His death was confirmed in a statement by the country’s defence 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 Rawat, who as the chief of defence 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 Rawat, 63, soon after his death was announced.
“A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernising 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 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 Rawat was travelling 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.”
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 defence staff in 2019.
He was seen as a counterinsurgency expert, and close to 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, 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, Rawat had the task of overhauling and streamlining an Indian military that has struggled to modernise. 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 defence expenditure goes to routine costs, from pensions to sustainment of force, leaving little for investment in modernisation.
Rawat had the difficult task of optimising 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 Rawat’s demise creates a vacuum, analysts said it was unlikely to significantly affect the larger reform efforts that Modi has put his political weight behind.
There is "a momentum which goes beyond individuals,” said Ajai Shukla, a defence 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.”
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