By K.M. Seethi
India mourns the unexpected loss of General Bipin Rawat—India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)—his wife and other defence personnel who died after an Indian Airforce helicopter (Mi-17VH) crashed in the Nilgiris district in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, killing 13 on board. The tragedy came amid preparations for the 50th anniversary of the Indian victory in the 1971 war. General Rawat and his colleagues were on their way to the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington for a function.
Even as the preparations for cremation of the departed military personnel get underway in the national capital, tributes continued to pour in from different parts of the world for General Rawat and his colleagues. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that General Rawat was “an outstanding soldier” and “a true patriot” who “greatly contributed to modernising (Indian) armed forces and security apparatus.” Modi said his “insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional.” Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi called it “an unprecedented tragedy.” The Communist Party of India ( Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury and several other leaders from both ruling and opposition parties also condoled the demise of General Rawat and other military personnel.
The Secretary General António Guterres, while expressing his heartfelt condolences, recalled that General Rawat had “served the United Nations with distinction” when he was Brigade Commander of the North Kivu Brigade of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo (MONUC) in 2008 and 2009. The U.S. officials also mourned the death of Gen. Rawat. A defence spokesman said that “General Rawat was a valued partner. He was a strong proponent of the U.S.-India defense partnership” who “helped to deepen the strategic partnership” between the two countries. The Secretary of State Antony Blinken said General Rawat was “an exceptional leader who served his country and contributed to the US-India defence relationship.” Russian envoy to India, Nikolay Kudashev, said that “Russia has lost a very close friend, who played a big role in promotion of our bilateral special and privileged strategic partnership.” Sun Weidong, Chinese ambassador to India, also expressed “deep condolences on the sad demise” of General Bipin Rawat, his wife and other victims in the helicopter crash accident.” From Pakistan, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Lt Gen Nadeem Raza and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa “offered their condolences” on Gen Rawat’s “tragic death” and “the loss of precious lives.” Gen. Rawat and Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Bajwa had served together in the UN mission in Congo in 2008.
Rise to CDS
General Rawat was undoubtedly a man with high profile credentials and commitment in the Indian military establishment. His renewed career as CDS was hardly two years since his assumption of office. General Rawat became India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, following the announcement of the creation of the post by Prime Minister Modi in August 2019. The post of CDS was envisaged as the Principal Military Adviser to the defence minister on all tri-services matters with a view to providing independent inputs and advice to the political brass. The very idea of CDS was mooted by a Group of Ministers (GoM), way back in 2001, that was assigned the responsibility of studying the Kargil Review Committee (1999) Report. The Kargil Review Committee(KRC), headed by K Subrahmanyam, was appointed by the government following the India-Pakistan war in 1999. The Committee had recommended a comprehensive review of the national security framework for better decision-making in defence matters and suggested that necessary mechanisms be put in place between the Defence Ministry and the Service Headquarters, and the interface between them should be holistically studied and reorganised.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee had raised this issue seriously. The Report of the Standing Committee on Defence–which dealt with action taken by the Government on the recommendations/observations contained in their Thirty-sixth Report (Fourteenth Lok Sabha) presented to Lok Sabha and laid in Rajya Sabha on 24 February 2009—had “emphasized on reorganization of the entire gamut of national security management and apex decision making and the structure and interface between the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces Headquarters so as to promote improved understanding and the efficient functioning of the Ministry.”
The Committee had noted that the position of the Chairman, Chiefs of the Staff Committee (COSC), a forum for the three Services to discuss matter having a bearing on the activities of the Services and also to advise the Ministry, presently devolves on a longest serving Chief of Staff and consequently rotates amongst three Services. In the light of the fact that the Chairman of the COSC has no command and control authority over the Services other than his own, the Committee had expressed doubts over the efficacy of the system in emergent situations by ensuring quick response and coordinated action. In this regard, the Committee had found that the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) exists in 67 countries including France, Germany, UK and USA and the system has proved its efficacy in those countries. The Committee had recommended to take timely and appropriate steps to revise the composition of the COSC by creating a post of CDS to act as Chairman of COSC by evolving consensus on the issue. The Committee had also recommended that the incumbent so selected for the post may be a four-star officer drawn from the Services in rotation and be appointed for a tenure of not less than two years and the duties and responsibilities to be entrusted to the CDS may be decided by the Government keeping in view the objectivity and independence required for the purpose. The Committee had also recommended to give appropriate authority to the Chairman COSC in the present set up to command and control the resources of the Defence Services whenever the situation so demands till such time the post of CDS is created.
The Committee further noted that one of the important recommendations made by KRC and GoM relating to the appointment of CDS could not be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in May 2001 since it was decided that the Government would take a view after consulting the political parties. In the long period of eight years that has passed since then, political consensus on the issue still could not be evolved. The Committee fail to understand the lack of political consensus on such an important issue concerning the security of the nation, particularly when the system of CDS is prevalent in 67 countries of the world which include the developed countries like France, Germany, UK and USA and had proved its efficacy. The Committee conclude from what has been stated above that the concerted efforts in this regard have not been made by the Government. Merely writing letters even from the level of the defence minister is not sufficient. There is an urgent need to use the various fora of interaction with the leaders of the political parties. Besides the efforts can also be made by deliberating the issue in Parliament through various mechanisms available under the rules. The Committee expect the Ministry to take the effective steps as suggested above so that the institution of CDS is set up expeditiously.
