Updated: Dec 11, 2021
The sad and untimely demise of General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in the helicopter accident on December 8th has been mourned by the nation.
General Rawat accompanied by his wife Madhulika Rawat and principal staff officers was on his way to interact with students of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) Wellington Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.
The DSSC Course named after the institution is a premier in service instruction for middle level officers of the three services for staff duties in HQs at various levels joint or service specific. Thus, interaction of General Rawat with these relatively young and impressionable officers was significant given that as first Chief of Defence Staff he was engrossed in gigantic task of bringing the services together and raising theatre commands.
This was to be his lasting military legacy but there are many other vectors where he appeared to be a change maker, a unique general different from the cut and dried professional senior military officers in the stereotype mould of the Indian armed forces.
Here is a detailed review of General Bipin Rawat’s military legacy covering the span of not just five years of his tenure as the Chief of the Army Staff as well as the Chief of Defence Staff and beyond–
Punitive Deterrence. General Bipin Rawat first came into the limelight in the strategic community if not the nation as such in 2015 with launch of a transborder operation in Myanmar in response to ambush of a convoy of the Indian Army in Manipur on 4 June 2015. The cross border attack planned by General Rawat then commander of Spear (3) Corps based in Dimapur was the first which was recognised by the State.
While Myanmar denied any infiltration by Indian forces due to internal factors, approximately 15-20 militants of the NSCN K faction were reportedly killed in the Indian operation launched by 21 Para Special Forces Battalion.
These punitive strikes were repeated on the Western Front after the terrorist attack from Pakistan in Uri, in 2016 and Pulwama in 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir.
The 2016 ‘surgical strike,’ was an army special forces operation during which General Bipin Rawat was Vice Chief of the Army while the post Pulwama operation was an air strike carried out by the Indian Air Force when Rawat was the Chief of the Army Staff and a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The role that he played in punitive deterrence as a response to terror thus needs to be underlined.
Change of Counter Militancy Posture. The Indian Army’s counter militancy cum terrorist posture has essentially been people centric outlined in the Army’s low intensity conflict operation doctrine of 2000. General Rawat took a more aggressive approach supporting what some military analysts have criticised for violating rights norms particularly in the case of Major Leetul Gogoi who had used a civilian as a human shield in Jammu and Kashmir in an operation in 2017.
General Rawat’s call for lynching of terrorists by civilians in J & K made during an interaction with Times Now anchor Rahul Shivshanker in November this year (2021) is also seen as a call for vigilantism.
Nevertheless, the General who had extensive experience in counter insurgency from Jammu and Kashmir to the North East adopted a different stance than the usual Indian army approach of winning hearts and minds.
Calling Out China and Pakistan. General Bipin Rawat was open in calling out China and Pakistan as the principal “enemy states,” for India and was particularly vocal about Beijing after intrusions in Ladakh in 2020. The statements by General Rawat so rankled China that in November 2021 an official representation was made reportedly by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Chief of Defence Staff’s accusation of China’s violations of past treaties and thus mistrust.
Open to Interaction with Media. General Rawat stood out as a General who was not media shy unlike many of his predecessors he was willing to engage with the press openly and thus set new standards from what was the legacy of structured interviews mainly conducted on occasions as the services day.
While frequently this did create controversies the most recent one being difference in views of the Ministry of External Affairs and statement made by General Rawat on “villages,” by the Chinese State on the borders with India, the open approach by the late CDS towards the media was a refreshing change, whether this will be followed up by his successors remains to be seen?
CDS – Theaterisation. As the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Rawat undertook the gigantic task of reorganising the Indian armed forces into theatre commands. The process that was started by him in February 2020 was to partaly culminate by the end of his tenure in 2023, however now this has been left to his successor.
Nevertheless for vocally pursuing the concept of theatre command, despite resistance of the services as the Indian Air Force, General Rawat’s contribution would be remembered in the days ahead.
Indigenisation Thrust: Positive Lists. In the overall thrust of indigenisation or Atma Nirbhar Bharat in Defence, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under General Bipin Rawat worked out military arms and munitions that could be exclusively produced in India by publishing the Positive Lists (earlier called as the Negative list on launch). In August 2020, the ‘First Positive Indigenisation’ List comprising 101 items was notified, this was followed on 31 May 2021 with a list of 108 items which were earmarked to be procured indigenously. The DMA had evolved this list after interaction with the services, the industry representatives and the DRDO based on feasibility of production indigenously.
Confidence of Political Leadership. General Bipin Rawat had confidence of the political leadership of his times – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defence ministers – Mr Rajnath Singh in particular.
His nomination as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was a mark of the confidence that the Prime Minister had in his leadership as well as commitment to civil supremacy.
Critics claim that General Rawat broke the Indian Army tradition of being apolitical. Instances of his meeting the RSS Chief Shri Mohan Bhagwat in 2016 have been cited, so were his statements on infiltration of illegal migrants in Assam and some political units in the State. No doubt these were bound to raise controversies and will remain a part of the vestige of General Rawat.
A Unique Contribution. To sum up General Rawat’s military legacy, his contribution will remain unique in many ways as he broke the stereo type of an Army Chief who became the CDS in his forthright approach and calling a spade a spade.
Indeed, the outpouring of grief at his sad demise denotes how much the nation was impacted by the tragic departure of its senior most military commander.