Indian defence chief General Bipin Rawat was among 13 people killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday, raising questions over the future of military reforms he was leading.
Rawat was India's first chief of defence staff, a position that the government established in 2019, and was seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen Bipin Rawat, Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident.— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) December 8, 2021
The 63-year-old was travelling with his wife and other senior officers in the Russian-made Mi-17 chopper, which crashed near its destination in southern Tamil Nadu state.
Modi said Rawat was an outstanding soldier and "true patriot" who had helped modernise 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".
Gen Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was on a visit to Defence Services Staff College, Wellington (Nilgiri Hills) to address the faculty and student officers of the Staff Course today.— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) December 8, 2021
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.
Around noon today, an IAF Mi 17 V5 helicopter with a crew of 4 members carrying the CDS and 9 other passengers met with a tragic accident near Coonoor, TN.— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) December 8, 2021
The chopper was already making its descent at the time of the crash and came down around 10 kilometres (six miles) 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 defence services chief, which analysts said was to improve coordination between the army, navy and air force.
Video footage showed rescue workers dousing steaming wreckage in a wooded area.
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 neighbouring 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."
Rawat came 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 had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
He was credited with reducing insurgency on India's northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar.
But at the same time he was a polarising 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 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.
As India’s first CDS, Gen 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.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 8, 2021
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 under way into Wednesday's accident.
Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) General Nadeem Raza on Wednesday offered their condolences to the Indian nation on the death of Indian Chief of Defence General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash, the military said.
"General Nadeem Raza, CJCSC & General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS express condolences on [the] tragic death of CDS General Bipin Rawat, his wife and loss of precious lives in a helicopter crash in India," the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on Wednesday.
AFP With additional input from News Desk
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