Principled and fearless officer (1923-2008)
Syed Jafar Zaheer was born in an aristocratic Muslim family on 14 June 1923, at Lucknow. His father, Syed Ali Zaheer, was a well known politician and served as a minister in the UP cabinet, and later as a diplomat. He joined the Allahabad University but left before graduating, to join the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) in 1942. He underwent flying training in Canada and was commissioned into the RIAF in the rank of Flying Officer on 27 September 1943.
He went to RAF base in UK for a conversion course. He was the only Indian officer and had noticed the chief instructor’s behaviour was racist. The commanding officer probably had a similar view. Zaheer showed his steely frame of mind on his “dining in” in the Air Force officers mess by pouring a bottle of wine on the chief instructor while raising a toast. The commanding officer and the English fighter pilots were perhaps secretly pleased and the commanding officer only wanted to know whether the wine was red or white! A court martial was seriously considered but waived off. Instead, he was only asked to reimburse the officer the cost of dry cleaning the uniform.
The Second World War ended while he was travelling back to India by ship. He saw strafing in the NWFP and held various command and staff appointments. One of his officers recalls his cool and unruffled reaction when his plane with a full load of rockets and guns had an engine failure at take off at the firing range. All the officers rushed out with apprehensions of a disaster on hearing the siren. Soon his jeep reached the crash site and brought him to the hangar. He got off with a smile and dusting himself commented, “hell of a lot of dust”.
Zaheer was one of a handful of IAF fighter pilots to graduate from the Institute of Armament Technology. It helped him formulate the Weapons Planning Directive of 1963 that remains the source for all such activity at Air Headquarters even today. He commanded the critical air force station at Agra during the 1971 War and was awarded AVSM for his outstanding contribution. He was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal and served as Deputy Air Chief and AOC-in-C, Nagpur.
He retired in January 1979 and was appointed to head the Civil Aviation Directorate. He was the first IAF officer to head the chaotic Directorate General of Civil Aviation. He almost immediately earned the displeasure of corrupt politicians by refusing to agree to their demands to acquire a particular aircraft for which they were doubtless receiving favours. Dhirendra Bramhachari, a holy man, had considerable influence on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. He imported an aircraft, claiming it to be a gift from some foreign disciple. It was allowed to be imported in defiance of all rules.
It had come to his notice that Sanjay Gandhi was carrying passengers without a valid license, and was performing stunt flying which was a danger to his own life and that of the passengers. Zaheer further put a ban on Sanjay Gandhi performing acrobatics and carrying passengers. Despite tremendous political pressure, he refused to close the case against Sanjay for flying with passengers without a valid license. He wanted this issue to be brought to the notice of the Prime Minister quietly. Sanjay ignored the veto and continued to fly. Sanjay saw the file and demanded an apology from Zaheer who took a principled stand and resigned in June 1980. On 23 June 1980, Sanjay was not able to exit from a complex loop in the single-engine two-seater plane, and crashed. Zaheer was asked to withdraw his resignation with promise of ambassadorships and state governorships. But he declined, preferring instead to run the small Khambatta airlines in Mumbai for the next five years. He passed away in New Delhi on 23 January 2008. Steeliness and principled stand were the hallmarks of his career. They do not make them like that anymore.