Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat died along with his wife, Madhulika Rawat, and eleven others in a helicopter crash in the Nilgiris on Wednesday. The nation conveys its heartfelt condolences to all those who lost their near and dear ones in this tragic incident. We also pray that Group Captain Varun Singh, who is being treated for injuries in MH Wellington, comes through.
In this untimely demise of General Bipin Rawat, I lost a long-time friend, the Armed Forces lost a great leader, and the nation lost one of its best soldiers it ever had. Many might disagree but I will qualify.
Till 2015, India was a soft nation. Any two bit terrorist could do anything and get away. When India carried out cross-border surgical strikes on terrorist camps in Myanmar, General Rawat masterminded them as General Officer Commanding 3 Corps in Dimapur. In 2016, as the Vice Chief of Army Staff, he was instrumental in the decision making, planning and execution of cross-LoC (Line of Control) strikes against terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). He prepared the Indian Army for any follow-up escalation.
His finest action was to stop the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its tracks at Doklam when he was the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) in 2017. For the first time after 1967, China was thwarted physically by India. After the Doklam incident, India developed the belief that it can stand up to China. The PLA invincibility bubble was pricked. In 2019, General Rawat had fully prepared the Indian Army to enable the Indian Air Force (IAF) to carry out strikes on Jabba Top (nee Balakot).
Last year when the PLA aggression manifested along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, he was at the helm of affairs, as CDS. His decision would have led to India occupying the Kailash Range. It forced the PLA to retreat eight km from Finger 4 on the Pangong Lake, after destroying its own bunkers. This has not happened after the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986-87. The Chinese are still sitting there.
General Rawat was not flamboyant like Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who decisively defeated Pakistan. He was not brilliant strategically like General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, who outflanked China. However, connect all the operational dots I have outlined, something far greater comes out. He has incrementally reinforced belief in the Indian Armed Forces to defend the nation. India’s operational thought process has transformed irreversibly. He leaves a hard and strategically confident India to take its rightful place in world affairs. We need to thank General Rawat, one of India’s best soldiers, for this.
Bipin Rawat was outstanding from the time he won the ‘Sword of Honour’ at the Indian Military Academy. He lived up to the initial promise with an outstanding professional and academic record throughout his life. In 1991, we listened to many distinguished speakers as students in DSSC, Wellington. Most of us, bright-eyed young Majors, unquestioningly lapped up whatever they spoke. Bipin Rawat was one of the few who could get into an intellectual discussion with the speaker. He was a cut above the rest even then.
Later in 2001, we did the Higher Command Course in Army War College after finishing command of our respective units in the Eastern Sector. We used to have lengthy discussions about how to deal with China and the PLA in future. It was an oddity at that time when the Twin Towers had just been brought down, Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ was the international discussion and Pakistan was India’s national obsession. My dissertation on China, along with all my writing thereafter, was always part of his study. We were convinced since then that China and the PLA would one day dominate the national thought and we should be prepared for it. This conviction and effort to prepare India for it continued till the end.
General Rawat had a balanced professional career. He commanded 5/11 Gorkhas in Kibithu (Walong Sector). He commanded an RR Sector in the Valley and a UN brigade as part of MONUSCO. He commanded 19 Infantry Division along the LoC and 3 Corps in Dimapur. He had great operational insight and experience in conventional and sub conventional operations. He put this to good effect as a COAS and CDS. His exposure in the US Army Command and General Staff College widened and rounded his thinking. He applied all this knowledge to good effect when appointed as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff. He started initiating reforms in India’s Higher Défence Organisation and has laid the groundwork for enhanced jointness and roll out of joint theatre commands.
I personally know that he was convinced that the only way forward to strategic independence was to be ‘aatmanirbhar’. His stress on it is reflected in the long ‘negative list’ of imports and in his persistent insistence that the AK 203 rifle factory should come up in India to make us self-sufficient for small arms.
The Bipin Rawat I knew was a man of unimpeachable integrity and rare honesty. He was quite outspoken and wore his heart on his sleeve. I always wondered where he got his bustling energy and stamina from. He had tremendous qualities of head and heart. This is quite different from the public perception that he was politically motivated and often crossed lines which uniformed personnel do not. In most cases he was quoted out of context. However if one looks at it dispassionately, he was also able to bring about a great degree of politico-military convergence in the national thought process which was sorely lacking.
Madhulika Rawat was a great lady. She took care of their home base when Bipin served India at its borders for a long time. For the best part, since we knew her, she stayed at Noida, in a completely civilian set up, looking after their parents, bringing up their young daughters while eschewing all the trappings and benefits of Army life. It was a true sacrifice for the nation. She was the epitome of simple grace and goodness. My wife and I will personally miss her. Our heart goes to their daughters in this hour of sadness. May god bless General and Madhulika Rawat. May their souls rest in peace.
Lt Gen PR Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal.