On 8 December 2021, India lost its first Chief of Defence Staff – General Bipin Rawat, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, VSM – in a tragic helicopter crash, which also claimed the lives of Madhulika Rawat and 12 officers/soldiers/air warriors. Unfortunately, the lone survivor Group Captain Varun Singh, SC, also succumbed to his injuries on 15 December. This is an unspeakable tragedy, and every time a soldier falls, the national mourning apart, the grief is unimaginable to those of us in and from the armed forces who live and fight together as a family.
General Bipin Rawat was a transformation-oriented Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who endeavoured to prepare our Army for the wars and conflicts of the 21st century. He carried forward the good work as India’s first Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) to lay the foundation for the integration of the three Services and their transformation. Today, I write to honour General Rawat – the man and his legacy of transformation of which I was both an ardent admirer and probably the most vocal critic pointing out the pitfalls and urging refinement. It’s hard to write about those whom you personally know, respect and more importantly, who were supposed to go after you not before, so bear with me.
I have known General Rawat for 43 years since 1978 when he was a Gentleman Cadet at the Indian Military Academy and I was an instructor as a Captain. Though not directly under my charge in my platoon, being from the same battalion, I had the opportunity to observe him at close quarters almost every day during theoretical and field training. His potential and leadership qualities were evident. He won the coveted sword of honour as the best all-round cadet. We crisscrossed paths over the years and I saw him grow from strength to strength as a professional.
In 2007-08 we served together in the Northern Command where he was a Rashtriya Rifles Sector Commander and I was the Army Commander. The General (then Brigadier) had a very professional and nuanced approach to the complex counter-insurgency environment. Witnessing him in his first senior command role, I saw a commander who was sure, in control and not prone to theatrics. His rise was inevitable.
Having been selected to become the COAS, as the first among equals on preferential merit, we had great expectations from him. On 21 December 2016, ten days before he took over as the Army chief, I wrote in Newslaundry, “‘Hail to the chief who in triumph advances’, wrote Sir Walter Scott in ‘The Lady of the Lake’. And we say the same to Lt Gen Bipin Rawat …. We hail him, salute him and support him to lead the Indian Army (IA) for the next three years to ensure external and internal security of India, to carry out much-needed structural, organisational, moral and human resource development reforms; and to influence the government to reform the higher defence management, formulate a formal National Security Strategy and the dependent Force Development Strategy. A very tall order indeed, but we hope that he will remain steadfast and succeed.”
Steadfast he remained and went beyond my expectations with a singular focus on transforming, first the Army and then, as the CDS, the armed forces. When he was at the helm of affairs, as an analyst of matters military, particularly with respect to transformation, I was scathing in my criticism. But this did not affect the mutual respect we had for each other. As the COAS, he wrote to me giving details of his reforms and added a two-page personal hand-written note to allay some of my misgivings and reminded me of my own words: “Transformation leaders have to deal with immense resistance from within and without and hence must be relentless in their pursuit.”
General Rawat, like all soldiers, understood that critique is never personal, it is professional; because who can be more committed to the idea of transformation than those who serve, have served, seen setbacks and seen their comrades fall in battle. There is a binary motivation behind military transformation – enhancing national security and reducing casualties – and hence the naysayers who challenge either the transformation or its critique conveniently forget this fundamental premise.
General Rawat was a transformer and not a mere reformer. Transformation prepares an army for future wars/conflicts, and reformation prepares them to fight the prevailing ones better. General Krishnaswamy ‘Sundarji’ Sundararajan reformed the Army in mid-1980s to fight full-scale manoeuvre wars of the 20th century more efficiently. Our Army peaked in this warfare by the end of the century, but then went into suspended animation while the world moved forward to prepare for 21st-century wars/conflicts – short, intense and high-technology driven with a nuclear overhang.
The vision of General Rawat in his own words was, “Let me be clear that we cannot fight the next war like we fought our last …We have to change as the nature of warfare is changing. New structures have to be created incorporating modern technology. That’s the way forward. These changes, reforms, will not happen overnight, but they will happen.” In a nutshell, he was endeavouring to bring about a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, as has been done by all modern militaries, including China.
General Rawat faced a difficult and complex environment for transformation of the military. Our government does not carry out a formal strategic review and it has never formalised a national security strategy, a transformation strategy and a force development strategy. The government gives little or no political directions and does not own, coordinate or participate in the transformation or reform process. The term ‘modernisation’ is loosely used for incremental technological upgradation of the existing force tailored to fight the previous war. A shrinking defence budget, lowest in terms of percentage of GDP since 1962, does not allow any committed funding. The military, by nature, is status quoist and resists change. In the past, all major reforms have been scuttled or diluted due to this systemic quagmire.
General Rawat understood the environment and being a doer, adopted a pragmatic approach. He himself envisioned what the government was supposed to do, both as the COAS and later as the CDS, and hoped to make it a fait accompli for it to accept and own the transformation. So, at times, it looked like he was transgressing into the political policy domain and invited much criticism.
He was a leader in a hurry, desperate to catch up with the world. Due to his leadership style and to overcome the systemic inertia, General Rawat adopted a “battering ram” approach to force reforms on the military. This left gaping conceptual holes in some of the major reforms in terms of theory of war, government policy and law. Since a holistic perspective of his transformation vision was not put in public domain, his reforms appeared in the media in bits and pieces, inviting unnecessary criticism.
To the discerning eye, his reforms covered a vast canvas encompassing every facet of our armed forces. However, for the reason highlighted above, most of his reforms remain only a work in progress.
Carrying forward General Rawat’s legacy
General Rawat’s monumental effort at transformation of the military has left us with a framework to build upon. The best tribute to the General would be for the government and his successors to formalise the transformation process on lines discussed earlier and take it to its logical conclusion – a transformed Indian military by 2030.
An enigmatic facet of his personality was his dalliance in matters political, which put a question mark on the apolitical status of the armed forces. His personal integrity was aboveboard and, in my view, he had no political ambition or craving for post-retirement benefits. Hence, the “reason why” is very difficult to answer. Same is true for his public pronouncements blurring the distinction between the terrorists and the people, despite having a nuanced knowledge and vast experience of counter-insurgency warfare.
My salute to you General Rawat for opening the door for the transformation of our military. I have no doubts that our government and your successors will make you proud of your legacy in Valhalla.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)