“We #Anantnag walas’s are proud of him. He belongs to Bakhshiabad Anantnag and was student of Montessori school. I am also a proud Montessorian. Jai Hind (sic)” –– Rajesh Raina, a displaced resident of South Kashmir’s Anantnag and editor with News18 Urdu TV, tweeted on Monday, 27 July 2020, after the national media revealed Air Commodore Hilal Ahmad Rather’s Kashmiri domicile status.
Hilal hogged headlines for being associated at the top level with the Indian Air Force’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.
“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.
Why Anantnag Is ‘Notorious’
Across India, 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 doing the rounds on social media.
So, piggybacking on #Rafale and #IAF, an unexpected #Anantnag kept trending on Twitter, for a slew of reasons indeed. In the last over 30 years, this district has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Here are a few:
- assassinations of the Kashmiri Pandit poet Sarvanand Kaul Premi and cleric Qazi Nisar by militants in May 1990 and June 1994 respectively
- two major attacks on the Amarnath pilgrims at Pahalgam and Botengo in August 2000 and July 2017 respectively
- the massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chittisinghpura by suspected militants and killing of 5 innocent civilians in a fake encounter at Pathribal by Army in March 2000
- several massacres of non-Kashmiri brick kiln workers
- hundreds of attacks by militants and encounters by security forces
- kidnapping and killing sprees by militants
- kidnapping and the mysterious disappearance of five western tourists in July 1995
- the emergence of dreaded counterinsurgent outfits like Azad Nabi’s Muslim Mujahideen and Liaquat Ali’s Ikhwanul Muslimeen
- the killing of the National Conference ex-Ministers Ghulam Hassan Bhat and Safdar Ali Beg in May 2000 and October 2004 respectively
- the killing of 19 BSF personnel along with 6 women and 5 children in an IED attack in May 2004
Jaish-e-Mohammad founder, Maulana Masood Azhar, along with a ‘most-wanted’ jihadist Sajad Afghani, was arrested in Anantnag in February 1994.
Relentless militancy has claimed thousands of lives over 30 years in Anantnag —filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj’s apt location to shoot Haider, a vernacular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in 2013.
For a couple of days after arriving in the Valley, and before his kidnapping from a cousin’s wedding in Shopian — and killing on 10 May 2017 — Lt Umer Fayaz had also stayed at a relative’s home in Anantnag.
Anantnag’s Pre-1990 Halcyon Days
In the pre-1990 halcyon era, Anantnag was famous for the tourist attractions of Pahalgam, Kokernag, Daksum and Verinag; shrines of Aeshmuqam, Kabamarg and Rishi Moul; temples and springs of Mattan and Anatnag town; and the romantic poetry of Rasul Mir whose imagery would perhaps humble even Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The last two peaceful decades of 'Paradise on Earth' –– the 1970s and 1980s –– witnessed unprecedented enthusiasm among young students to serve the country in the Army, Air Force, even Navy. The nearest rearing ground was an Army school across the Jawahar Tunnel, the Sainik School Nagrota.
Air Commodore Hilal Ahmad Rather’s Childhood & Background
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 in 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 took retirement as a Deputy Superintendent of Police.
According to his relatives and neighbours, Hilal visited his home rarely after an outbreak of militancy 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. Among them, Muneerul Islam and Tariq Hussain Ganai are senior Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officers in the J&K Government. Another classmate Pervez Sajad is Additional Deputy Commissioner in Sopore. Zahid Nasim Manhas, an officer of J&K Police Service, is a Senior Superintendent of Police.
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.
Sheikh Abdullah died when Hilal was in Class 10. Parallel to his ascending to the higher grades, Farooq Abdullah’s elected government was dismissed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and replaced by an unpopular and short-lived one of Ghulam Mohammad Shah.
Hilal Was Still New In His Flying Rank When A Terrorist Attack On IAF Personnel Occurred in 1990
In the succession of events, India’s politics failed, and the vacuum was filled up by the youngsters who had been told that in 1965 or in the 1971 war, a Pakistani lady pilot had dropped a payload of bombs on the Srinagar airport, taken a dive into the Dal Lake, lifted a lotus flower and flown back to Lahore. Some had heard about the Palestinian Leila Khaled’s hijacking aeroplanes. And some, of course, about Srinagar’s own Hashim Qureshi, who had hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar to Lahore in 1971.
Not surprisingly, the most lionised guerrilla of 1989, who spearheaded a sustained campaign and got all of Kashmir’s liquor shops, beauty parlours and cinema theatres shut permanently (in December that year), assumed the name of ‘Air Marshal Noor Khan’.
Hilal 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 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 the occasions, he went back quickly.
Air Commodore Hilal Ahmad Rather –– A Man of ‘Tremendous Leadership Qualities
“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.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based senior journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)