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Sam Manekshaw: A Tribute on 110th Birth Anniversary

Photo Courtesy Citizens 4 Forces FaceBook Page

It is befitting to recall the robust legacy of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw on his 110th birth anniversary, which falls today on April 3 to recall the halcyon era of Indian soldiery .


Better known as Sam Bahadur or Sam the Brave, a title bestowed on him by his beloved Gurkhas, the highly decorated Manekshaw was the quintessential soldier: magnificently mustachioed, charming, dapper, decisive and above all, impervious to political pressure.


In today's army of questionable standards of competence and boldness Manekshaw was cool, bold, seminal and highly considerate to those under his command in a soldiering career spanning four decades. He was refreshingly droll and irreverent, a trait long extinct in India’s military, replaced instead by obsequiousness and reverence to political authority. He was also a willing listener, irrespective of how junior his interlocutor, once again a trait wholly non-existent presently. 


Highly charismatic, he rarely ever stood on ceremony and through his earthiness and plain-speak motivated an army that helped achieve which no other has done since World War II; it fostered a  new nation- Bangladesh-a feat which even the US military with all its mite and technical wizardry has never achieved. According to his juniors, the Field Marshal was a team player who almost always swiftly finished his own work and spent the rest of his time floating from one office to another in South Block, often dropping in on harried officers for words of encouragement and occasionally even  helping them with their onerous tasks.


As Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Manekshaw's chutzpah was able to successfully achieve 'jointness' amongst the three Services that still remains a work in progress, as amply evidenced by the well-coordinated and synergised operations that resulted in Pakistan's military rout in 1971.


Without doubt, India's finest war time chief, he was also a noble warrior who looked upon his enemies with respect. Addressing troops from the bonnet of his jeep in the Chamb sector in November 1971, weeks before campaigning started, he asked them not to be rapacious in victory, recalled a newly commissioned artillery officer, who was part of the scrum.


Separately, Manekshaw urged the officers and men not to misbehave with Pakistani women and that if they were overcome with 'negative urges', they should put their hands in their pockets and think of Sam Bahadur. Largely, the Indian army behaved exemplarily in both war theatres on the eastern and western fronts in the 1971 campaign.  


Beginning with WW II, in which he was awarded the Military Cross on the battlefield during the Burma campaign, Manekshaw actively participated in all the wars independent India fought, capping it with the decisive 1971 triumph and the birth of Bangladesh. However his planning of this latter campaign was brilliantly measured and indicative of his rounded leadership qualities.


Manekshaw steadfastly refused to cave into pressure from either the autocratic Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, or her obsequious cabinet colleagues to launch immediate military operations against East Pakistan in order to stem the flow of millions of Bengali refugees into India, after the Pakistan army had executed a pogrom of intellectuals and leaders killing over 50,000 of them.


In March 1971, largely Bengali East Pakistan had revolted against the supremacy of its Punjabi and Pathan-dominated Western section, resulting in the brutal crackdown by the army staffed by a similar ethnic mix which, in turn, had triggered the refugee exodus into India. This imposed on India a crippling financial burden, in addition to straining the social and political fabric in its eastern and north-eastern states, the ravaging effects of which remain till today. After touring the teeming refugee camps Mrs Gandhi asked Mankeshaw what the Indian army could do to control and manage the situation.


 "Nothing", quipped Manekshaw to the horror of Mrs Gandhi's entourage of senior civil servants and ministers, as no one had ever dared to respond so brusquely to the despotic leader. An impatient Mrs Gandhi backed by her eager-to-please cabinet wanted Manekshaw to conduct a swift, surgical strike on East Pakistan followed by the installation of a government led by Mujibur Rehman, the popular Bengali leader, and the subsequent return of refugees.


Firmly, but patiently, Manekshaw listened and then went on to elaborate the enormous logistical exercise that was necessary to launch operations against a 90,000 strong Pakistani army. Guided entirely by military logic, extant capability and reality Manekshaw said though his army would be operationally ready three months later in June, he suggested November 1971 as tactically opportune to launch an attack against East Pakistan, principally for two reasons.


The first was the fierce monsoon that renders the entire region a virtual lake, prohibiting all and any movement. If India launched operations in June, the outcome would be catastrophic, the army chief warned. The second, equally credible rationale for postponement was the northern threat from the Chinese with whom India had fought a debilitating border war just nine years earlier, and come off worse. Manekshaw wanted the Himalayan mountain passes to be snowed up to enable him to safely withdraw troops- at least two divisions-from the Chinese front and to deploy them to the East.


India, he maintained in his briefing to Mrs Gandhi and her ministers, needed to guard against the prospect of fighting a war on two fronts. "That" he declared "would present me with problems far more complex than what had been the bane of the German general staff for more than 50 years across two World Wars. It would be unwise to rely on diplomatic assurances that the Chinese would not react in support of Pakistan. We must wait for the snow to block the northern passes, he cautioned. 


A compliant Mrs Gandhi grudgingly conceded and  ordered the General to move his formations into position and be ready to engage battle later in the year. In the ensuing months a whispering campaign was mounted by senior officials and politicians against Manekshaw, accusing him of cowardice, vacillation and shoddy generalship.


 Fully aware of the calumny unleashed against him, Manekshaw maintained his cool and whilst he went about preparing for combat by bolstering the communication lines around East Pakistan, Mrs Gandhi secured a friendship and military treaty with the Soviet Union the country's principal materiel provider. This neutralised the possibility of interference from either a hostile US under President Richard Nixon or an antagonistic China.


