India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Laxman Singh Rawat, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu on December 8, was a controversial military officer who was forthright and blunt to a fault.
Over nearly two years as CDS, the former Indian Army Chief ruffled many feathers within the upper military, official and diplomatic echelons with his outspoken, and, at times unusual and atypical views, as he lumbered to modernise and streamline the country’s armed forces and vindicate his tasks as India’s top soldier.
However, Rawat’s CDS endeavour was a pioneering one, guaranteed to upset hidebound military thinking which, by its intrinsic nature remains impervious to change, not only in India but also across the world. As India’s first CDS, Rawat’s position, without doubt, remained a work in progress, riddled with confusion, nebulousness and uncertainty that understandably surrounded the country’s senior-most military position. Security and political circles too did little to clarify or elucidate matters, only adding to the uncertainty which Rawat was swift to exploit to his advantage and to invoke his innate forthrightness and air views that were often controversial.
In his three-year appointment as CDS on December 31, 2019, the four-star general was deemed the foremost dedicated military advisor to India’s defence minister. Concurrently, he also headed the newly approved Department of Military Affairs (DMA) that was tasked with boosting diffident tri-service service coordination, creating theatre commands, prioritising materiel procurements and economising defence expenditure. Regrettably, two years later, all these undertakings remain riddled with ambiguity and turmoil, and will now become the responsibility of Rawat’s successor to undertake and try and resolve.
Rise to India’s top military post
Born on March 16, 1958 in Pauri in Uttrakhand, Rawat was the son of a three-star army officer of the lieutenant general rank. Schooled at Cambrian Hall in Dehradun and at St Edward’s in Shimla, he joined the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla in the early 1970s. At the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun thereafter, Rawat was adjudged the best Gentleman Cadet and awarded the prestigious Sword of Honour in 1978. Subsequently, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant into his father’s unit – the 5th battalion of 11 Gurkha Rifles – a prestigious infantry regiment which has, and still does, attract top IMA talent.
After a series of operational and staff postings in Jammu and Kashmir and at Army Headquarters in New Delhi, Rawat commanded his Gurkha battalion in the Eastern Sector, along the disputed and restive Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh. His battalion was one of several deployed in 1987 in the faceoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army in the Sumdorong Chu Valley, which took nearly seven years to resolve.
Promoted to the rank of brigadier, Rawat commanded a Rashtriya Rifles or RR unit in Sopore, north of Srinagar, which at the time was a hotbed of militancy, before moving to head a multinational United Nations Peace Keeping Force in the Congo, where he was twice awarded the Force Commanders Commendation. As Major General, he took charge of an infantry division at Uri in Kashmir, before commanding 3 Corps at Dimapur, once again in the northeast, as a three-star officer.
Promoted Southern Army Commander in Pune in early 2016, Rawat assumed the post of Vice Chief of Army later that year, before becoming the Chief of Army Staff soon after. In thus doing so, he superseded two senior officers, regrettably stoking a major controversy in which he was accused, especially by senior serving and retired military officers, of nepotism and of having gratuitously politicised his appointment. Rawat was also the third Gurkha Rifles officer to become India’s army chief that also included Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and General Dalbir Singh Suhag.
Bashing on regardless
But in his unusually long three-year tenure as army chief, Rawat remained inured to such criticism, shrugging it off brusquely, and in dogged service tradition ‘bashed on regardless’ as he set about reforming his force’s structure into Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs). Commanded by two-star officers, these IBGs, ccomprising a mix of infantry, air defence, armour and logistics units, all backed by attack helicopters, were for deployment along India’s disputed borders with Pakistan and China, and capable of operating under the ubiquitous nuclear overhang.
Evolving from the army’s new Land Warfare Doctrine, 2018 announced later that same year, Rawat anticipated the IBGs involving some 5,000 personnel, but modelled on specific operational requirements, taking topography and threat perceptions into account. One of the more controversial aspects of the IBGs, however, was scrapping the one-star rank of brigadier, and the other that Rawat studiously ignored was the scarcity of finances to operationalise these proposed formations.
But as army chief, till end-2019, Rawat had warned the country to be prepared for a simultaneous ‘two-front’ war against China and Pakistan. Critics say he did not initiate measures to either thwart such an outcome or prepare for it. At a seminar at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in Delhi in September 2017, he had declared that despite all three countries possessing nuclear arms, “warfare lies within the realm of reality” along India’s northern and western borders with China and Pakistan.
Speaking a few days after the 73-day standoff between the Indian Army and the PLA ended in the Doklam/Dong Lang tri-junction area on the Bhutanese border, Rawat had stated that China had already started ‘flexing its muscles’ by trying to ‘nibble away’ at Indian territory in a ‘gradual manner’ to test its threshold limits. He stated that China was a country India had to be “wary about, and remain prepared for situations that could develop into conflicts”. He also said that India did not “see any scope for reconciliation with Pakistan as its military, polity and people have decided that India wants to break their country into pieces”. Consequently, Pakistan could “swing into action to take advantage of India’s preoccupation with China” he stated, further highlighting the nightmarish two-front war situation; but he offered neither solution nor remedy.
Gen Rawat further stipulated that it was a ‘myth’ to assume that nuclear-armed neighbours like India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other, do not go to war. “Credible (nuclear) deterrence does not take away the threat of (conventional) war,” he incredulously and controversially stated, adding that in the Indian context, “that may also not be true”.
He emphasised the ‘supremacy and primacy’ of the Indian Army over the two other services in fighting wars. “Wars will be fought on land, and therefore the primacy of the army must be maintained over the air force and navy,” he had said, further antagonising the other two services yet again.
Rawat faced similar allegations of favouritism when he was appointed CDS in the rank of secretary to the government. Within days, he set about creating five Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) – down from 17 at present – to operationally combine India’s tri-service manpower and assets by 2023, to jointly fight future conflicts. Even here, his classification of the Indian Air Force as a ‘support arm’ of the Indian Army combat units, like the artillery and engineers, drew criticism.
Rawat kept his counsel but asked all three services to submit analyses on ITCs by mid-2022 to implement a measure that should have been under planning for years. Moreover, a day after Rawat recently talked publicly of the “clash of civilisations” belief to describe China’s growing ties with the Islamic world – a euphemism for Pakistan – external affairs minister S. Jaishankar sought to distance the government from the CDS’s enumeration.
In conclusion, the hallmark of Rawat’s legacy could well be defined by a definitive move by the military’s top brass to influence — some may say impinge on — foreign policy issues and have a greater say on overall security management. Speaking last month on a popular television channel’s summit, General Rawat had lauded the concept of locals in Kashmir and other places across the country, joining the battle against militancy by ‘lynching’ suspected terrorists, He had justified such unilateral action as self-defence, triggering concern even amongst Rawat’s peers who believe that the CDS’s instigations could lead to overt and covert support to those seeking vigilante justice.