‘Tragic accident, gallant officer’: How newspapers covered Gen Bipin Rawat’s death in chopper crash

The first Indian Chief of Defence Staff and 12 others died in Tamil Nadu yesterday after their helicopter crashed.

WrittenBy:NL Team
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The country’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat, and 11 others died in an IAF helicopter crash near Coonoor, in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, on Wednesday afternoon. The hilly terrain and foggy conditions are primarily being cited as the cause of the accident.

The others who died in the crash, as confirmed by the army, are Brigadier LS Lidder, Lieutenant Colonel H Singh, Wing Commander PS Chauhan, Squadron Leader K Singh, Junior Warrant Officer Das, Junior Warrant Officer Pradeep A, Havildar Satpal, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitender, Lance Naik Vivek, and Lance Naik S Teja.

Group Captain Varun Singh, directing staff at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, was the sole survivor. He is currently being treated at the military hospital in Wellington.

Here’s how some of India’s leading English newspapers covered the story.

Indian Express’s front-page in Delhi led with a banner headline, “Gen Bipin Rawat, highest defence officer, and wife among 13 killed in chopper crash”, alongside images of the Rawat couple and one of the crash site. Subheads included: “Shocked, deeply pained: President and PM lead nation in paying tribute”.

Indian Express e-paper front page, Delhi edition.

Another subhead mentioned how Varun Singh had a “close call” last year, receiving a Shaurya Chakra for gallantry. The paper detailed how Singh had lost control of a light combat aircraft due to system failure. The captain managed to land the aircraft safely.

Four of the stories on the front-page focused on Rawat, including how he had been “scripting a roadmap for reforms and upgrade”, and that his boots were “hard to fill”. In this “special to the Express section, Ashok K Mehta details all the plans India's first Chief of Defence Staff had to revamp the defence architecture of the country.

Page 7 of the paper was entirely dedicated to the “Coonoor Crash” with “snapshots of an officer” featuring the late general with the prime minister and others. The page featured messages of condolences and a brief history of his life. In a special feature called E. Explained, the paper detailed everything there is to know about the helicopter involved in the fatal crash, including the chopper’s features and its involvement in previous mishaps.

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The Times of India front-page headline in Delhi was, “India’s 1st CDS Killed In Chopper Crash” with a subhead, “Minutes from destination, a lunge, and a burning wreck”. Images included the fire at the crash site alongside an image of Rawat with his wife Madhulika. Another subhead said “Gen was found alive, died on way to hosp: Rescuer”.

It should be noted that the Times of India was one of the first media organisations to break the news of Rawat being on board the chopper soon after the crash.

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The report said: “CDS General Bipin Rawat was alive and able to say his name when he was extricated from the wreckage of the Mi-17V5 along with another passenger, later identified as Group Captain Varun Singh, said a senior leading fireman who was among the first to reach the crash site near Coonoor..."

Pages 14 and 15 were dedicated entirely to various achievements and anecdotes from the late general’s life, with headlines like “Gen Rawat was unscathed in 2015 crash” and “Outspoken, he rarely pulled his punches”.

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In its Chennai edition, the Hindu’s banner headline read: “Rawat, 12 other killed in TN chopper crash”. A subhead noted that the “CDS was bound for the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.” The page, like most newspapers, ran with an image from the crash site with a witness account that “the chopper hit a tree”.

Page 9 was also dedicated to the crash with a banner, “Coonoor ghat, on flight path, in shock”. The newspaper’s correspondent from Ooty included eyewitness accounts, including one that said “he had initially thought that an LPG cylinder had exploded. Such was the severity of the explosion”. The page also included a tribute from Lt Gen AK Bhatt, who retired as military secretary in the army, and remembered the late general as a man characterised by “personal honesty and integrity”.

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The Telegraph’s Kolkata edition ran the banner of “ Gen. Rawat killed in ‘unfortunate accident’” with a slug “Chopper crash in TN, 13 dead, 1 injured”. Telegraph chose to write “unfortunate accident” with quotation marks, suggesting ambiguity.

Of the four front-page stories on Rawat, one detailed how military operations will have no direct impact on the accident. Another detailed how Rawat’s tenure was “marked by controversies”, including the 2017 incident where Rawat had defended Major Leetul Gogoi for tying a Kashmiri native to his jeep bonnet as a human shield.

Another front-page story – “IAF tweet announces deaths” – stated that “several veterans expressed shock that General Rawat’s death was announced on Twitter rather than a senior minister making a public statement”.

On page 4, Telegraph ran stories on the controversies surrounding the late general’s life. It also included a piece on Indian dignitaries involved in air crashes. One of the reports called the Mi 17 V5 helicopter a “reliable workhorse” and another said “memories of 1963” had been “rekindled” where five Indian senior military commanders were killed in a chopper crash near Jammu and Kashmir.

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The Hindustan Times front-page carried a picture of the crash site with the headline “CDS Gen. Bipin Rawat & wife among 13 killed” with a slug “tragic helicopter crash”. There was no detailed story on page 1; the rest of the page had clips on cricket, city news, the farmer protests, and so on.

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On page 4, the paper carried a PTI copy with more details, as well as a Reuters report titled “Gen Bipin Rawat led path-breaking reforms at time of fatal crash”. “India’s army, navy and air force have long operated independent of each other and Rawat’s brief since 2019, when he was named as its first Chief of Defence Staff, was to reorganise them into a single, modern force with US-style joint theatre commands,” the report noted.

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