India’s first chief of defence staff Gen. Bipin Rawat.

Chief of defence staff Rawat killed in chopper crash

The Rawats are survived by daughters Kritika and Tarini.

The only survivor of the crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, is under medical treatment at the Military Hospital in Wellington, the IAF confirmed.

Rawat, 63, the country’s senior-most military officer and longest-serving four-star general, survived a chopper crash in February 2015 in the Northeast.

“With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen Bipin Rawat, Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident,” the IAF said in a statement put out on Twitter six hours after the crash.

The dead include Rawat’s defence assistant Brig. L.S. Lidder and the CDS’ staff officer Lt. Col. Harjinder Singh, it is learnt. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari rushed to the crash site to take stock of the situation.

Fourteen people, including the chopper’s crew, were on board the Russian-origin Mi-17V5, a modern and reliable military helicopter.

“Gen Bipin Rawat was an outstanding soldier. A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces and security apparatus. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter.

The PM added that as India’s first CDS, Rawat worked on diverse aspects relating to the armed forces, including higher defence reforms and brought with him a rich experience of serving in the army. “India will never forget his exceptional service.”

Rawat was on his way to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington to address the faculty and student officers there, officials said. Singh, the sole survivor of the crash and a decorated fighter pilot, is directing staff at DSSC.

An inquiry has been ordered into the crash, the Air Force said. The chopper was on its way from the Sulur Air Force station to DSSC when it went down near Coonoor. The CDS, his wife and seven others had flown to Sulur from New Delhi in an Embraer jet of the IAF’s VVIP communication squadron.

The CDS’ shocking demise will have implications for ongoing military reforms, including theaterization, and the government will have to move swiftly to announce a succession plan.

Rawat was spearheading the military’s theaterization drive to enhance the effectiveness of the armed forces and reshape the conduct of future operations. Rawat took over as CDS on 31 December 2019, after serving as the army chief for a full three-year term. He held the four-star rank for almost five years.

“General Rawat epitomized military professionalism like no one else. He was driven by his own convictions. He took strong decisions even if they were not popular. The organization’s interest was topmost for him, and he didn’t really care about his own popularity,” said Lt Gen B.S. Sandhu (retd), who knew Rawat for more than 45 years and was his course mate at the National Defence Academy.

Sandhu’s wife Kuka and Madhulika attended Daulat Ram College in Delhi together.

As CDS, Rawat wore multiple hats— he was the permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC), headed the department of military affairs (DMA), and was the single-point military adviser to the defence minister.

The National Democratic Alliance government superseded two top generals—lieutenant generals Praveen Bakshi and P.M. Hariz—to appoint Rawat army chief in 2016, his experience in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east tipping the scales in his favour.

Those who have known the general for several decades say Rawat always thought outside the box, took hard decisions and was not afraid of challenging the status quo, qualities he drew on while working out the broad structures of India’s proposed theatre commands.

Son of a three-star general, Rawat was commissioned into the army in December 1978 after graduating from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, where he was awarded the coveted Sword of Honour for exceptional performance. He was commissioned into the 5/11 Gorkha Rifles.

From initiating the biggest exercise to restructure the army to closely supervising India’s two publicly acknowledged surgical strikes on foreign soil, Rawat, a rare general who did not play golf, brought enormous experience to the table as India’s first CDS.

The Rawats were planning to build a house in Dehradun and wanted to settle there after the completion of his term as CDS, family friends said.

In a statement, the army said Rawat was a visionary who had initiated far-reaching reforms in the military’s higher defence organization.

“He was instrumental in creating the foundation of India’s joint theatre commands and giving impetus to the increased indigenization of military equipment, a legacy which will be carried on and strengthened by successive generations,” the Army added.

The horrific Mi-17 crash near Coonoor came 58 years after top military officials—Lt Gen Daulat Singh, Lt Gen Bikram Singh, Air Vice Marshal EW Pinto, Maj Gen KND Nanavati, Brig S.R. Oberoi and Flight Lieutenant S.S. Sodhi — were killed in a chopper crash near Poonch on 22 November 1963.

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