It was a lazy Monday morning on November 1 when I received a WhatsApp message greeting me and my family on Diwali. I was surprised as this year Diwali was on November 4. So was the message sent in error? I called back in the hope of getting the dates corrected, but I was moved by the response that I got: “Yes Tejinder, I know Diwali is on Nov 4. The message was not sent in error but as I will be traveling abroad on Diwali so I wanted to convey Diwali greetings to all my loved ones in advance.”
The sender of the message was General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, who in the past over a decade had never missed an opportunity to greet me and my family on major festivals.
He was a man who would always cherish relationships. Despite being so occupied, he never missed to wish me on my birthday. He was also amongst the first few people to call me when I was blessed with a daughter in 2019.
Despite being the first Chief of Defence Staff of the country, Gen Bipin Rawat was a humble and grounded man: a man who was connected to the roots, a man for whom relationship was the cornerstone of his life.
General Bipin Rawat never ran after success, but it was success that used to run after him. I remember one of our conversations that happened when he was about to retire after serving as the Chief of Army Staff and the government had not yet declared the creation of the CDS post. I asked him what he would be doing after retirement. He said that he would want to return to his village in Uttarakhand and settle down there. He had given me a similar response when he was the GoC-in-C of the Southern Command.
General Rawat never found himself in the race of becoming the Army chief either. It was because of his service record, his capabilities to lead and his ability to plan big operations that he got the post despite him being at number three in the seniority list.
As the tragic news of his passing away in the helicopter crash came, I was personally left devastated as I had never imagined that our association of more than a decade would end in such a painful way.
Earlier in 2015, when I came to know about the crash of his Cheetah helicopter in the Northeast, I had sent him a phone message enquiring about his safety. His reply came in less than an hour. This time, I again tried calling him, and sending text and WhatsApp messages. But there was no response.
I was reporting live from Jammu on the tragic helicopter crash when I received a message from a common friend confirming that Gen Rawat was no more. My voice choked and I had to move away from the camera to wipe off tears.
My association with Gen Rawat started when he became the General Officer Commanding of the Baramulla-based 19 division of the Army. We both were alumni of US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. It was a moment of personal pride and honour for me when his name was entered into the hall of fame there, a rare honour that a handful receive. He as the Chief of Army Staff was invited on the occasion.
Since Wednesday morning I had been receiving calls and messages from some of our former teachers at Fort Leavenworth who wanted to confirm if the tragic news they were getting was true.
When on December 31, 2016, he became the Chief of Army Staff, I left a message at the Army chief’s office, seeking an appointment to speak to him. To my extreme surprise, I got a call back from him the very same day. He was furious as to why I had the need to call on the Army number to take the appointment and not his mobile phone directly when I had his number. I tried to reason with him that I wanted to follow the protocol as I was now calling the Chief of Army Staff.
“Then what? You have been like my younger brother and I am always available for you. You have my number. Call me directly.” This was his response.
Weeks after becoming the Army chief, Gen Rawat visited Jammu. It was in the evening when I suddenly got a call from his ADC: “Mr Tejinder, the Army chief would want to invite you for dinner tonight at the guest house in the 16 Corps.”
I wasn’t surprised at all, because Gen Rawat during our last conversation had promised to meet me on his first visit to Jammu and he was a man who would always honour his commitment.
The day I got married, he called to apologise as because of some urgent engagement back in Delhi he wasn’t able to attend. But he made sure to meet the newlyweds when he was in Jammu the next time.
The last conversation we had was on November 19, when I received a call from him, conveying his wishes to me and my family on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji. His wife also greeted me and my family and expressed her desire to meet my daughter.
Most of our conversations used to happen on WhatsApp and Wednesday became the first day that I didn’t receive any response to my messages or calls.
While in General Bipin Rawat, the nation lost its first Chief of Defence Staff, in him I lost a big brother, a friend, a guide and a mentor. Never in my wildest of dreams had I imagined that our long association would have such a tragic end.