Hilal Rather, Kirti Khajuria from J&K elevated as Air Vice-Marshal in IAF

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Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

JAMMU: 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. Even as son of the soil Gen (Retd) N.C. Vij of Jammu reached the top slot in the Indian Army and Kapil Kak of Kashmir retired as Air Vice-Marshal, it is for the first time that two meritorious officers from J&K have reached a prestigious position, just two ranks short of the IAF chief.
Highly placed defence sources in New Delhi told STATE TIMES that both the senior officers and top pilots had been elevated as Air Vice-Marshal on Tuesday.
Air Commodore Hilal Ahmed Rather is a resident of Bkahshiabad, neighbourhood of the Anantnag township in southern Kashmir. Air Commodore Kirti Khajuria is from Tikri area of Jammu. Both the officers are from the 1978 batch of Sainik School Nagrota, Jammu.
Hilal played a crucial role in settling the deal with a French company and delivery of the prestigious Rafale jets to India which are rated to be the game-changer in strategic quarters in South West Asia. He has been India’s Air Attache in France for the last over two years. He received the Vayu Sena Medal (VM) for devotion to duty in 2010, followed by the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) in 2016.
With an impeccable record of 3,000 accident-free flying hours on Mirage-2000, MIG-21 and Kiran aircraft, Hilal’s name will now forever be associated with Rafale in India.
Kirti Khajuria was commissioned as a fighter pilot in the Flying Branch of the Indian Air Force 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 hogged headlines for being associated at the top level with the IAF’s super ambitious Rafale manufacturing and acquisition project in France. His pictures on a Rafale jet went viral, within minutes of his visit to the project site with Ambassador Jawed Ashraf 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 when the first Rafale was being commandeered to India last year.
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 are 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 social media.
After elementary studies at Montessori High School in Anantnag, the 12-year-old son of a policeman, Hilal Ahmad Rather, was among the droves of enthusiasts from Anantnag, who qualified an entrance exam and was 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 visited his home rarely after an outbreak of terrorism in 1989, as there were always apprehensions of being kidnapped or killed like Lt Umer Fayaz.
“Even before 1989, he was very rarely seen here,” said a shopkeeper at Iqbal Market in Anantnag, who was acquainted with the family. Hilal’s brother Javed Rather is 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.
One of Hilal’s school-day friends revealed that some of his classmates at Sainik School Nagrota had attained top positions in different fields. They include Muneerul Islam and Tariq Hussain Ganai, now senior Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officers in the J&K Government. Others of his schoolmates include KAS officer Pervez Sajad and Kashmir Police Service Officer Zahid Nasim Manhas.
By the time Hilal completed his studies and training, and was commissioned as a flight pilot in the Flying branch of IAF on 17 December 1988, Kashmir had gone through a sea change.
Hilal was just 13-months-old in his flying rank when the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) terrorists came out with the first devastating terror strike and killed four IAF personnel 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 his 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. “Hilal 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,” Manhas said.
“He was all through a topper, exceptionally brilliant, god-fearing and honest to the last penny. While his nationalist and patriotic credentials may be arguably of the highest order in India, I know him as someone who recites Quran every day and has never skipped Namaaz. 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. “We were classmates and roommates at the hostel for 6 years. And have been friends since our school days.”
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, Air Force and 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 residents of J&K.
“We knew that he would make the nation proud,” KAS officer, Tariq Hussain Ganai, said about his Nagrota classmate for six years who is now flying Rafale, training pilots for the IAF’s game-changer in South Asia and supervising India’s Rs 59,000 crore ambitious Defence project in France.