General Bipin Rawat couldn't see through the reforms he initiated. Doubling down on these reforms would be the biggest tribute to him

Obit: Doubling Down On Military Reforms Would Be The Biggest Tribute To General Bipin Rawat

by Prakhar Gupta - Dec 9, 2021 01:17 PM +05:30 IST
Obit: Doubling Down On Military Reforms Would Be The Biggest Tribute To General Bipin Rawat General Bipin Rawat
  • With his tenure cut short in yesterday's tragic helicopter crash, General Rawat couldn't see through the reforms he initiated. Doubling down on these reforms would be the biggest tribute to General Rawat.

Six years ago, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Laxman Singh Rawat, then a Lieutenant General commanding the III Corps headquartered near Dimapur in Nagaland, had a narrow escape when the Cheetah helicopter he was on crashed 20 seconds into the flight. The single-engine helicopter climbed barely 25 metres before it went out of control and crashed nose-down. It was a miraculous escape for him and others onboard the helicopter.

"Top general survives chopper crash in Dimapur," a headline in a national daily said, reporting the helicopter crash the next day.

Three months later, Rawat supervised a successful cross-border operation into Myanmar against insurgents belonging to militant outfit National Socialist Council of Nagaland-K in response to the killing of 18 jawans of 6 Dogra Regiment. Rawat made it to the headlines, perhaps for the first time. For good or for bad, he remained in the limelight for the rest of his life.

Rawat took over as the Vice Chief of the Indian Army in September 2016, just weeks ahead of the terror strike on an army camp in Uri in which 19 soldiers were killed. As part of the team monitoring India's surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC), which marked a shift in India's response to terror attacks, he kept a close eye on the operation from Delhi.

Three months later, the Narendra Modi government appointed Rawat as the Chief of Army Staff, junking the long-enshrined seniority principle in appointing service chiefs as it ignored two officers senior to him for the post. It was not the first case of supersession in the appointment of the Chief of the Indian Army. Still, the move signalled that Rawat had skills that others perhaps didn't.

Rawat's tenure as the Chief of Army Staff saw the Indian Army send troops into Bhutanese territory in Doklam to stop the construction of a road by China. In an action that would have made General Krishnaswamy Sundarji proud, Rawat refused to budge until China agreed to walk back. Delivering the General BC Joshi Memorial Lecture in Pune just days before India and China agreed to disengage in Doklam, Rawat warned that standoffs like the one at Doklam would only "increase in the future".

Controversies kept pace with him since the day of his appointment as the Army Chief was announced by the government. From the supersession of two army generals for his appointment as chief to the killing of militants in the Kashmir Valley, the opposition mischievously targeted him in its tussles with the government over these issues, drawing him into controversies.

Rawat was often criticised for what he said, mostly unfairly. Many who call themselves military experts, including former generals, mocked Rawat when he proposed that the Northern Theatre Command along the border with China should also have a small Indian Navy element as some of the naval systems are useful in that region. In the months following Rawat's comment, India would go on to deploy the Navy's MiG-29 fighters in the northern sector for operations and use its P-8I submarine-hunting aircraft multiple times to monitor the disposition of Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control.

Criticism did not dissuade him from speaking his mind. He argued that the navy needed submarines more urgently than additional aircraft carriers and stuck to his argument, attracting reproval from those in favour of immediate sanction for a third aircraft carrier.

In his three-decade-long career before becoming Army Chief, Rawat gathered a lifetime's experience in soldiering, served as a Brigade Commander, spent time at the Military Operations Directorate as General Staff Officer and spearheaded a multinational brigade, part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other postings. He was decorated with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal, Yudh Seva Medal and Sena Medal.

However, Rawat's most challenging job came after he was appointed as the Chief of Defence Staff in 2020.

As CDS, Rawat's job was very different from his last one, and the ones before. He not only had to deal with the affairs of three services instead of one, but also push through reforms that had faced resistance from the three services in the past. He was charged with ensuring greater integration among the three services, leading to theaterisation.

In the two years that Rawat served as the CDS, the Indian military made significant progress towards these politically mandated reforms. The turf war over equipment and the hesitancy towards integration and theaterisation has been mostly overcome. The Army has rebalanced its forces towards the border with China. The process of reforms and organisational restructuring in the Army, including the formation of Integrated Battle Groups from large formations, has also begun.

With his tenure cut short in yesterday's (8 December) tragic helicopter crash, Rawat couldn't see through the reforms he initiated. Doubling down on these reforms would be the biggest tribute to him.

Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.

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