What Will Be General Bipin Rawat’s Place in India's Military History?

Important military developments, both within India and in the neighbourhood, as well as several military reforms took place during his tenure, all of which must be seen in totality to understand how history will remember India's first chief of defence staff.

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Now that the dust from the tragic helicopter accident which killed chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat has settled, it is worth examining his contribution at the apex of the military. He occupied positions at the highest levels for around five years, more than anyone in independent India, having been the army chief for three years and the CDS for close to two. 

During this period, significant and unprecedented military developments took place with respect to Pakistan and China and, equally importantly, with regards to Kashmir and the northeast. Consequential military reforms were also undertaken, including his elevation as the first CDS, first permanent chairperson of the chiefs of staff committee and secretary of the newly created department of military affairs (DMA) within the defence ministry. All of this has come at a time of the greatest shift at the national-political level India has witnessed since independence – a cultural transformation under the  influence of the foundational philosophy of New India: Hindutva. These factors form the backdrop for determining the general’s place in history. 

Pakistan figured greatly in the early part of General Rawat’s tenure. Right off the blocks, he cleared up India’s best kept secret: its conventional military doctrine. India had not owned up to the existence of the Cold Start doctrine for some 15 years. Not only did the general take ownership of the doctrine, but also initiated steps for its operationalisation in the creation of integrated battle groups (IBG) – the work horses of limited offensives into Pakistan – in case India was compelled to attack by Pakistani proxy war provocations. 

Even so, this was s a regressive step since it more or less acknowledges a lack of adeptness in manoeuvre warfare. There is no compelling need for preconfigured, objective-specific IBGs, when mechanised formations can flow into battle, reconfiguring on the march. If they do not have this felicity at the outset, then it is incomprehensible how these battle groups can outlast the first bullet fired, which as military history teaches us, puts a spanner in the works of best laid plans. 

This betrays a military incapacity, brought about, in part, by India’s counter insurgency fixation over the past three decades. Incidentally, this focus led to General Rawat, bolstered by his supposed counter insurgency expertise, beating two of his seniors from the mechanised forces to the rank of general. Arguably, this professional preoccupation led to India being blind-sided by China’s intrusions into Ladakh. 

Also read: China’s Intrusion in Ladakh Was Not Treachery But Surprise, And It Shouldn’t Have Been One

Though the army under General Rawat had taken a firm stand at Doklam, it proved a meagre deterrent. The Chinese, (apparently rightly) reading India’s reluctance to up the military ante, walked into Ladakh, clubbing a score Indian soldiers to death as they did so. This unwillingness to chance escalation suggests a deficiency in the exercise of operational art in terms of a manipulation of the escalation threat in order to make the other side blink. As CDS, Rawat was overly impressed by the gap in comprehensive military power between the two sides, resting on his oars with mirror deployment, jargoned as ‘proactive localised deployment’, rather than going for a quick counter-grab in riposte.  

Gen Rawat’s Kashmir legacy

It is in relation to Kashmir that General Rawat’s military reputation stands to suffer most since Kashmir was the site of his expertise. Not only did the general oversee a human-rights-insensitive counter insurgency campaign, Operation All Out, but he also did not alert the government to the adverse long-term effects of its Kashmir policy twist; the reading down of Article 370.

Video screen grab of Major Leetul Gogoi, who was awarded the Army’s ‘Commendation Card’ despite having tied a man to a jeep in Kashmir.

As the lead agency in the Valley, the Army should have asked to voice its input and should have done so by thumping the table against the initiative. The fact that it didn’t do so speaks of either being persuaded by the action or not having the gumption to take a stand. Either is unedifying. 

The post-Uri surgical strikes of 2016 were prior to the general’s tenure at the helm, but were based on his stewardship of similar high-publicity strikes into Myanmar as a corps commander in the Northeast. These led to him catching the eye of national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval. Similar strikes the following year were downplayed by the then Eastern Army commander, General Praveen Bakshi, resulting, in part, in his being side-lined from the Army chief’s chair since it deprived the political powers that be of an opportunity to gloat over a military feat. 

Surgical strikes have thus had more of a domestic political fallout than an external, strategic one. Pakistan, the intended target of the deterrence, went one-up over India in its aerial riposte to Balakot. That Pakistan has been relatively restrained over the general’s tenure in Kashmir owes to its privileging the Afghanistan denouement over the past few years, rather than being impressed by India’s strategic shift, advertised by surgical strikes.  

The recent botched military operation in Nagaland shows a certain vulnerability, accentuated in the ongoing long-term crisis with China. Whether and to what level General Rawat informed the government’s policy is not known.

Angry villagers allegedly burned vehicles belonging to security forces in Nagaland’s Mor district after the civilian killings on December 4. Photo: PTI.

For instance, the Nagaland imbroglio continues since the Framework Agreement cannot be operationalised because the Nagas insist on having a separate flag and constitution. India, having only recently deprived Kashmiris of the same federal privileges, has in effect shot itself in the foot twice over. Strategic-level input from the Army, the lead counter insurgency force in both locations, should have been to influence policy away from such counter-productive initiatives. Whether or not General Rawat exercised his known social capital with the regime to put some strategic sense into its moves will forever be a fact lost to history.

Also read: The Troubled Legacy of General Rawat Needs to Be Rolled Back

It would be tragic if later biographers were to alight on evidence which shows that his input on such decisions was, instead, to acquiesce. It also casts a shadow over his elevation, raising the question: was it because he would likely play along – either being docile or as a believer himself – that led to his selection as the first CDS? Remember that the announcement of the position was delayed till after his prime competitor, the then air chief, retired.

Even the CDS position was not without a spoke-in-the-wheel in that, with the creation of the DMA – a bureaucratic silo without precedent in any democracy – the first CDS was reduced to being just another secretary, from a protocol equivalence to the cabinet secretary. 

Here, General Rawat busied himself with structural transformation without the benefit of a political directive, resulting in separate, embarrassing public jousts with the air and naval chiefs. It is also unclear if the trajectory of jointness to culminate in front-specific integrated theatre commands has political buy-in, given that the mandate does not explicitly figure in the remit of the CDS in the press release on Rawat’s appointment. The process, therefore, appears to be something of a wild goose chase that shall prove a bugbear if his successor does not use the opportunity of a change-over to course correct.  

Finally – and most important – was General Rawat’s perhaps historic role of ushering the Indian army into the ‘New India’ of the ‘Second Republic’. To be fair to the general, he was at the helm at the most difficult of times for the military. When all institutions succumbed to the Hindutva juggernaut and bent to the will of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it would have been quite a feat for the brass to cauterise the military from the influence of political forces. 

The military’s political masters decided to go in for ‘deep selection’ as the new policy for higher appointments, Rawat being a prominent beneficiary of the same. It remains to be known whether he swayed with the wind pragmatically and, as lead gatekeeper, assented to open up the military only partially and selectively. This might have been a plausible strategy, lest in taking a stand the military were to keel over altogether. However, from his utterances from time to time, it cannot unambiguously be said that General Rawat was not a bhakt himself. That might, with time, turn out to be his unfortunate legacy. 

Ali Ahmed was, till the time of his retirement, an infantry colonel in the Indian Army.