NEW DELHI — Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s highest-ranking military official, leading efforts to modernize the country’s armed forces, died in a helicopter crash on Wednesday along with his wife and 11 others, officials said.
His death was confirmed in a statement by the country’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, after hours of uncertainty, as senior officials rushed to the crash site in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and the victims were taken to a nearby hospital. Video footage showed the wreckage in a forested slope, with rescue workers trying to douse the flames.
The loss of General Rawat, who as the chief of defense staff coordinated the various wings of India’s armed forces, comes at a particularly strained moment as India’s military finds itself stretched by threats on two of its borders as well as the impact of a slowing economy.
In addition to the constant war-footing with India’s arch enemy, Pakistan, tens of thousands of reinforcement troops remain in high altitudes in the Himalayas for a second winter after deadly skirmishes with Chinese forces last year.
Tributes poured in for General Rawat, 63, soon after his death was announced.
“A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces and security apparatus,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “India will never forget his exceptional service.”
The Indian Air Force, in a statement, said General Rawat had been on his way to the Defense Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, to address the faculty and students when his helicopter went down near Coonoor, a hill station in the state, around noon local time. There was only one survivor among the nine passengers and four crew members, the statement said.
The Air Force has announced that an inquiry was underway, and that the country’s air chief had flown to the crash site. Experts said nothing about the incident raised immediate red flags; the flight path, just about 50 miles, was a routine one for the Mi-17 V5 helicopter that General Rawat was traveling in.
“I reached the crash site shortly after 12:30 p.m.,” Deepak Manobala, a village administrative officer in Coonoor, said in a phone interview. “Locals around the site heard a huge blast, and then fire and smoke emanated from the site of crash. All I could see was smoke and the tail of the aircraft, which was the only visible part.”
General Rawat was born to a military family in the northern state of Uttarakhand. His career included leadership roles in the country’s restive northeast, which has a long history of Maoist insurgency, as well as United Nations peacekeeping missions abroad. He rose to the position of army chief in 2016, and was elevated to the newly created post of chief of the defense staff in 2019.
He was seen as a counter insurgency expert, and close to Mr. Modi. But his comments and conduct at times stirred controversy.
As army chief, he awarded a commendation letter to an officer who had tied a civilian to the front of his car in the disputed Kashmir region as a human shield to get through stone pelting.
Last month, as tensions in Kashmir went up after a wave of assassinations by militants, General Rawat told a gathering that locals in Kashmir were saying they would “lynch the terrorists.” He called that “a very positive sign.”
As the coordinator of the various wings of the Indian military and the principal uniformed adviser to the government, General Rawat had the task of overhauling and streamlining an Indian military that has struggled to modernize. Recent clashes with Pakistan and China have again raised concerns about the state of India’s military equipment in the face of the two-pronged threat on its borders.
India’s preparedness for the possibility of a two-front war has long been marred by a chronic shortage of money. In 2020, India spent about $73 billion on its military, compared with China’s $252 billion. About three quarters of the country’s defense expenditure goes to routine costs, from pensions to sustainment of force, leaving little for investment in modernization.
General Rawat had the difficult task of optimizing the resources when it was clear that the slowing economy would not afford the military a major increase in budget. He set out on a plan to unify the different wings of the armed forces into commands that could avoid duplication of resources.
While General Rawat’s demise creates a vacuum, analysts said it was unlikely to significantly affect the larger reform efforts that Mr. Modi has put his political weight behind.
There is ‘a momentum which goes beyond individuals,” said Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst based in New Delhi. “General Rawat was hired to do that in the best possible manner, but his death will not stop that momentum.”