July 7, 2014

A ladder to the skies: Reminiscences of a soldier-diplomat

A review of The Ladder of His Life: Biography of Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, PVSM by Bilkees I Latif.

The Indian armed forces have a long tradition of good leaders, but few of them have been able to make their presence felt in the civilian domain.  This is a two-way problem. India’s democratically-elected leaders have often kept their military counterparts at an arm’s length, while the latter often see the chaotic civilian political domain and its deficiencies through a cynical eye. It is then rare to hear of an accomplished general who maneuvered the labyrinths of power as a Governor, and as an Ambassador with equal distinction.

The Ladder of his Life is the biography of one of India’s finest air warriors – Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, PVSM. A gentleman-soldier, ACM Latif was born into one of the nobility of erstwhile Hyderabad state. Among the first Indians to be commissioned officer in the Royal Indian Air Force in 1942, Latif was tasked first with anti-submarine patrols and saw postings across the length and breadth of undivided India from the north-west Frontier to Burma. He saw intensive combat against the Japanese over the skies of Burma during the decisive phase of WW II. Latif remained a devoted flyer throughout his four-decade long career in the Air Force during which he flew over 25 types of aircraft, from the Spitfire to the Mirage 2000.

Latif has been sparing and prudent in his revelations in the biography, but the select anecdotes in the book reveal a warrior who while scrupulously respecting the lines between military and political decisions, did not fail to see the political ramifications of military counsel. Chosen early in his career for diplomatic duties, Latif was posted as Air Force Liaison to help Indonesia induct its first jet fighters in the 1955, and later as the Indian Air Attache to Washington in 1961. Latif corroborates the now widely- discussed consideration by India to request for assistance from the Kennedy administration during the war. The Indian Ambassador to Washington BK Nehru asked him for his opinion on the request from Delhi for US fighter-bombers at a time when the country was gripped by panic. With unerring judgment, Latif told the Ambassador that such a request to the US would entail the deployment of hundreds of American servicemen in India, and added that these factors be considered by Prime Minister Nehru before the request was made. The request was never officially made.

Latif was an early proponent for long-term planning to ensure air superiority. His command decisions during both 1965 and particularly during the 1971 war won him accolades, and his role in upgrading the combat units of the Air Force brought him the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM), the highest peacetime leadership honour in the Indian defense forces. During his years in the stewardship of the Air Force, Latif was faced with the unenviable task of modernising what was essentially a WW II-era air force into a force that could integrate the enormous technological advances made in the three decades after the war. In the face of budgetary constraints, Latif was able to improvise the Gnat/ Ajeet and improve its versatility. In view of the limitations of an aging Canberra bomber fleet, he successfully advocated for the acquisition of the Jaguar as a lighter successor more suited to the changing needs of the air force.

The soft-spoken Latif’s most daunting challenges appear to have been in negotiating with the political leadership and the bureaucracy on issues related to the welfare and careers of his service colleagues.  Latif’s restraint in talking of the service politics that preceded his elevation as Air Chief, stands in telling contrast to the litigations over promotions in the armed forces today.

The appreciation of air superiority in defending the country and the contribution of the Air Force in successive wars has not always translated into better equipment for the force. One of Latif’s lasting legacies was the conceptualisation and initiation of an indigenous program to design a light combat battlefield support fighter aircraft, from which was born the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program. One cannot but empathise with Latif’s disappointment at the delays in indigenous defence production and the challenges from the defense bureaucracy he encountered when it came to the welfare of personnel. Latif sees the redeeming factor of the armed forces – the quality and morale of its men. Latif is interestingly critical of the idea for the creation of the post of Chief of Defense Staff, as he believes that it would only delay decision-making by adding another layer in the chain of command, and could damage the interdependence and equality of the Chiefs in the current structure.

Latif recalls with particular pride the role of the Air Force in disaster relief operations, an inimitable service that has earned the love of countrymen for the service as seen at the time of the airlift during the 2013 Uttaranchal floods. This author was witness to the extraordinary courage and commitment shown by air personnel in rescue operations in Andaman and Nicobar after the 2004 tsunami, despite the tragic loss of nearly a hundred of their colleagues and their families in the disaster.

Latif’s transition from the order of the armed forces to the turbulence of mainstream governance and politics would not have been easy. However, as Governor of Maharashtra (1982-84) he displayed a gift for balancing the professional demands of an apolitical role with the need for well-timed activism. He advocated for aerial seeding of drought-prone areas in the face of rapid deforestation. He proposed reforms to the educational curriculum to facilitate character building and personality development. As Ambassador to France (1985-88), he was able to leverage the rapidly growing French commercial interest in India to boost defence cooperation including.

It is said that the choices one makes are the cobbles on the path to his destiny. Throughout his illustrious career, Latif prioritised commitment and service over ambition. At the time of Partition, when a fellow Muslim colleague tried to tempt him into joining him in Pakistan as promotions there would be faster, Latif politely retorted that he failed to see the link between religion and nationality and that career could never take precedence over country. In the ‘70s, Latif turned down the role to head Indian Airlines at its heyday in favor of continuing service in the Air Force, and in the ‘80s he turned down the offer to stand for Vice President of India, explaining to Rajiv Gandhi that were he to be the ex-officio Speaker of the Rajya Sabha, his preference for discipline may not help the government’s agenda in the House. Years into his retirement, Latif continues to work as a citizen-activist. His proposals since have led to important governance measures such as the introduction of the PAN number for all high-value financial transactions.

The Ladder of his Life paints an remarkably personal portrait of a military leader, given that the biographer is none other than his wife of 64 years, Bilkees I Latif. An acclaimed author and social activist, her work for the welfare of children in the slums of Mumbai and to promote communal harmony won her the Padma Shri for Social Work in 2009 and the Chisti award for Communal Harmony in 2011 among others. Despite being a celebrity in her own right, one can see in her writing glimpses of a service wife for whom the safety of her husband is constantly at the back of the mind, even as she takes pride in his achievements and copes with the pressures of postings and transfers.

Now in his 91st year, Latif has left his mark on the Air Force for decades to come. The Ladder of his Life comprises a valuable addition to writing on the evolution and leadership of the Indian Air Force.

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