Bipin Rawat visiting Sri Lanka on May 14, 2018 as Chief of Army Staff, India

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

My mobile rang around noon on 08 December. It was former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake from Dubai, “Sir did you hear the news? General and madam no more. Helicopter crash!” Mahesh knew my close relationship with General Rawat. We took a one-year National Defence College course (NDC) at New Delhi in 2010.

Media were reporting the tragic helicopter crash, near Ooty, a few kilometres from the Indian Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington, in the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu, in detail. India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, VSM, ADC (the senior most serving military officer of India), his wife Madhulika Rawat and eleven others, most of them the General’s personal staff, all died on site, except one, who later succumbed to his injuries.

Sixty Indian Army brigadiers took the course with me. I sat next to him in the auditorium listening to eminent Indian scholars, retired top military commanders, diplomats and businessmen. Our friendships extended to our families when my family was invited to dinner at his place. Madhulika was friendly as well as graceful.

The descendant of an erstwhile affluent family, Madhulika Raje Singh was the daughter of Kunwar Mrigendra Singh, an Indian National Congress member of the local assembly. She was educated in Gwalior and graduated in Psychology from Delhi University. She married Bipin in 1985 and had two daughters, Kritika and Tarini.

Before he was appointed India’s first CDS, he was the Army Chief for three years. In May 2018 he visited Sri Lanka as India’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), on invitation of then Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake. I was the CDS of Sri Lanka at the time. He made only one request from Mahesh––he be allowed to reserve the last night of his visit for me. As agreed, I hosted him at my official residence. He and Madhulika were so happy and relaxed. The Navy band played beautiful old Hindi songs, having rehearsed earlier, under the guidance of my wife Yamuna. It was a lovely evening with delicious food, drinks, great company and melodious old Hindi songs. At the end the General wanted to thank all the members of the SLN band personally.

When the time came for them to leave my residence, he wanted to see my dog, Rexy, his friend from New Delhi. All present that day were surprised! He could remember the name of the dog he had met eight years before in New Delhi. So sharp was his mind.

Bipin was born on 16 March, 1958 in the Pauri town of Pauri Garhwal District (present day Uttarakhand State). His family served in the Indian Army for several generations. His father, Luxman Sing Rawat, from 11 Gorkha rifles, retired as Deputy Chief of Army Staff of Indian Army in 1988, rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. His mother was the daughter of Kishan Singh Parmar, ex-member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Uttarkashi.

All the pomp and pageantry was nothing new to him as his father was the Deputy Chief of the Indian Army. He was the recipient of the ‘Sword of Honour’ from the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun. He was a true follower of the Chetwode Motto, written in gilded letters at the IMA hall of fame, “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” Dear General Sir, you lived up to it throughout your life. You are a role model for all juniors.

Following his visit to Sri Lanka, he arranged for Sri Lankan military personnel to visit Bodh Gaya every year, with their spouses. He ensured that Indian Air Force’s largest transport aircraft, C-17 Globemaster, was available for this pilgrimage every year. As Buddhists we appreciate this gesture with the highest respect.

His last gift to me, through Vice Admiral Anil Kumar Chawla, former Flag Officer Commanding at the Indian Navy’s Southern Naval Command, last month was a beautiful white marble Buddha statue. It is placed prominently in our shrine room. When my wife Yamuna and I see this statue every day, we remember General Bipin and Madhulika. Om Shanthi!

I decided to attend the funeral of my dear friend and his wife. Media announced that the funeral was fixed for 11 Dec. at the Brar Square crematorium in Delhi Army Cantonment.

The Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander General Shavendra Silva also took the same flight to New Delhi as I to attend the funeral. It was an appreciable gesture by the Sri Lankan military, at this hour of grief of India. Our CDS sat next to Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh during the parade.

The remains of General Bipin and Madhulika laid side by side in a single gun carriage, left their official residence at K. Kamraj Marg for Brar Square crematorium. Eight hundred Indian Army, Navy and Air Force personnel took part in the parade, with tri-forces bands taking the lead.

I saw something I had never seen in my four year and eight month stay in New Delhi (three years as Defence Adviser and eight months and one year taking the NDC course). Thousands of people carrying tricolour Indian flags and photos of General Bipin and Madhulika followed the funeral parade amid chants of ‘Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Rawat ji ka naam rahega’ and ‘Indian Army Zindabad’, while others stood by the roadside showering the passing convoy with flower petals. The General was very popular with the public as a tough military leader who protected his country with vision and wisdom.

The two daughters of General Bipin and Madhulika conducted the last rites. A 17-gun salute, befitting a senior most Indian Military officer who died in uniform, pierced the air. The fire of the funeral pyre mixed their souls with the thick New Delhi winter air. The next morning their ashes were taken to Haridwar (door to heaven) and immersed in the Great River Ganga by their children. We salute you General, dear friend of Sri Lanka.