A New Delhi-based Indian journalist had once seen him walk with a slight limp in the living room of his Noida home. On being asked whether he was OK, the host just brushed the question aside, saying: “Oh it’s nothing; just that old bullet wound that keeps nagging me in the December chill.” And he would happily lead his guest on to the next topic for discussion — his superannuation plans!
Nothing unusual, one might say, for a serving member of the Armed Forces in a country like India with a history of wars and insurgencies on its western, northern and eastern fronts. True, indeed. Nothing unusual at all. Except that this was not just any soldier, but the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in a country that boasts of the world’s fourth-strongest military force.
Oh, and did I tell you that this four-star general also wore his heart on his sleeve?
General Bipin Rawat, India’s first CDS, who died along with his wife Madhulika and 11 other serving Indian military personnel in a horrific helicopter crash near Ooty in Tamil Nadu on Wednesday afternoon, leaves behind huge shoes to fill for his successor.
Here was a man who was entrusted with the Herculean task of charting out a new course for the Indian military, whereby the three Service units in the form of the Army, Navy and Air Force would have to be synergised under a unitary command and control centre, thereby ensuring better cohesion, coordination and operational flexibility. And General Rawat was on course. As the CDS, he was determined to execute the difficult brief of creating a ‘Theatre Command’ in India, as it is called.
But little did he know that fate had already kept a vastly different script ready for him in the ‘theatre command’ called Life!
The 2015 helicopter crash
In 2015, General Rawat had survived a helicopter crash in Dimapur, Nagaland. That accident was nothing more than just an operational hazard for a soldier who had taken bullets from insurgents on several occasions while being posted in Jammu and Kashmir and in India’s Northeast. He was battle-hardened to the core. He knew what it felt to look the enemy in the eye.
The Sword of Honour he had won while being a cadet at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun was a harbinger of a career steeped in valour and patriotism. Until his last breath, he remained committed to those virtues. There is an adage that ‘An army fights the last War’.
Because no matter the technological advancements, no matter the wars in the cyber realm, no matter the smart bombs, no matter the chemical weapons … every inch of those last 200 or 300-odd yards have to be traversed on foot and won with sweat and blood. No shortcuts. No alternatives. No Plan Bs. And it would be an understatement to say that General Rawat understood this for the life of his.
Perhaps that is why the man who had been entrusted with the responsibility of bringing about synchrony between the three Services of the Armed Forces in India, had also intended to ring in large-scale operational reforms in Indian Army. In fact, General Rawat had once reportedly said in an off-the-cuff comment that left to him, he would perhaps have just one brigadier but a thousand major-generals in the Indian Army.
He tried his best to push through those reforms with the best of intentions and was a hard taskmaster at that. No wonder, his agenda of a unified ‘Theatre Command’ met with its fiercest resistance from within the Services itself, with this being an open-secret that Indian Air Force in particular was rather wary of the plan, worrying that under the ‘Theatre Command’, it would lose considerable operational independence. But General Rawat was very clear in his mind.
Never the one to mince his words, he had once said this very clearly in public domain: “The idea of having a unified command centre for the Armed Forces was first mooted just after the Kargil War in 1999. Since then, it has taken 20 years for CDS to be implemented. So, shall we wait for another 20 years for a ‘Theatre Command’ to take shape, or do we attach a timeline to it?” He courted controversy when two lieutenant-generals were ignored as the government preferred General Rawat as the new Chief-of-Army Staff in 2016.
He courted controversy when he was chosen as India’s first CDS, ignoring some of the other senior officers. And he courted controversy yet again when he openly supported the Indian Army officer who drove his Jeep with a man tied to the front of the vehicle in an attempt to quell an unruly, stone-pelting mob in India-administered Kashmir.
Keeping protocol aside
But despite the controversies, here was a man who was 100 per cent transparent and committed to his responsibilities of protecting his country — come what may. Here was a man who, keeping protocol aside, would not think twice before picking up the phone on a Sunday morning and calling a retired senior officer to discuss the procurement of a latest automatic rifle for the infantry.
And here was a man would tell the media, without batting an eyelid: “If terrorists think they are ready to cross over and bother us, then let them know that we have also kept a place ready for them — two-and-a-half feet below the ground!”
All through Wednesday evening, prime-time television news channels in India kept flashing file shots of his wife, Madhulika, standing right next to General Rawat’s chair as he took charge as the Army Chief-of-Staff in 2016 — probably indicating that way beyond what service protocol would merely necessitate, Mr and Mrs Rawat indeed shared a close bond.
Images that daughters Kritika and Tarini will probably be clinging on to for the rest of their lives. Hours ago on Wednesday, as the Mi-17V5 helicopter crashed on a hilly slope and burst into a ball of fire, Mr and Mrs Rawat were probably only inches away from each other in that ill-fated chopper. ‘Till death do us part ...’ as they say, in the ‘Theatre of Life’!