The government posthumously honoured Gen Bipin Rawat, the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and a soldiers’ General who conceptualised the path-breaking higher defence apparatus while restructuring combat commands, with the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest award, on Republic Day. Gen Rawat was killed in a helicopter accident on December 8, 2021, while on duty. His farewell to arms and last rites were of an unprecedented high order in the honour, reverence and dignity bestowed on him.
The entire panoply of grief and ceremony was impromptu as no SOP has been devised for death in harness of the CDS. Rawat was celebrated as a national hero in death that has no parallel in post-Independence history. President RN Kovind lauded him in his Republic Day eve speech, again a first for any soldier. Awarding the Padma Vibhushan, the unique farewell and the special mention in the President’s speech comprised the greatest collective tribute and recognition ever to a soldier. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too mentioned Rawat in his Lok Sabha speech on Monday.
The Padma series was instituted in 1954 with Padma Vibhushan given for ‘exceptional and distinguished service of high order in any field’ and Padma Bhushan for ‘distinguished service of high order…’ Altogether, 325 Padma Vibhushans and 1,287 Padma Bhushans have been awarded. Rawat was the sixth among service chiefs, the only one posthumously to receive the Padma Vibhushan. Others are Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh (later first and only Marshal of the Air Force) and Gen JN Chaudhury, both chiefs of their service in the 1965 war; Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, Gen Sam Manekshaw (later Field Marshal) and Admiral SM Nanda — service chiefs in the 1971 war. Air Chief Marshal OP Mehra was given the award in 1977. Except for OP Mehra, the others won the award in war.
One notch lower is Padma Bhushan that was given to Lieutenant Generals and equivalent rank in the other two services. The recipients are Lt Gens Harbaksh Singh, PO Dunn, JS Dhillon, KS Katoch and Air Marshal PC Lal in the 1965 war. Awarded for the 1971 war are Lt Gens JS Aurora, KP Candeth, TN Raina, GG Bewoor, Inderjit Gill, Sagat Singh, Sartaj Singh and Air Marshals HC Dewan and MM Engineer from the IAF.
After 1972, three other Lieutenant Generals were awarded the Padma Bhushan: Adi Sethna (1983), ML Chhibber (1986) and Satish Nambiar (2009) for distinguished service in peacetime. The only person to be awarded both Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan was PC Lal. Ninety eight per cent of the awards were given in war and were supposed to have been discontinued, replaced with PVSM.
Only two service chiefs have died in harness: Army Chief Gen Bipin Joshi and Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Lakshman Katre. Earlier, when a service chief passed away, minimal ceremony attended his funeral as per rules and conventions. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was given a very shabby farewell to arms in Wellington. In the Warrant of Precedence, bureaucracy had placed the Field Marshal along with service chiefs at number 12 along with other service chiefs. Similarly, the CDS is also in the same slot whereas the Cabinet Secretary is at number 11 in the ranking. This gives a veneer of civil service ascendency over the military. The then President APJ Abdul Kalam, on a visit to Staff College, Wellington, had carried a cheque of Rs 1 crore as arrears of pension for Manekshaw when he was in hospital. Tongue in cheek, he told the President: “I hope the cheque doesn’t bounce,” so suspicious was he of the bureaucracy.
Having shown outstanding alacrity in appointing and naming Rawat as the CDS in 2019, the government has displayed surprising lethargy in naming his successor. The urgency that Rawat displayed in accomplishing his charter is not reflected any more in the MoD and the PMO. All that the government has done is to appoint Army Chief Gen MM Naravane, who is to retire in April, as the officiating CDS in a stop-gap measure. More than two months have passed without the selection of Rawat’s successor. Two Lieutenant Generals in the queue to become the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on Rawat’s death superannuated on January 31 and another will retire in March. It is clear that the new Vice COAS, Lt Gen Manoj Pande, who was tipped to succeed Naravane, will do so. It is intriguing why the government has chosen to wait it out till April when Naravane retires, leaving the post of CDS vacant for nearly five months. If it is for maintaining the line of succession for COAS, it showed little concern when it appointed Rawat as the Army Chief, superseding two senior Generals. Or is it that the government is having second thoughts on the implementation of theaterisation at present, given that China-Pakistan collusion has become real and the IAF and the Navy are not happy with the Rawat blueprint?
In any case, the new CDS, most probably Naravane, must be appointed to end unnecessary speculation. With an officiating incumbent in place for two months, which might extend to five months, the buzz and urgency normally attached to the CDS office in the basement of South Block has disappeared. The momentum of the reforms process must be revived to preserve Gen Rawat’s legacy.
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