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What General Bipin Rawat leaves behind

🔴 Raj Mehta writes: Along with his work as CDS, his empathy will be part of his legacy

Written by Raj Mehta |
Updated: December 12, 2021 7:56:12 am
General Bipin Rawat

Four hundred years ago, the poet John Donne, convalescing from a near-fatal illness, famously advised: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” — it is inevitable that we’ll all die one day. This was an outlook that the Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway replicated in his celebrated book woven around death, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I’m sure my friend and colleague General Bipin Rawat, given his ruddy health, would have responded with his infectious smile and bonhomie. He had taken two days off from a frenetic work schedule to address Indian and foreign students and faculty at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, the Nilgiri cantonment named after “Iron Duke” Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.  Like the Iron Duke, Bipin too was known for his unswerving ability to deliver on the daunting. His mandate as the Chief of Defence Staff was ensuring Integrated Theatre Commands, streamlining repetitive and wasteful defence expenditure and generating self-sufficiency in weapon manufacture, despite the sometimes trenchant opposing views that cropped up. Undaunted, he’d hoped to amicably nullify them, bringing all on board before retiring.

This requiem isn’t about the fatal crash. It is mainly about the writer’s memories of Bipin and his wife Madhulika’s essential humanity. This is far removed from the sometimes traumatising, thoughtless and irresponsible social chatter, the surreal and gushing TV tributes and the graphic footage showing clumsily-blotted crash victims, wreckage flames and detritus that have overshadowed the dignified recollections about the late CDS’ career.

However, in passing and for the benefit of lay readers, the writer, having been a student at the Defence Services Staff College in 1984-85, then a part of the faculty from 1993 to 1997, and still later, from 2018 to 2020, responsible for creating the niche Madras Regimental Centre War Museum in Wellington, has an accurate recall of the Nilgiris area. This is where the state-of-the-art Mi-17 V5 helicopter crashed, presumably in pea-soup weather, and exploded in a horrendous ball of flame.

The crash occurred at the fringes of the Nanchappanchathram settlement of mainly tea-garden workers. This settlement is located in a narrow valley on the opposite side of the two-lane Mettupalayam-Coonoor-Wellington highway on which the upmarket Kattery Tourist Park is located.  The road rises 5,000 feet above sea level, with 15 steep bends in the 34 kilometres from Mettupalayam, which is 1,000 feet ASL, to Coonoor, and thence to Wellington at 6,000 feet ASL, eight kilometres further away.

Commencing from the highway, there is an 800-metre long cemented village pathway ending in 150 steps, beyond which a short mud track through the shola forest leads to the crash site.

The writer’s last command in a 39-year long career, commencing in August 2003, was the elite 19 Infantry Division, headquartered in the north Kashmir town of Baramulla. This division had saved Kashmir for India during the 1947-1948 Indo-Pakistan War.

In 2012, the writer got an unexpected invitation from then General Officer Commanding of the 19 Division, Major General Bipin Rawat, for interacting with the local Kashmiri school and college children and awaam (community); this, after attending an open-ended Division symposium in which panellists interacted with students, civil Para-military, J&K Police, district-level appointments and the Dagger Division rank and file on the need, ways and means of improving working-level military-civil relations. This was the writer’s first meeting with Bipin.

During the three days of professional and social interaction, the writer called on the GOC at his Jhelum riverbank “hut”, which had been occupied in 1948 by former Army chief, General KS Thimayya, DSO and the Dagger Division’s first Indian GOC. What stood out was his and his graduate-in-psychology wife’s endearing humanity. Baramulla is a frontier town where terrorism first started in 1986-1987. The townspeople responded to the kindness and empathy in Bipin’s overtures. Under him, the contours of hearts and minds took on refreshing tones. The feedback was: Jenaab Rawat aur unki Begum Sahiba awaam ke saath behtareen andaaz se pesh aate hain . Unme hamdardi qabil-e-tareef hai. Hamen bahut accha laga ki voh apne buzurg walid ki bahut acchi dekh-rekh karte hain. (The couple interacts with us with courtesy and empathy. We appreciate that he is taking good care of his aged father).

Nibbling the delectable Kashmiri snacks in the GOC’s well-appointed hut, which had once been occupied by the writer, he was deeply moved when Bipin brought in his wheelchair-bound father, a veteran lieutenant general.

Though we never met or spoke again, we kept ourselves informed about each other’s well-being, even as Bipin kept his focus on his charter as a rapidly rising officer who became CDS and even when this writer sometimes disagreed on what he thought needed better handling by Bipin. Professional soldiers seek unbiased and objective opinions and it is my feeling that Bipin respected such feedback whenever he got it.

Bipin Rawat’s legacy will crystallise over time but what his worst critics accept is that he made the Integrated Theatre Commands and linked issues his key focus points, regardless of their final delivery shape. His heartfelt humanity will rise above the AI-fuelled, Internet of Things-driven warfighting to remind us that soldiers fight and win wars when handled with professional ability that is laced with a dash of essential humanity.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2021 under the title ‘A dash of humanity’. The writer, a retired major general, is Director Sarthi Museum Consultancy

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