The government on Saturday announced Lt General Bipin Rawat would be the new Army Chief, superseding two seniormost Lt Generals, Praveen Bakshi and P M Hariz. The only other time the seniormost officer has not been appointed Chief was in 1983, when Lt Gen S K Sinha was overlooked for the post in favour of Gen A S Vaidya. Lt Gen Rawat, who is currently Vice Chief of Army Staff, will take over as the 26th Chief after Gen Dalbir Singh retires on December 31. Lt Gen Rawat is an Infantry officer, having been commissioned in the Fifth Battalion of the Eleven Gorkha Rifles.
Lt Gen Bakshi, who heads the Kolkata-headquartered Eastern Command, is from the Armoured Corps. The Armoured Corps and Infantry are both fighting arms. Gen Shankar Roy Chowdhury was the last Armoured Corps officer to be Army Chief (1994-97). Lt Gen Hariz, who is from the Mechanised Infantry, heads the Pune-headquartered Southern Command.
Senior Defence Ministry sources told The Sunday Express that “merit and suitability have been taken into account while selecting the new Army Chief”. “Lt Gen Rawat”, they said, “had more than 10 years of experience in counter-insurgency operations and on the Line of Control, besides serving on the China border. He has the requisite experience considering the current situation”.
Lt Gen Hariz, by contrast, had no experience in an operational area, the sources said. And Lt Gen Bakshi had mostly been posted in Rajasthan. “The two postings he has done in J&K are both in staff — once as a Colonel in Doda and then as a Lt General as the Chief of Staff in Northern Command,” they said.
The government’s choice is likely to trigger accusations of political interference, because the postings of an Armoured Corps officer are in the plains and deserts where tank battles are likely to be fought with Pakistan. Also, Lt Gen Bakshi was heading one of two operational commands, the Eastern Command, which looks after the sensitive China border and conducts counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast.
“It is the government’s prerogative to select the new Army Chief. It has only happened once earlier that the seniormost officer was overlooked, in the case of Lt Gen S K Sinha in 1983. But the criterion for deep selection by the government is not clear as it knows little about the job of an Army Commander. There is nothing spectacular about serving in J&K. If there is a war tomorrow, it could be fought in plains and deserts. What happens then?” said Lt Gen H S Panag (retd), a former Northern Army Commander, who has taught the three contenders at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.
Before Saturday’s announcement, the government had deviated from another usual practice — that of announcing the incoming Army Chief at least 60 days in advance. The delay led to intense speculation that the government may overlook the principle of seniority in making its choice. The fact that Lt Gen Rawat moved in as the Vice Chief on September 1 — when Lt Gen Bakshi was the seniormost of the Army Commanders and next in line to be the Chief — fanned the speculation.
Commissioned in the Army in December 1978, Lt Gen Rawat commanded an Infantry battalion along the Line of Actual Control in the Eastern Sector, a 5 Sector Rashtriya Rifles, and 19 Infantry Division in the Kashmir Valley. As a Brigadier, he also commanded a multinational brigade in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was twice awarded the Force Commander’s Commendation. Prior to taking over as the Vice Chief, he was GOC-in-C, Southern Command, at Pune.
The government also announced that Air Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa will be the 22nd Chief of the Air Force, replacing Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha who retires at the end of the year. Commissioned in the IAF in June 1978 as a fighter pilot, he is a Qualified Flying Instructor and has flown various types of fighter aircraft in his distinguished career. During the Kargil operations, he commanded a fighter squadron and himself flew numerous night strike missions over mountainous terrain.
Air Marshal Dhanoa has the distinction of having held a number of important operational appointments including Station Commander of a fighter base and leader of an Indian Military Training Team abroad. He has also served as Chief Instructor (Air) at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Intelligence) at Air Headquarters, and Senior Air Staff Officer of two operational Commands. Prior to being appointed Vice Chief, he was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the South-Western Air Command.