign, Latif was posted to Madras, under the command of Squadron Leader Asghar Khan–the future Chief of Pakistan’s Air Force. Both would go on to become good friends. Much to Latif’s delight, he was posted to 9 Squadron, flying single-seater Spitfires. In June 1946, Latif was part of an Indian contingent, which participated in a huge Victory Parade in London.
1946 and 1947 were years in which India’s political scenario took a drastic turn. Partition seemed inevitable, and uncertainty hung in the air. During this period, thousands of people migrated between India and Pakistan, leaving everything behind.
Latif’s friends, Asghar Khan, and another Flt. Lt Noor Khan tried to persuade him to join the Pakistan Air Force. Taking a huge decision, Latif declined. His reason? Religion and country are not related.
The decision worked, and Latif went on to be the first Muslim Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force.
By 1950, Latif had risen to be Squadron Leader, and was the commanding officer of the No. 4 Oorials, flying the Hawker Tempest. He led the first fly-past over New Delhi, on 26th January 1950, the country’s first Republic Day.
In 1951, the decorated Air Force Chief married Bilkees, the daughter of Nawab Ali Yavar Jung. She stood by his side for 66 years till she passed away in 2017.
Steadily climbing up Air Force ranks by way of sheer talent and hard work, Wing Commander Latif, was named as Advisor to the Indonesian Air Force, in 1955. He went on to be promoted to Group Captain, and command the Air Force Station at Begumpet–where he had first learned to fly!
India fought a war in 1965 against Pakistan. Latif, who had by then been promoted to Air Commodore, was the first Air Defence Commander for the Eastern Theatre. His combat experience saw him appointed to the new post of Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Plans), during the 1971 war, during which he held a major role in planning. During the war, he made first line assessment of frontline combat squadrons. He also set in motion plans to mobilise the Air Force. His role as Air Chief Marshal PC Lal’s emissary during the IAF’s operations in the Eastern Theater, saw him decorated with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal in 1974.
In the mid-1970’s, the then Air Marshal Latif served as Commander in Chief of Maintenance Command, and then of Central Air Command, finally assuming the rank of Air Chief Marshal and the office of Chief of Air Staff. He retired as Air Chief after a three-year tenure, on August 31, 1981.
Known for his military prowess, Latif was also excellent in making business decisions. He was involved in seeking government approval for procuring advanced Jaguar strike aircraft, which was previously undecided for eight years. He also negotiated with Russians, helping the induction of MiG-23 and MiG-25 aircraft into the IAF.
After retiring from the Air Force, the celebrated airman was appointed as the Governor of Maharashtra from 1982 to 1985. As was his style, he dived headfirst into his role, even ruling on an accusation against the Chief Minister of the time, A R Antulay.
His next stint would be as an Ambassador to France, after his tenure as Maharashtra’s Governor, a post he held until 1988. He would enjoy hosting IAF personnel who visited France for training.
Only in 1988, did the former Air Chief Marshal retire, and returned to Hyderabad with his wife, where they worked for social causes. The legendary Idris Hasan Latif is remembered by all as a great strategic genius, a planning maverick and an IAF hero. P Anuradha Reddy, city historian and authority on Indian aviation, described Latif as a great human being. She told The Times of India that “He was a patriot to the core. He has rare qualities.”
His demise brings to an end a fulfilling life spent in the service of the nation he loved.