Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of defence staff, is killed in a helicopter crash
Dec 8th 2021IT WAS A short daytime flight, ferrying a grandee from an airbase to a nearby defence college. But the Mi-17V5 carrying General Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of defence staff, and 12 others including his wife, did not make it. The 23-year-old Russian-built helicopter slammed into a wooded slope just a few minutes short of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington in the Nilgiri Hills, a tea-growing region in southern India. The general himself had studied at the all-services officer training institute, and was due to give a lecture that afternoon. Only one passenger, a decorated fighter pilot, appears to have survived the crash.General Rawat was no ordinary serviceman. The 63-year-old was India’s highest-ranking uniformed officer and the first to serve as a joint chief of its three military services. The role was created in 2019 as part of reforms intended to modernise and streamline one of the world’s biggest and most tradition-bound armed forces. Part of General Rawat’s mission was to break down the divisions among the army, navy and air force and create instead a cohesive central command. That, in turn, was to oversee regional commands comprising all three services, to allow a more coordinated response to the threats India faces. This change, long demanded by civilian planners, has grown more urgent as India’s customary preoccupation with Pakistan is superseded by the rise of a much mightier and increasingly aggressive China.Despite inevitable speculation, the crash appears to have been accidental. The Indian army has operated more than a hundred such aircraft for two decades, very often in more difficult circumstances. The payload, weather conditions and terrain posed no special challenges. “It is natural to look for causes,” says Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst, “but very often a crash can happen within full compliance.”General Rawat will be quickly replaced, most likely by the most senior of the current service heads. Tough and blunt, the outgoing chief was widely admired in the armed forces and broadly popular with the public. But he was at times controversial. In 2016 Narendra Modi, the prime minister, selected him as army chief over the heads of two more senior generals. His subsequent appointment as overall commander was seen by some as a reward for breaking with a strong tradition of strictly insulating the army from politics by occasionally voicing views supportive of Mr Modi’s Hindu-nationalist policies. In 2017 he awarded a commendation for “personal initiative” to an officer whose unit kidnapped a passerby in the restive region of Kashmir and strapped him to the bonnet of an army jeep in order to discourage stone-throwing.Only a few days before the fatal crash, Indian soldiers again invited criticism for human-rights offences. According to army spokesmen, commandos in the far north-eastern state of Nagaland had received reports that guerrillas were using a road not far from the border with Myanmar. When a pickup carrying a group of men approached the soldiers on December 4th, they claim they warned it to stop, opening fire when it failed to do so. Survivors insist that there was no warning, and that the eight people riddled with bullets were coal miners returning to their village. Subsequent clashes between soldiers and angry villagers left seven more civilians dead.Indian politicians and pundits are in general very protective of the armed forces. Even so, General Rawat’s successor will face mounting pressure both to complete structural reforms and to improve performance—including respect for the rights of other Indians. At the same time, and despite growing external threats, the army will continue to face what may be its oldest and most intractable foe: stingy budgets. General Rawat’s tragic death may not have been due to old or faulty equipment, but much of India’s other kit—including 1960s-era MiG and Jaguar fighter jets—is woefully outdated. And with China’s GDP outstripping India’s by a factor of five, the northern giant is now spending over three times more than India on its army.