Tributes poured in as India’s Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat and 11 others died after an Indian Air Force Mi-17V5 helicopter crashed near Coonoor town in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district on Wednesday.
Rawat was 63.
The helicopter, which took off from Sulur air base in Tamil Nadu on Wednesday afternoon, was on its way to the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, nearly three kilometres north of Coonoor, where the helicopter crashed.
Visuals from the spot in Katteri-Nanchappanchathram area of Coonoor showed wreckage of the helicopter scattered and rescuers retrieving bodies.
Air Force Group Captain Varun Singh is the sole survivor among the 14 people on board the helicopter. Singh is being treated at the Military Hospital in Tamil Nadu’s Wellington, the Air Force said.
Rawat’s defence assistant, security commandos and Indian Air Force personnel were among those on board, NDTV reported.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his condolences, calling the chief of defence staff “an outstanding solider”.
“A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernising our armed forces and security apparatus,” Modi wrote in a tweet. “His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply.”
President Ram Nath Kovind said he was “shocked and anguished” about the deaths of Rawat and his wife.
“The nation has lost one of its bravest sons,” he wrote in a tweet. “His four decades of selfless service to the motherland was marked by exceptional gallantry and heroism. My condolences to his family.”
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu said he was “deeply shocked by the tragic death”.
“Known for his remarkable leadership and strategic vision, General Rawat added great strength to our defence capabilities and made a stellar contribution to strengthening our national security,” Naidu said in a tweet. “His outstanding service to our nation will always be remembered.”
Union Home Minister Amit Shah also expressed grief and described Rawat as “one of the bravest soldiers who has served the motherland with utmost devotion”.
“His exemplary contributions and commitment cannot be put into words,” Shah said in a tweet. “I am deeply pained.”
Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said Rawat’s “untimely death” was an “irreparable loss to our Armed Forces and the country”.
Several other politicians also expressed condolences. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described the crash as “an unprecedented tragedy”.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy wrote on Twitter: “Extremely disturbed by the news of the Army chopper crash in TN. Praying for the safety of Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat ji. Deepest condolences to the families of the victims. May they find strength in this difficult time.”
Rawat, who had served in the Indian Army for more than four decades, had also been involved in controversies during his service.
In 2017, when he was the chief of army staff, Rawat had given a commendation card to Major Leetul Gogoi, the officer who had used a civilian in Jammu and Kashmir as a human shield. Defending the officer’s actions, Rawat had said that “innovative ways” were required to tackle the “dirty war” in Jammu and Kashmir.
In November, Rawat had sparked controversy by saying that people in Jammu and Kashmir were offering to lynch terrorists, which was a “positive sign”.