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Air Marshal Jaffar Zaheer: Principled Indian Air Force officer

Jaffar Zaheer's impish irreverence hid a steeliness that emerged in the unusually principled stand he took against India's omnipotent political establishment during the premiership of Indira Gandhi. As the first Indian Air Force (IAF) officer to head the country's chaotic Directorate General of Civil Aviation, Zaheer refused, despite relentless political pressure, to withdraw the case against Gandhi's unruly son, Sanjay, for flying a commercial airliner with passengers without a valid licence.

He also declined to apologise to Sanjay, an unforgiving thug who drew authority from being his mother's political heir, for the "inconvenience" of charging him with the offence. The unrelenting Zaheer then further banned Sanjay Gandhi from flying a stunt plane and from executing dangerous aerobatics over the capital, Delhi, in violation of all safety norms. Sanjay ignored the veto and continued; Zaheer quietly resigned in June 1980.

On 23 June, Sanjay, unable to exit from a complex loop in his single-engine two-seater plane, crashed and died, changing the course of Indian politics. Zaheer was asked to withdraw his resignation, offered palliatives like ambassadorships and state governorships. But he declined, preferring instead the anonymity of running the small, private Khambatta airlines in the western port city of Bombay for the next five years.

But Zaheer's impetuosity as a newly commissioned officer in the then Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) in the early 1940s had almost ended his budding career after he poured a bottle of wine on his instructor whilst raising a toast during his "dining in" at an RAF mess in England. As the stunned senior officer glowered under the onslaught, Zaheer declared with aplomb to a speechless, but secretly pleased, audience of English fighter pilots that the drenched gentleman had needed a spring cleaning.

The only Indian cadet at the RAF base undergoing an aircraft conversion course, Zaheer had found the chief instructor's behaviour racist, an assessment the commanding officer possibly shared, as he merely demanded to know whether the offending wine had been white or red. And, instead of the court martial that was under serious consideration, Zaheer's eventual punishment was merely to reimburse the officer for the cost of dry-cleaning his uniform.

Zaheer was born in 1923 into an aristocratic Muslim family in Lucknow in northern India, the son of a renowned politician who after independence became a government minister and later a diplomat. Schooled locally, he joined the prestigious Allahabad University but left before graduating to join the RIAF in 1942. Soon after, along with other Indian cadets, he was dispatched to Canada to undergo flying training and was commissioned into service in September 1943 in the rank of Flying Officer.

The Second World War ended during Zaheer's journey home by boat, but he did see some action strafing restive Pashtun tribesmen in the North West Frontier Province – now in Pakistan – in the region bordering Afghanistan that remains in ferment even today, having changed little in over a century.

Zaheer was one of a handful of IAF fighter pilots to graduate from the Institute of Armament Technology, a discipline that helped him formulate the Weapons Planning Directive of 1963 that remains the template for all such activity at Air Headquarters even today.

From 1964 until he retired 15 years later as IAF's deputy chief in the rank of Air Marshal, Zaheer held various staff and operational appointments in which he oversaw the air force's modernisation and streamlined its Byzantine financial procedures. During the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh, Zaheer commanded the critical Agra air force station near Delhi and was decorated for his services.

After retiring in 1979 he was appointed to head the Civil Aviation Directorate and almost immediately earned the ire of corrupt politicians by refusing to acquiesce to their demands to acquire a particular aircraft for which they were doubtlessly receiving backhanders. Zaheer's scrapes with Sanjay Gandhi eventually led to his resigning in 1980, two years before his term expired.

His droll sense of humour and self-deprecation never left him. When Zaheer was suffering from the early ravages of Alzheimer's, a youngster once asked after his health. "Never felt better," Zaheer quipped. "Don't remember a thing."

Kuldip Singh

Jafar Zaheer, air force officer: born Lucknow, India 14 June 1923; Director, Air Staff Requirements, Indian Air Force 1973-74; Director-General of Civil Aviation 1979-80; married (three sons); died New Delhi 23 January 2008.