Updated: December 10, 2021 03:31 AM GMT
People light candles to pay their respects in front of a portrait of General Bipin Rawat in Siliguri on Dec. 8. (Photo: AFP)
Indian bishops have offered condolences to the families of 13 people, including Indian defense chief General Bipin Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash on Dec. 8.
The helicopter was carrying 14 people including 63-year Rawat and his wife Madhulika Rawat when it reportedly hit a tree and caught fire above a foggy hill in southern India. Group Captain Varun Singh is the lone survivor.
The death of Rawat “has certainly shocked and saddened the nation. The country will remember the courage, dedication and commitment our Armed Forces exhibit when on duty; guarding the safety of the country and working in challenging situations,” said the message from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The conference “offers condolences and prayers to the families of all the bereaved and prays that God grant eternal rest to the departed,” said the message from Archbishop Felix Machado, the conference secretary-general.
Rawat was India's first chief of defense staff, a position that the government established in 2019, and was seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
His sudden death has raised questions over the future of military reforms he was leading.
The general was traveling with his wife and other senior officers in the Russian-made Mi-17 chopper, which crashed near its destination in Tamil Nadu state.
Modi said Rawat was an outstanding soldier and "true patriot" who had helped modernize the country's armed forces.
"His passing away has saddened me deeply," the prime minister wrote on Twitter. "India will never forget his exceptional service."
Strategic analyst and author Brahma Chellaney tweeted that Rawat's death "couldn't have come at a worse time" when "China's 20-month-long border aggression has resulted in a warlike situation along the Himalayan front".
Rawat was chief of the 1.3-million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to defence services chief
Footage from the crash showed a crowd of people trying to extinguish the fiery wreck with water buckets while a group of soldiers carried one of the passengers away on an improvised stretcher.
Rawat was headed to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) to address students and faculty from the nearby Sulur air force base in Coimbatore.
The chopper was already making its descent at the time of the crash and came down around 10 kilometres from the nearest main road, forcing emergency workers to trek to the accident site, a fire official told AFP.
An eyewitness at the scene said he had seen passengers falling from the helicopter before the crash, and that one person had crawled out from the wreckage.
The sole survivor, a captain working at the DSSC, was being treated for his injuries at a nearby military hospital, the air force said.
Rawat was chief of the 1.3-million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to defense services chief, which analysts said was to improve coordination between the army, navy and air force.
New Delhi is looking to increase its military effectiveness in the face of heightened tensions with China following deadly clashes in a disputed Himalayan region, as well as its longstanding conflict with neighboring Pakistan.
"He had given a tremendous push to the integration of the three services, so his successor has big shoes to fill," retired Lieutenant General DS Hooda, a former head of the Indian army's Northern Command, told AFP.
"He had a tough job... we will need someone to give the same impetus that he had given so that the reforms that he started continue at the same pace."
Messages poured in from around the globe, with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin calling Rawat "a valued partner and friend of the United States" who left "an indelible mark on the course of the US-India defense partnership."
UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed "his heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased and to the people and government of India," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, recalling Rawat's time as a brigade commander in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 and 2009.
Rawat was credited with reducing insurgency on India's northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighboring Myanmar
Rawat came from a military family, with several generations having served in the Indian armed forces.
He joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
Rawat was credited with reducing insurgency on India's northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighboring Myanmar.
But at the same time, he was a polarizing figure whose willingness to make political statements put him at odds with the military's traditional neutrality in the world's largest democracy.
He was considered close to the Modi government and turned heads last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to "lynching terrorists" in Kashmir.
The Mi-17 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is in wide use by defense 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 the Dec. 8 accident.
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