CDS chopper crash: Tearful farewell to India’s fallen heroes
India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Raje Singh Rawat, and the CDS’s defence assistant Brigadier LS Lidder were on Friday cremated with military honours at Brar Square in Delhi Cantt in two separate solemn ceremonies steeped in military tradition, with top government officials attending the heart-wrenching final send-off, and thousands of men, women and children lining the road leading to the crematorium to pay their last respects with slogans of glory to the departed.
Three grieving daughters performed the last rites.
While Kritika and Tarini lit the funeral pyre of their parents, Bipin and Madhulika, 16-year-old Aashna performed the last rites of her father Lakhbinder Singh Lidder in ceremonies filled with emotion and pride.
“We will carry on with the good memories of my father. I am happy he didn’t have to suffer. My dad was a hero,” Aashna later said.
The Rawats and Lidder were among the 13 people killed in a horrific Mi-17V5 helicopter crash near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu.
Lidder’s last rites were conducted in the morning and attended by defence minister Rajnath Singh, national security adviser Ajit Doval, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, and India’s top military leadership. At one point, the Brigadier’s wife Geetika and daughter Aashna sat next to his coffin and kissed it -- the moving images broadcast live on television and watched by millions of Indians who mourned along with the Lidders.
The mortal remains of the Rawats lay in state for public viewing and for dignitaries to pay their last respects at the CDS’s official residence on Kamraj Road. Those who paid respects at the residence included home minister Amit Shah, a few of his colleagues, national security adviser Ajit Doval, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and a battery of top government and military officials.
The funeral procession started from Kamraj Road at 2pm and reached Brar Square at 3.30pm, covering the 10km route in full 90 minutes, allowing people to pay homage along the way. Ninety-nine personnel from the army, navy and air force and 33 members of the tri-services band formed the front escort, while 99 personnel acted as the rear escort of the procession, officials said.
Rawat was accorded a 17-gun salute at the funeral attended by the defence minister Rajnath Singh, law minister Kiren Rijiju, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, the three service chiefs, Defence Research and Development Organisation chief G Satheesh Reddy, several former service chiefs, top officials of a few friendly foreign armies, diplomats and a slew of other dignitaries.
Top officials of the militaries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan attended the last rites. Over 800 serving military personnel attended the funeral, the officials said.
“Paid my last respects to General Bipin Rawat and his wife, Mrs Madhulika Rawat. General Rawat devoted his life to serving and protecting our nation. India will remember his courage, valour and patriotism. Farewell General,” Rajnath Singh wrote on Twitter.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday paid his last respects to the 13 people killed in the crash, after an Indian Air Force C-130J special operations aircraft flew their mortal remains from Sulur to the Palam air base in Delhi.
The schedule for the last rites of the remaining people has not been finalised yet as the “process for positive identification of remaining mortal remains is still on.” Their mortal remains have been kept at the mortuary of Army Base Hospital till the identities of the bodies are confirmed.
The Coonoor crash was of one of the worst air accidents involving India’s top military brass and a setback to the ongoing military reforms in the country, the biggest since Independence. Rawat was spearheading the military’s theaterisation drive to enhance the effectiveness of the armed forces and reshape the conduct of future operations. He took over as CDS on December 31, 2019, after serving as army chief for a full three-year term. He held the four-star rank for almost five years.
The CDS’s shocking demise will have implications for the ongoing military reforms, including theaterisation, and the government will have to move swiftly to announce a succession plan. Rawat survived a Cheetah crash in Dimapur in February 3, 2015. He was a lieutenant general at that time.
Out of the total 14 persons on board the helicopter, 13 were killed. The other deceased are Lieutenant Colonel Harjinder Singh, Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan (pilot), Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh (co-pilot), Junior Warrant Officers Rana Pratap Das and Arakkal Pradeep, Havildar Satpal Rai, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitendra Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar and Lance Naik B Sai Teja.
The sole survivor, Group Captain Varun Singh, is on life support at the IAF Command Hospital in Bengaluru. A top three-star officer is heading the inquiry into the crash. Rawat was on a visit to the prestigious Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington to address the faculty and student officers there.
The defence advisor and the naval advisor posted at the Pakistan High Commission also paid their last respects to Rawat and his wife at the CDS’s official residence, according to the high commission officials.