Belonging to a family of military officers and one of the most celebrated soldiers of his time, General Bipin Rawat took over as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on January 1, 2020 – the first to occupy the post that made him the country’s foremost military officer. Since his youth he was known for two things the most, the ability to come up with ideas, and not being shy to express them.
As CDS, he ranked above the other four-star military officers heading the Navy, Air Force and Army, headed the Department of Military Affairs in the Defence Ministry, carving out responsibilities that were with the Department of Defence till then, and was the Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister on all matters related to the forces.
Rawat died in a helicopter crash near Coonoor on Wednesday afternoon, along with his wife Madhulika Rawat, and officers in his staff, including Brig L S Lidder, his senior-most staff officer.
As the Army’s 27th Chief, from December 31, 2016, to December 31, 2019, Rawat was known as a jovial, straight-talking officer who initiated studies to re-organise the Army and make it a leaner force, to make it fit for wars of the future. Another reform initiated by him was creation of Integrated Battle Groups, which are like bigger brigades, agile and self-sufficient in combat formations.
His elevation to lead the Army though was not without controversy, as he superseded two of his seniors to the role, a precedent repeated after 33 years.
A gregarious man, he could be found smiling in the dour corridors of South Block. He wore his ranks and stars lightly, willing to speak up on topics that others of his stature would shy away from.
Lt Gen S K Saini, who retired as Vice Chief of the Army earlier this year, and crossed paths with Rawat several times professionally, called him “unflappable” and said that Rawat “had a lot of ideas”, although, he added, “I won’t say everybody found those ideas favourable across the board.” Rawat “came up innovative solutions to manpower problems”, he said.
“He was very open about issues and did not mince his words. Even if they were offensive or they heard others, he came out with those. Many people got offended by what he used to say. Nonetheless, he was very frank and expressed himself.”
“Operationally also, he had a very extensive experience of counter-insurgency operations. You require people who understand ops, and remain steadfast. Things go wrong sooner than one realises.”
Saini said that contrary to popular belief, Rawat “was amenable to suggestions and ideas”.
When the Balakot airstrikes were planned, Rawat, who was the Army Chief then, called a meeting of the Army Commanders, Saini, himself an Army Commander then, recalled. “He took us into confidence and forewarned us that this is high-profile retaliation, therefore we must not be caught off-guard,” he said.
Rawat told the Commanders to have the air defence grid ready, and while “surprise is of paramount importance, after that we have to have a balanced posture, we will get retaliation”.
Later, during the standoff in eastern Ladakh, CDS Rawat attended a “large number” of China Study Group meetings “and always came up with very practical and implementable suggestions”, according to Saini. He said Rawat was part of the decision-making process of the Army’s operations to capture the heights on Kailash ranges in August 2020, which gave India leverage in negotiations.
Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen D S Hooda, under whom the 2016 surgical strikes were conducted, had many personal and professional interactions with Rawat as both belonged to Gorkha regiments. “During the surgical strikes he was the Vice Chief, and was there for all the meetings and briefings at the Army Headquarters,” said Hooda. He said Rawat “pitched in with ideas on how we can improve” the operation, adding that both of them worked closely on the plan for the surgical strikes.
According to Hooda, Rawat was “very open to reform”. He was somebody who could take tough decisions on how the Army should be reformed, he said.
Rawat was commissioned in the Fifth Battalion of the 11 Gorkha Rifles in December 1978 after graduating from the IMA with a Sword of Honour, as the head of his batch. This was the Battalion commanded by his father Lt Gen Laxman Singh Rawat, who retired as Deputy Chief of Army. His grandfather was also in the Army.
Former Western Army Commander Lt Gen KJ Singh, who was with Rawat in the NDA as his senior, said he was a “man willing to put his ideas on the block, never hesitated to articulate”.
Another officer who knew Rawat from his early days was Lt Gen B K Bopanna, who was from the same battalion as Rawat.
Rawat was his first adjutant when he commanded his battalion, Bopanna said. Rawat, he said, was a very bright youngster who “grew up very well, and grew to high ranks because of individual capabilities”.
“He was a fearless speaker, and never minced any words. He had the trait even as a young officer, to the annoyance of his seniors,” Bopanna said. “Otherwise a very balanced officer; sincere, loyal, hard working.”
“He could look into the future and foresee likeable problem areas.”
An alumnus of St Edward’s School, Shimla, and the NDA, Rawat studied at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington; and Higher Command, National Defence College. He also attended the Command and General Staff Course at Fort Leavenworth in the US.
During his 41 years in the Army, Rawat went on to command an Infantry battalion along the Line of Actual Control in the Eastern Sector, a Rashtriya Rifles Sector, an Infantry Division in the Kashmir Valley and a Corps in the North East. He headed the Western Command as a Lt General and was later appointed the Vice Army Chief.
As a senior officer, he commanded a Multinational Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As CDS, his primary roles were to “ensure optimum utilisation of allocated budget, usher in more synergy in procurement, training and operations of the services through joint planning and integration” and “facilitate indigenisation of weapons and equipment to the maximum extent possible while formulating the overall defence acquisition plan for the three services”.
He was a recipient of the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vishist Seva Medal, Yush Seva Medal, Seva Medal, VSM, Chief of Army Staff Commendation on two occasions and the Army Commander’s Commendation.