India’s top general, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, was among the 13 victims of Wednesday’s military helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu. Rawat, his wife, and several other officers were on board the chopper, which was heading to Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, where Rawat was scheduled to give a speech. Incidentally, Rawat was an alumnus of the same military college. While he was no friend of Pakistan, or even peace, given his public statements during times of heightened tensions with Pakistan and China, his death is still unfortunate. Most soldiers hope to either die on the battlefield or live long, full lives — not die in a peacetime transport accident.
The Russian-made helicopter involved in the crash has a tragic history in several countries, including India and Pakistan. The Mi-17 and its variants have been involved in several high-profile crashes in recent years, including the 2015 chopper crash in Pakistan, which killed the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines among a total of eight people. A 2009 crash in then-FATA killed 41 people, mostly army and paramilitary personnel. Several other crashes, including those of aircraft carrying world leaders and top military officials, have also occurred around the world.
Rawat’s death is a massive loss for the Indian government. The general was considered a close Modi ally, having been handpicked as army chief in 2016 over generals of greater and near-equal seniority who were considered more qualified for the role. He was widely criticised for making political statements, which many felt were unbecoming of a serving officer, let alone an army chief. Still, despite his sabre-rattling and off-colour remarks, Rawat had a distinguished career, having led troops in Occupied Kashmir and during border skirmishes with China.
At the time of his death, Rawat was working on modernising the Indian armed forces and introducing widespread reforms in their command structure after the Modi government decided to model it on the unified, regionalised American system. While those reforms will not be derailed, they were already well behind schedule, having only been introduced in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Rawat’s successor will face an uphill task getting them on schedule.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2021.