PM leads last respects as India mourns its soldiers, their chief

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: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday paid his last respects to the 13 people killed in a Mi-17V5 helicopter crash near Coonoor a day earlier — including chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Raje Singh Rawat, and his defence assistant Brigadier LS Lidder — after an Indian Air Force C-130J special operations aircraft flew their mortal remains from Sulur to the Palam air base in Delhi, in a sombre ceremony attended by the close relatives of those who perished, defence minister Rajnath Singh, national security adviser Ajit Doval, and the three service chiefs.

The PM arrived at the Palam technical area shortly before 9pm, paid floral tributes on each of the 13 coffins with folded hands and a bowed head and interacted with the kin of the deceased, including Rawat’s daughters Kritika and Tarini.

The sole survivor of the crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, is battling for his life at a military hospital in Bengaluru.

Earlier in the day, defence minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that a top three-star officer is heading an inquiry into the crash. The chopper took off from the Sulur air base at 11.48am and lost contact with the air traffic control (ATC) at Sulur at 12.08pm, seven minutes before it was scheduled to land in Wellington.

Rawat was on a visit to the prestigious Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington to address the faculty and student officers there.

The last rites of Rawat, Madhulika and Lidder will be performed at the Brar Square in Delhi Cantonment on Friday.

The schedule for the last rites of the remaining nine people has not been finalised yet as the “process for positive identification of their mortal remains is still on”, a senior officer said.

“Their mortal remains will be kept at the mortuary of Army Base Hospital till the completion of positive identification formalities,” the officer said, adding appropriate military funerals of all deceased are being planned in consultation with their family members.

The Coonoor crash is 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 the CDS on December 31, 2019, after serving as the army chief for a full three-year term. He held the four-star rank for almost five years.

Rawat survived a Cheetah crash in Dimapur in February 3, 2015. He was a lieutenant general at that time.

PROBE BEGINSThe tri-service inquiry into the crash under Air Marshal Manavendra Singh has already begun its work, Rajnath told Parliament. Air Marshal Manavendra Singh is the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the IAF’s Training Command in Bengaluru.

“With profound grief and heavy heart, I stand to convey the unfortunate news of the crash of the military helicopter in the noon of December 8, 2021, with India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat onboard,” Singh said.

In his statement, the defence minister gave out the timeline of the developments before the crash. The helicopter took off from Sulur at 11:48am and was expected to land at Wellington by 12:15pm but the ATC at Sulur lost contact with the helicopter at 12:08pm, he said.

After the crash, the minister said some locals spotted a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they sighted the helicopter’s wreckage engulfed in flames. Rescue teams from the local administration reached the site and attempted to recover the survivors from the crash site, he said.

“All those recovered from the wreckage were rushed to the Military Hospital, Wellington. Out of the total 14 persons onboard the ill-fated helicopter, 13 succumbed to their injuries,” he said, reading out the names of all the people killed in the crash — the CDS, Madhulika Rawat, Brig Lidder, Lt Col 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 minister said Group Captain Varun Singh was on life support at the Military Hospital in Wellington and all efforts are being made to save him. The group captain was moved to the IAF Command Hospital in Bengaluru later in the day.

The CDS will be cremated with full military honours, the minister said.

“I, on behalf of the august House, pay homage to the deceased persons and express condolences to the bereaved families,” said an emotional Singh.

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