Shobha De | Copter crash: Too many questions unanswered…

Far too many unanswered questions arise about the dramatic crash, that may never be answered convincingly

What a devastating loss for the country! Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, perished in a horrific helicopter crash Wednesday, December 8, along with his wife Madhulika and 11 others, leaving the nation numb, bereft and in deep shock. How did such a monumental tragedy occur?

The Russian-made Mi-17V5 is known for its excellent track record and stability. An ace pilot (Prithvi Singh Chauhan) hand-picked to fly Gen. Bipin Rawat and his team was to ferry them over a short distance — a mere hop, skip and jump from Sulur IAF Station in Coimbatore to the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, Coonoor, where the general was scheduled to address the faculty and students. The helicopter was meant to fly back after 10 minutes, but instead, it went up in a fiery ball of flame, killing all but one person on board.

Ironically, it was one of the rare official events to which the general’s wife had accompanied her husband, and was fated to die with him. He was just 63. A crusty, outspoken leader, often described as a fighter and a nationalist, who was determined to bring in much-needed and extremely overdue reforms — some of which were seen as controversial, and had generated a debate in defence circles. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi entrusted him with the difficult task of creating theatre commands and modernising the Army, there were those, particularly in the IAF, who weren’t terribly pleased. But the doughty general was set to honour the mandate in the 75th year of India’s Independence. That was not to be. One can only hope that his proposals won’t be shelved by bureaucrats and others, worried about their own loss of power.

Far too many unanswered questions arise about the dramatic crash, that may never be answered convincingly. As of now, the chief villain is said to be the fog over Coonoor. But, as military experts are quick to point out, the “onboard weather radar and modern autopilot enable all-weather day and night operations over any terrain” in the Mi-17V5. However, the counter-argument is “fog and mist roll in unannounced in winter in the Nilgiris”.

Significantly, there was no “mayday” call before the crash. Some villagers who rushed out of their homes after hearing a loud sound say they saw the doomed helicopter hit the top of trees and burst into a ball of flame.

The IAF had inducted around 150 Mi-17V5 medium-lift helicopters, banking on their reliability, and citing the superiority of these variants over the older, obsolete Cheetahs and Chetaks. Despite the impeccable credentials, we still lost our senior-most General and CDS in the most tragic circumstances — all of them enveloped in a thick fog. Yes, there will be an IAF inquiry. It will be deemed “confidential”, “sensitive” and soon the public will forget the ghastly incident which robbed us of a fine military leader, whose unconventional views did not sit well with those interested in maintaining the status quo.

Without doubt, there is egg on our face, no matter what explanations are put forward to deconstruct the accident. Foreign agencies are already in overdrive, piecing together the missing links of the crash and coming up with conspiracy theories. This is dangerous and counter-productive in an environment which is hyper-sensitive and charged. Our security can’t be compromised, no matter how uncomfortable the facts may be. I recall talking to young Air Force officers recently, as they enthusiastically narrated their stories of valour and derring-do. This is the spirit that has kept the country’s flag flying high… and this is the spirit that will honour the memory of all those we lost in this terrible crash.

On an entirely different note, the day of the tragedy also coincided with the high-flying wedding ceremonies of Bollywood darlings Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif. I’m not sure if the 120 privileged guests and countless global fans of the good-looking couple attending the nuptials at Fort Barwara in Sawai Madhopur were either aware of or concerned by this national calamity.

Undoubtedly, the timing of both events was likely to impact the OTT, breathless coverage of the shaadi taking place in utmost secrecy. To some extent, the Vicky-Kat party did get rained on by the nonstop coverage of the helicopter crash. Well, talking of OTT, according to reliable sources, the secrecy is part of a multi-crore deal struck by the couple for a popular OTT platform that has allegedly bought exclusive rights to the images. This isn’t entirely new… the other celeb movie star wedding to be monetised in India was Priyanka Chopra’s with Nick Jonas. Significantly, as Kangana Ranaut, our resident commentator, has noted, both ladies are older than their husbands and more successful, thus setting new standards for gender-agnostic narratives in a patriarchal society. Kangana, being Kangana, couldn’t resist throwing in a snarky barb: “Growing up, we heard of rich men marrying younger women. Nice to see leading ladies breaking the sexist norms”. Ouch!

Interestingly, the locals, perhaps peeved at being excluded from the wedding, are protesting against the blockade of roads surrounding the Six Senses Barwara Hotel, preventing them from accessing the daily aarti performed at an old temple. As the balle balle festivities were on in full swing in Rajasthan, defence minister Rajnath Singh announced that the general’s last rites will be conducted with full military honours and the process to appoint the next CDS will begin soon. This is the circle of life at its most poignant… births, deaths, funerals, marriages, celebrations stop for nothing and no one. One can’t keep anything on hold, even when faced with deep sorrow. Vicky and Katrina represent the modern breed of working couples who convert marriage into a business opportunity. Once they are done with a brisk honeymoon in the Maldives, it will be back to the studios, with new endorsement deals in place — this time as a couple setting goals for other working couples.


Meanwhile, the black box of the mangled helicopter has been located — no doubt it will reveal crucial information as the tri-services probe into the accident begins. The Air Force authorities are tightlipped over the video footage of what appears to the last few moments before the crash.

Regardless of what happens next, one thing is certain — barbaadi and shaadi co-exist in our strange world. Tragedy for the nation and celebrations for a Bollywood couple are tracked with the same fervor by the media. Why judge? Life is about accepting multiple realities all at the same time … hai, na?

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