NEW DELHI: The Indian Air Force said on Wednesday that Chief General Bipin Rawat and 12 others were killed in a helicopter crash. Rawat is India’s first chief of defence staff, a post created by the government in 2019 and viewed as a strong ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 63-year-old was aboard a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter when it “met with an accident today in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu,” according to the Indian Air Force.
Also read: Gawadar’s statue of Jinnah has been blown up
A senior army official told AFP that Rawat and his wife were on board with other officers and were on their way to the Defence Services Staff College.
The accident location was in a dark forested region near the college in Nilgiris district, and videos carried by Indian news stations showed a burning catastrophe.
According to sources, the helicopter took off on Wednesday afternoon from Sulur Air Force Station.
Rawat comes from a military family with several generations having served in the Indian armed forces.
The general joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and has four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
He is credited with reducing insurgency on India’s northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar.
Rawat was chief of the 1.3 million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to defence services chief, which analysts said was to improve integration between the army, navy and air force.
He is considered close to the Modi government and turned heads last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to “lynching terrorists” in the contested territory of Kashmir.
The Mi-17 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is in wide use by defence services around the world, has been involved in a number of accidents over the years.
Fourteen people died in a crash last month when an Azerbaijani military Mi-17 chopper went down during a training flight.
In 2019, four Indonesian soldiers were killed and five others wounded in central Java in another training accident involving the aircraft.
India’s air force said an inquiry was underway into Wednesday’s accident.
As soon as the IAF confirmed the death of the Indian CDS, condolences started pouring in from across the country.
President of India Ram Nath Kovind anguished at the demise said the nation had lost one of its bravest sons.
“His four decades of selfless service to the motherland was marked by exceptional gallantry and heroism. My condolences to his family,” he added.
In another tweet, the president condoled the death of other 11 people in the chopper crash,
“It’s deeply painful for me to learn of the loss of lives in the chopper crash. I join the fellow citizens in paying tributes to each of those who died while performing their duty. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families,” he said.
Expressing grief, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was deeply anguished by the helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu in which India lost Gen Bipin Rawat, his wife and other personnel of the Armed Forces.
“They served India with utmost diligence. My thoughts are with the bereaved families,” he added.
He went on to say that General Bipin Rawat was an outstanding soldier.
“A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernising our armed forces and security apparatus. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply,” he stated.
“As India’s first CDS, General Rawat worked on diverse aspects relating to our armed forces including defence reforms. He brought with him a rich experience of serving in the army. India will never forget his exceptional service,” he added.
External Affairs Minister of India Dr S Jaishankar was “deeply shocked at tragic demise of CDS General Bipin Rawat and his wife”.
“We worked closely together in the last few years. It is a huge loss to the nation,” he said in a tweet.
India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that the accident was “extremely unfortunate”.
“His [General Bipin Rawat] untimely death is an irreparable loss to our Armed Forces and the country,” he added.
Indian Union Minister Amit Shah remembered him as “one of the bravest soldiers, who has served the motherland with utmost devotion”.
“His exemplary contributions and commitment cannot be put into words. I am deeply pained,” the minister stated.
“My thoughts are with the bereaved families. May God give them the strength to bear this tragic loss,” he added.