Although GoM and the parliamentary committee had recommended creation of CDS, no effort was made to bring this reform in the country’s security apparatus. There was a feeling that the Manmohan Singh government did not have the political will to bring about this significant reform. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a bold initiative to realise this long pending proposal in 2019. On 24 December 2019, the Cabinet Committee on Security resolved to create the post of CDS to enhance the quality of military advice to political leadership through integration of Service inputs. The Chief of Defence Staff thus became the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and would act as the Principal Military Adviser to Raksha Mantri. General Rawat who was the Chief of the Army Staff from 2016 to 2019 continued in his new position as CDS from 1 January 2020.
Among the tasks handled by General Rawat as CDS were; heading the Department of Military Affairs in Ministry of Defence and function as its secretary, acting as the principal military advisor to the defence minister on all tri-service matters, functioning as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, officiating as a member of Defence Acquisition Council chaired by the defence minister, functioning as the Military Advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority, bringing about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services, ensuring optimal utilisation of infrastructure and rationalise it through jointness among the Services, implementing Five-Year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan and Two-Year roll-on Annual Acquisition Plans, as a follow up of Integrated Capability Development Plan, and bringing about reforms in the functioning of three Services with the aim to augment combat capabilities of the Armed Forces by reducing wasteful expenditure.
Military Modernisation and Integration
With General Rawat at the helm of affairs, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), has been striving “to achieve better results at all levels through effective coordination between the Armed Forces and the Civil Services.” This, in fact, helped facilitate “inter-service integration and better civilian-military coordination” in the country’s defence apparatus. Under DMA, the Logistics structure has been refurbished to make it more competent. Along this line, three Joint Services Study Groups (JSSG) have been developing common logistic policies for Services that would enhance all supply chain functions such as planning, procurement, inventory-maintenance, distribution, disposal and documentation.
Under General Rawat, a rigorous work has been underway “to move forward from a Single Service approach to integrated planning and execution.” With this end in view, three Joint Doctrines have been framed during the last year, while four new joint doctrines namely Capstone, Space, Cyber and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) were at an advanced stage. As noted by a government document, a holistic review of the training methodology is also underway to modernise, integrate and rationalise training, as also to ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and resources. As the document indicated, ten subjects were fixed for conducting joint training among the three Services. Also, in line with the goal of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, DMA brought out the first “Positive Indigenisation List” in August 2020 to ban import of 101 items and the “Second Positive Indigenisation List” comprising of 108 items on 31 May 21. These included major Combat Platforms, advanced Weapon Systems, Armament and Ammunition. The Department also kept “issuing new lists at regular intervals to foster building a robust defence industrial eco-system in the Country.” The task of setting up ‘Theatre/Joint Commands’ was also progressing quickly. Under General Rawat, the CDS and DMA were working to promote integration of the three Services through joint planning for best use of military capabilities. The demise of General Rawat came at a crucial juncture of India’s military modernisation and Services integration.
General Rawat was considered as a person with wide-range of experiences and exposure. Having studied at St Edward’s School, Shimla and the National Defence Academy, Rawat was commissioned in 1978 into the Fifth Battalion of the Eleventh Gorkha Rifles of the Infantry. Having graduated from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, he won the coveted ‘Sword of Honour.’ He commanded an Infantry Battalion along the Line of Actual Control in the Eastern Sector and a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in the Kashmir Valley. He then became a part of the UN operation in Congo. Later he was assigned to Command an Infantry Division along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and was Corps Commander in the North-East. General Rawat was conferred several Presidential Awards which include the PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM and the VSM for his distinguished service, which spanned over four decades.
During his long career, one of the major tasks he had undertaken was the 2015 cross border operation in Myanmar, and the Indian Army under his leadership had successfully responded to the challenges from the NSCN-K militants. General Rawat was also a part of planning the 2016 surgical strike against the terrorists in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (following Uri attack), and subsequent operations and planning in Kashmir, and during the India-China standoff in Doklam, and in the conflict in Galwan valley. General Rawat had also incurred a lot of criticism from within and across the country for his forthright comments on national security. For example, his statement that “China is the biggest security threat facing India, ‘much bigger’ than Pakistan,” and that “the country is prepared to deal with ‘any misadventure’ on the “land borders or the high seas”, came in the middle of November. He also had warned: “Should they carry out a Galwan-like incident again, they will get it (back) in the same coin as they got last time.” The neighbouring countries like Pakistan and China had already come down heavily against his statements and comments on India’s handling of national security issues along the LoC and LAC. However, General Rawat remained intrepid and self-assured on issues concerning India’s national security in the background of mounting tensions with both Pakistan and China.
General Rawat was not a military hawk, as some critics would like to call him for his dauntless comments. It was little known that from Doklam, Kashmir to Galwan valley, General Rawat also sought to ensure that diplomacy had no substitute, by initiating and engaging, in different times, with his counterparts in Beijing and Islamabad. He was well behind negotiations with India’s adversaries in the past years, but it seldom went acknowledged. Doubtless, General Rawat would be remembered for his bold initiatives as well as for the modernisation drive in India’s security apparatus.