The campaigns postponement also enabled the establishment of a formal Bangladesh government in exile in India and the arming and training of Mukti Bahini guerrilla fighters jointly by the Research and Analysis Wing and army Special Forces personnel. Over the next few months, till war erupted in December 1971, these guerrillas successfully harassed and engaged the Pakistani army, confining it to hunker down in garrison towns cut off from the capital, Dacca, making the wily Manekshaw's eventual task tactically easier.


And, when the Pakistani Air Force conducted a pre-emptive strike on Indian airfields in December 1971 from West Pakistan, Manekshaw instantly unleashed his campaign that ended in a fortnight with the liberation of East Pakistan and the capture of over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers.


A firm believer in the chain of command he delegated the battle planning and execution to Eastern Army field commanders, using his clout with the political establishment to fulfill their financial and hardware requirements. Ironically, over five decades earlier, he was the uncrowned Chief of Defence Staff, a post India's military and political establishment have been struggling to ably vindicate over the past few years.


And in his inimitable modesty and deference to established protocol, Manekshaw declined to preside over the Pakistani surrender in Dacca, insisting that the credit accrue to the Eastern Army commander Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora. At the time he had jocularly remarked that he would go only to accept the surrender of the entire Pakistani army, nothing less significant.


Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshed Manekshaw was born in Amritsar on April 3, 1914, the son of an eminent Parsee doctor and was schooled at Sherwood College, a public school in Nainital. In 1932 he joined the first batch of 40 cadets at the fledgling Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun and was commissioned two years later into the Royal Scouts and transferred later to 12 Frontier Force Rifles, also known as the 54th Sikhs.


Years later as army chief Manekshaw issued instructions that if anyone from 54th Sikhs came visiting Army House on King George’s Avenue (present day Rajaji Marg), he was to be escorted straight to him, irrespective of either the time or whatever he might be involved with. Occasionally, these grizzled veterans would arrive at Army House with a string of 'sifarish's' (requests) ranging from wanting a bag of sugar for their daughter’s wedding, or asking for a note to the local administration for assistance. All were received with a full-bodied burst of colloquial Punjabi which Manekshaw spoke like a native and none of these soldiers ever returned unrequited.


Deployed to Burma during World War II Manekshaw was badly wounded during a successful attack near the Sittang river on 22 Feb 1942 to capture a vital hill whilst leading two companies. As he charged forward with his men, a Japanese soldier emerged from the nearby jungle and pumped seven bullets into Capt Manekshaw.


The Division Commander Major Gen D T Cowan who was witness to the action whipped off his own Military Cross ribbon and pinned it onto Manekshaw, declaring that a dead person could not be awarded one of the most coveted bravery medals in the British army. After recovering from his wounds Mankeshaw was once more dispatched to Burma as part of General (later Viscount) Slim's 14th Army and wounded yet again. In the final days of WWII he was appointed staff officer to General Daisy in Indo-China, where after the Japanese surrender, he helped rehabilitate over 10,000 prisoners of war.


Appointed to the Military Operations Directorate after independence in 1947, Brigadier Manekshaw was responsible for Planning and Logistics during the 1947-48 war with Pakistan over ownership of Jammu and Kashmir. He was also reportedly the only military officer and one of three people present, albieit in an ante-room in the palace in Jammu when Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession ceding his kingdom to India in October 1947. The third was V P Menon, the political advisor to Governor General Lord Louis Mountbatten at the time of independence. But to his credit Manekshaw kept his counsel on this landmark event, and reportedly never ever commented on it publicly.


A series of staff and command postings followed, but in 1961 Manekshaw's outspokenness offended defence minister Krishna Menon and his favoured Lieutenant General B M Kaul and almost resulted in ending his career following a court of inquiry into a nebulous charge, for which he was exonerated.


India's 1962 defeat by the Chinese followed and Manekshaw was hastily given command by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the army’s retreating 4 corps, ironically commanded earlier by Gen Kaul, and is believed to have performed wonders in salvaging their battered morale. Manekshaw  became army chief in June 1969 and was appointed Field Marshal on 1 January 1973. He retired a fortnight later.


An unconventional and at times risque dresser he once hosted his senior Lt Gen Kulwant Singh then commanding the Western Army at Shimla at an inspection in a 'wholly unsuitable' jacket that was a cross between a regulation shirt and a bush shirt. When Gen Singh referred to it disparagingly, he quipped "Have you come to inspect my formation or my dress".


Manekshaw invariably supported his subordinate officers, even if they expressed views contrary to his as long as they were professionally sound. Those who served with him said that he never raised his voice, but even a mild rebuke accompanied by "Sweetheart this will not do" was enough to tame the wildest of macho soldiery egos. Towards some of his peers, however, his attitude was one of disguised mockery, claim veterans who served under him.


But the glad-eyed Manekshaw's fabled irreverence got him into trouble with a vindictive Mrs Gandhi, jealous of his standing after the war. A throw-away line to a news reporter at an airport soon after the 1971 victory that had he decided to migrate to Pakistan at independence- thousands of Parsi's had opted to stay on- India would have lost the war, infuriated Gandhi; she not only castigated him publicly, but also withdrew some of his Field Marshal perquisites. 


However, unlike many of his successors Manekshaw faded gracefully into retirement, seeking neither to perpetuate the glory that was justifiably his for personal profit, nor in any way compromising his Field Marshal's Five-Star standing.


He died in June 2008 at Wellington, close to where he had settled with his wife Silloo, in Coonoor in the Nilgiris.


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