India’s army chief was laid to rest in a ceremony on Wednesday morning, followed by a minute of silence in his honour as he was cremated.
Gen Bipin Rawat was killed in January by the Taliban. A poor man’s son from a village in Jammu, Gen Rawat fought on opposing sides in Afghanistan in the 1990s and was awarded the country’s second highest military honour for gallantry, the Vishnu-Goshan.
The cremation was a spectacle for India’s military men and for the curious outside the main gate of the army’s headquarters on the premises of Amar Jawan Jyoti on the outskirts of the city of Jammu. Not only did thousands of Indian soldiers stand outside, but a large crowd of onlookers also watched proceedings as the general was given a send-off on horseback that the Indian Army likes to give its top commanders, especially when it wants to stress the iconic tradition of the army.
The general was taken to the Wagah border where his body was flown to New Delhi in an Indian Air Force helicopter. At 1.09 am — the time the helicopter took off from Pathankot airbase in Punjab — a massive contingent of security forces accompanied the foreign military envoy from Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to a full reception by the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Aftab Alam, a local construction worker who was at the forefront of the crowd, said that his experience of watching the live-broadcast of the ceremony live and also watching it on TV was a “once in a lifetime” experience.
“I am curious about the importance of what the general was doing, how he died and everything that happened. It is important that everything has come to an end,” said Mr Alam.
Mr Rawat died on February 17 when the helicopter in which he was travelling in, a Mi-17, exploded in flames after hitting a rock and was hit by a missile.
There is still an intense debate over how one can assign a conclusion to this killing in the light of the fact that Gen Rawat’s helicopter came under insurgent fire from the middle of a remote mountainous area where Indian troops had not been spotted. The attacks were reportedly directed at the airmen who had come on a rescue mission to a village where a local teacher and her two young sons had been kidnapped.
That the combat zone where the helicopter landed was not publicly accessible and that the Indian government didn’t even inform the army about the military operation despite telling the local tribal population not to worry “that our Army will protect us” has compounded the fallout of this incident. The army is also not campaigning for the return of the two missing hostages.
Days after the murder, Pakistan flew the general’s ashes to Islamabad. The choice of the birthplace of the sixth freedom as a site for a funeral, an act akin to funeral of the British Empire’s traditional funeral cavalcade in Jammu, illustrates the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan.
The funeral is not without controversy. The army has drawn criticism for publicising the event too early. Most of the government-run media monitored by Times of India on Wednesday gave barely a passing mention to the events in their columns, relegating the funeral to a background click.
This is a red herring, says S K Malhotra, a young journalist from Nagpur who was one of the few local journalists to file an article about it. “It is meaningless because we have no reaction yet. It is just a funeral,” said Mr Malhotra.
“It will be an emotional sight, a tremendous pride and an honour for India. The general will be a big figure in our army and in our history.”
Not everyone was impressed by the funeral. The Kashmiri who lost her son in last year’s Pulwama bus-bombing is claiming the state as her territory. Her sentiment was reflected in the fact that no mention of the funeral was made in the daily press reports of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. The only published item on the funeral was a small advertisement with the pictures of the five rebels killed in the border town of Burhan Wani in March 2017.