COONOOR (India): Indian defence chief Gen Bipin Rawat was among 13 people killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday, raising questions over the future of military reforms he was leading.
Rawat was India’s first chief of defence staff, a position that the government established in 2019, and was seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 63-year-old general was travelling with his wife and senior officers in the Russian-made Mi-17 chopper, which crashed near its destination in southern Tamil Nadu state.
Modi said Rawat was an outstanding soldier and “true patriot” who had helped modernise the country’s armed forces. “His passing away has saddened me deeply,” he wrote on Twitter.
Footage from the crash showed a crowd of people trying to extinguish the fiery wreck with water buckets while a group of soldiers carried one of the passengers away on an improvised stretcher.
Rawat was headed to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) to address students and faculty from the nearby Sulur air force base in Coimbatore.
Pakistan’s top military officers offer condolences
The chopper was already making its descent at the time of the crash and came down around 10 kilometres from the nearest main road, forcing emergency workers to trek to the accident site, a fire official said.
An eyewitness at the scene said he had seen passengers falling from the helicopter before the crash, and that one person had crawled out from the wreckage.
The sole survivor, a captain working at the DSSC, was being treated for his injuries at a nearby military hospital, the air force said.
Rawat came from a military family with several generations having served in the Indian armed forces. He joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in occupied Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
Rawat was chief of the 1.3 million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to the post of defence services chief, which analysts said was aimed to improve coordination between the army, navy and air force.
He was credited with supervising a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar. He was also a polarising figure whose willingness to make political statements put him at odds with the military’s traditional neutrality in a democracy.
He was considered close to the Modi government and turned heads last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to “lynching terrorists” in the occupied territory of Kashmir.
The Mi-17 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is in wide use by defence services around the world, has been involved in a number of accidents over the years.
Fourteen people died in a crash last month when an Azerbaijani military Mi-17 chopper went down during a training flight.
India’s air force said an inquiry was under way into Wednesday’s accident.
Top officers in Pakistan’s military, including the heads of the army, air force and navy, expressed sympathy over the death of Gen Rawat and 12 other people in the helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu state. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) Gen Nadeem Raza also offered condolences on the incident.
In a tweet, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations said: “General Nadeem Raza, CJCSC, & General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS, express condolences on tragic death of #CDS General #BipinRawat, his wife and loss of precious lives in a helicopter crash in India.”
A Pakistan Air Force press release quoted Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu as condoling the deaths of Gen Rawat, his spouse, and 11 other passengers or crewmembers in the helicopter crash.
Chief of the Naval Staff Pakistan Navy Admiral Muhammad Amjad Khan Niazi expressed similar sentiments in a tweet.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2021