BY AARTI TIKOO SINGH
New Delhi/Srinagar, July 29 (IANS) In 1988, just before Kashmir erupted with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, a young man from Anantnag, a small town in the Valley, was commissioned in the Indian Air Force.
Thirty-two years later, as Pakistan’s ally China is locked in a military face off with India, that young Kashmiri officer, now Wing Commander Hilal Ahmed Rather, is the first pilot to fly the premier fighter jet Rafale that India bought from France.
The first five of a batch of French Rafale fighter aircraft are arriving in India on Wednesday for rapid deployment amid China’s aggression against India along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.
Built by Dassault Aviation, Rafale fighter jets are being flown in by Indian Air Force pilots to the Ambala air base, which is close to both frontiers bordering Pakistan and China. The Indian Air Force received the first Rafale fighter jet in October 2019. Five of the jets had stayed back in France for training. India will receive all the 36 aircraft, which have been ordered, on schedule by the end of 2021.
Wing commander Rather, who is presently Indian Defence Attache in Paris, is a product of Sainik School — a chain of schools established and run under the Union Ministry of Defence in India.
Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs said that Rather was instrumental in ensuring quick delivery and weaponisation of the Rafale fighter jets as per Indian conditions.
Referred to as an ‘omnirole’ fighter, Rafale is equipped with a wide range of weapons which can do preventive tactical bombing and attack ground targets against the enemy, even strike at ships and perform nuclear deterrence missions.
A resident of Bakhshiabad in Anantnag, Rather studied in the town’s Montessori school before moving to Sainik School Nagrota in Jammu. An officer with extraordinary accomplishments, Rather won the National Defense Academy’s (NDA) Sword of Honour. The award is given to the officer who achieves overall best performance during his or her entire training period at the academy.
Since the day, the officer has not looked back, sources in the Air Force said. “He is presently one of finest fighter pilots of India,” his seniors told IANS.
Rather was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot in the Flying branch on December 17, 1988. He was promoted as Flight Lieutenant in 1993, Wing Commander in 2004, Group Captain in 2010 and Air Commodore in 2016.
“Kashmir, which is usually in news for all the wrong reasons like Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, rioting, political blackmail etc., has shown through Hilal Rather that it has a positive side too. He is indeed a progressive icon and it is a matter of pride that he is from my hometown,” Sualeh Keen, a cultural critic from Rather’s hometown, Anantnag, told IANS.
“South Kashmir got a bad name because of terrorists who were influenced by ISIS and al Qaeda, like Burhan Wani, Zakir Musa and others. But the fact is that the majority among the youth in Kashmir have always looked up to icons like Rather. They still will,” Keen added.
A displaced Kashmiri Pandit, Vijay Zutshi from Anantnag, said, “I really feel proud to know all about Commodore Rather. Being a man from our mohalla and town, I had the honor to be in the same school as him. I wish him all the success and health in his future journey.”
On social media, thousands of other Indians hailed the Wing Commander’s services to the nation and celebrated his accomplishments as victory of India’s equality, pluralism and progress.
BY AARTI TIKOO SINGH