Admiral Ram Tahiliani, who passed away in Delhi on Wednesday, October 14, will be remembered as an astute service chief, a naval aviator par excellence and an upright officer who was a role model for the larger fraternity of sailors who served under him.
Appointed India’s 11th naval chief in November 1984 — in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi — Admiral Tahiliani (also referred to as Tally Ho or Ram T) served a full three-year tenure and retired six months before he turned 60. His peers were the charismatic General K. Sundarji and Air Chief Marshal Denis La Fontaine, and while then PM Rajiv Gandhi had retained the defence portfolio, the junior minister, Arun Singh, was the hands-on political apex of the defence ministry.
The four-member group was the most cohesive higher defence team that India has ever had, and while it had an unhappy ending with Arun Singh resigning in July 1987, the service chiefs were accorded a definitive position and Tahiliani played a deft role in maintaining the appropriate texture of civil-military relations apropos both the elected representative and the bureaucracy.
As the naval chief, his most remarkable achievement was the manner in which he enabled the induction of the second aircraft carrier — the INS Viraat. Mooted when Ram T was the vice chief of the navy, this was a major acquisition and there were many hurdles to be crossed or bypassed, and sensitivities to be assuaged. Just a few years prior to this decision, the air force and navy had a bitter public spat over who would control maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and it triggered intense personal animosity at the highest levels.
Tahiliani was at his affable yet determined best, and the manner in which he was able to persuade the carrier’s critics — in government, among legislators and in the media — was a rare example of how to navigate the Indian acquisition octopus. In a short span of three years, on his watch, India was able to induct its second aircraft carrier and it was a proud day when Rajiv Gandhi was received on board the INS Viraat soon after it joined the Western Fleet in May 1987.
An accomplished fighter pilot trained in France, Tally Ho had the distinction of being the first Indian pilot to drop hook on “mother” — a sobriquet for the carrier — when he landed on the INS Vikrant in 1961. A role model for his peers and younger colleagues, the young Tahiliani set a high benchmark for himself and expected no less from his crew. The seniormost fighter pilot of the navy is designated “Grey Eagle”, and Tally Ho saw far and in a
Tahiliani’s personal integrity and frugal demeanour endeared him to his subordinates, and one characteristic is telling. Whether it was to pick up his daughter from the airport or make his way to the golf course, the “old man” drove his own car and ensured a degree of rectitude that’s now recalled with some nostalgia, given the current degree of ostentation and varying aspersions associated with the military brass.
Arun Prakash, a fellow aviator who succeeded Tahiliani as naval chief 20 years later in 2004, recalls the greyest of the grey eagles thus: “A seaman, aviator and test pilot par excellence, Ram T was a byword for integrity and forthrightness. An icon of our times, who led the navy with dash and sagacity.”
In my last chat with him about naval history and the major events on his watch, towards the end, with a twinkle in his eye he added: “Do not forget to mention that I am the first Sindhi to be elevated to chief.”
I have not, Ram Sir. RIP.
(The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)