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Two IAF officers from J&K elevated to Air Vice Marshal rank

Air Commodore Hilal Ahmed Rather played a crucial role in acquisition and delivery of the fighter aircraft Rafale (Pic: Courtesy Twitter/@nighat_abbas)

In a historic development for Jammu and Kashmir, two senior officers of the Union Territory—and both alumni of Sainik School Nagrota—have been promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal in the Indian Air Force (IAF). This is only for the second time that someone from J&K has risen to this senior rank and for the first time that two Air Commodores from the UT have simultaneously become Air Vice Marshal.  

Previously, Gen (retd) N.C. Vij of Jammu reached the top slot in the Indian Army and functioned as Chief of Army Staff in 2003-05. Kapil Kak of Kashmir retired as Air Vice Marshal after holding a stint as Deputy Director Centre for Air Power Studies.

Air Commodore Hilal Ahmed Rather is a resident of the Bakhshiabad neighbourhood of the Anantnag township in southern Kashmir.  Air Commodore Kirti Khajuria is from Tikri, Jammu. Both the officers are from the 1978 batch of Sainik School Nagrota, Jammu.

Air Commodore Kirti Khajuria

Hilal played a crucial role in acquisition and delivery of the fighter aircraft Rafale from the French manufacturer Dassault Aviation while being posted for over two years as Air Attache in the Indian embassy in France. He received the Vayu Sena Medal (VM) for devotion to duty in 2010, followed by the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) in 2016. He carries an impeccable record of 3,000 accident-free flying hours on Mirage-2000, MIG-21 and Kiran aircraft.

Kirti was commissioned as a fighter pilot in the Flying Branch of the IAF on June 11, 1988. For the distinguished service of a high order, he was awarded VSM. He is currently posted at the IAF Headquarters in New Delhi.

Hilal’s association with the game-changer Rafale brought cheer to Jammu and Kashmir when his pictures of the first delivery of Rafale with Ambassador Jawed Ashraf went viral in July 2020.

“It is not that we got only #Pakistan sponsored terrorism in Anantnag in South Kashmir. Our country has got many brave heroes, social workers, doctors and engineers from this area too. One of them is Hilal Ahmed. Air Commodore of the Indian Air Force from #Anantnag,” A freelance journalist from Jammu, Rakhi Dogra, tweeted.

Across India that time there was enthusiasm among students and teachers of Sainik Schools as four of the elite pilots associated with the Rafale project were known to be alumni of the Sainik Schools of Nagrota, Bijapur, Kunjpura and Tilaiya. “Proud moment for India”, “Proud moment for Sainik Schools”, “Proud moment for Jammu and Kashmir” were the comments in the social media.

After elementary studies at Montessori High School in Anantnag, the 12-year-old son of a policeman, Hilal was among a number of the South Kashmir students who qualified in an entrance exam and were admitted to Class 6 at Sainik School Nagrota in 1978. His father worked in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, and years before his death in 2014, he retired as a Deputy Superintendent of Police.

According to his relatives and neighbours, Hilal didn’t visit his home much after an abrupt eruption of militancy in 1989 as there were always apprehensions of being kidnapped or killed—fate that Lt Umer Fayaz met in May 2017.

“Even before 1989, he was very rarely seen here,” said a family acquaintance at Iqbal Market in Anantnag. Hilal’s brother Javed Rather serves as a lecturer in the Higher Education Department of the J&K Government. All three of his sisters are married — two in South Kashmir, and one in Srinagar.

Some of Hilal’s classmates at Sainik School Nagrota attained top positions in different fields. They include Muneerul Islam and Tariq Hussain Ganai, now senior Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officers. Others include KAS officer Pervez Sajad and the Kashmir Police Service (KPS) officer Zahid Nasim Manhas.

By the time Hilal completed his training and he was commissioned as a flight pilot in the Flying branch of IAF on 17 December 1988, Kashmir had fallen in the abyss of terrorism. He was just 13-months-old in his flying rank when the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militants came out with the first devastating terror strike and killed four IAF men including Squadron Leader Ravi Khanna in Srinagar on 25 January 1990.

“Thereafter, he was rarely seen in Kashmir. For most of the time, he remained posted outside J&K and lived there with his wife and three children,” one of his Nagrota classmates said. According to him, Hilal visited home, “secretly and briefly” twice when his parents died between 2010 and 2014. On both occasions, he went back quickly.

“At school, he was a superb debater, a singer and a football player. He loved pets,” SSP Zahid Naseem Manhas recalled. “He was a terrific learner. For about a month, he was busy when he represented J&K at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Our Class 10 exams were just a month away. He did his studies for only some 25 days and became the CBSE topper in Northern India”.

“He was all through a topper, exceptionally brilliant, god-fearing and honest to the last penny. He has infinite god-gifted qualities of integrity, understanding and dedication. What we would pick up for 6 days, he would in 10 minutes,” said senior KAS officer Muneerul Islam, Hilal’s classmates and a roommate at the hostel for 6 years. According to him, Hilal is a man of “tremendous leadership qualities”, whose clarity and moral strength are “unmatched”.

According to Muneerul Islam, 37 of his Nagrota classmates, including Hilal, joined the Army, the IAF and the Navy and rose to high ranks. Two of them have died and 35 are still in service. One is a Major General, three are Brigadiers, and many others are Colonels and above or equal ranks in the IAF and Navy. However, most of them were not the permanent residents of J&K.

“We knew that one day he would make the nation proud,” KAS officer, Tariq Hussain Ganai said. “He has a competition with others but merit and age are on his side and he is just two steps short of becoming India’s Air Chief Marshal. One day, he may create a big history”.