A legend in uniform
C. UDAY BHASKAR
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw led India to its greatest military victory, in the 1971 war.
Taking the salute at a military parade in New Delhi on October 23, 2004, held to mark the first-ever conclave of former military chiefs.
INDIA’S first Field Marshal, Sam Bahadur Manekshaw, who succumbed to pneumonia on June 26, two months after his 94th birthday, will remain a legendary figure in the annals of Indian military history. He was given a befitting farewell by millions of Indians – though the Indian state was parsimonious in its presence – when he was laid to rest in the Nilgiri Hills where he spent the latter part of his glorious life.
Manekshaw was born in Amritsar in 1914, and his army career began in 1932 when he joined the first batch of the Indian Gentlemen Cadets at the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun. Commissioned in the Frontier Force in 1934, he saw action in the Second World War where he displayed exemplary courage in battle in the Burma (Myanmar) theatre. He was awarded a Military Cross (MC) by a British general who thought that the young Manekshaw would not survive the bullet wounds he had sustained. The MC cannot be awarded posthumously, so Major General D.T. Cowan pinned his own medal on the gallant Indian Captain. But fortune favoured the brave Manekshaw.
An Australian surgeon who was tending to the wounded was debating whether Manekshaw could be saved. What convinced the doctor in favour of operating on the seriously wounded Manekshaw was the latter’s puckish sense of humour even as he lay dying. When asked what had happened to him, Manekshaw said: “A mule kicked me.”
Post-Partition, in August 1947, Manekshaw as a Parsi had the option to join either the Indian Army or move to the newly created Pakistan Army. He chose India and was transferred to the Gorkha Rifles where he earned the sobriquet “Bahadur”. Closely associated with the consolidation of the Indian state under the firm hand of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose confidence he enjoyed, Manekshaw was a key planner in the October 1947 Kashmir operations where the Indian Army was called out.
In the years that followed, Manekshaw was witness to the Nehruvian idealism that sought to shrink the size and relevance of the Indian military. However, he gradually acquired a reputation for being a totally apolitical yet professional soldier who could not be pushed around by the civilian establishment. The emerging politico-bureaucratic dispensation under a towering Prime Minister like Jawaharlal Nehru weakened India’s military sinews through an insidious mix of ignorance of matters military and strategic and outright disdain for sound professionalism that went against the Nehruvian diktat.
Manekshaw’s professional life reflected this pernicious culture. Nehru’s Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon tried to belittle the higher ranks of the Indian Army. The result was that truly professional and apolitical soldiers such as Gen. K.S. Thimayya and Gen. Manekshaw were treated shabbily and their advice spurned. The country paid a heavy price for this – the 1962 war with China was testimony to this crass political ineptitude. Such was the bitter vendetta carried out by Krishna Menon that he initiated a court of inquiry against Manekshaw for “anti-national” activities in early 1962 on totally false charges and sought – unsuccessfully – to penalise him.
However, the debacle of 1962 forced Nehru to acknowledge the folly of this political interference in internal military affairs and he belatedly resurrected officers like Manekshaw. Ironically, Manekshaw was sent to take over from Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul – a Krishna Menon favourite – 4 Corps in the Eastern Sector, which had been mauled by the Chinese Army. This is where he issued the first of his many flamboyant one-liners: “There will be no more withdrawals.”
Luck, as always, was on his side and the Chinese announced a cessation of hostilities and withdrew. He became the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Army and then of the Eastern Army in Calcutta (Kolkata), and was elevated to the post of Army chief in 1969. Sam Bahadur, by dint of personal example and sound professionalism, rebuilt the Indian Army.
The clouds of war with Pakistan were looming in early 1971 over the repression and genocide in East Pakistan. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted the Indian Army to enter the fray so that a popularly elected government could be installed in Dhaka. However, Manekshaw refused to be pushed into hasty action and he gave the Prime Minister very objective advice – much to her surprise. Years later, he recalled how angry Indira Gandhi was at his dissenting view initially. But she respected his professional appreciation and concurred with his planning and execution of the 1971 war.
In keeping with his strong commitment to the democratic ethos and the provisions of the Indian Constitution, Manekshaw, who had the highest respect for civilian political supremacy over the military, offered to resign voluntarily in the event the Prime Minister did not approve of his dissent. To Indira Gandhi’s credit, she took Manekshaw’s advice, reposed confidence in him and entrusted him with full responsibility of the actual conduct of the war with no political interference.
The 1971 war with Pakistan was an outstanding military success. India managed to do what no country had done since the Second World War – achieve a decisive military victory over an adversary and dismember that country. Regrettably, there was inadequate appreciation of the politico-military harmonisation of “victory”, and Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seemed to emerge the political equal of Indira Gandhi at Shimla despite the military defeat. Few people in the Indian political and higher bureaucracy seemed to know about war termination objectives and how a military victory could be translated into an abiding political advantage.
In retrospect, it would appear that the Indian military was neither encouraged nor allowed to contribute to higher politico-military strategic planning and thereby the nation was not able to maximise the victory over the Pakistan Army.
Thus we have a paradox in that, while the Pakistan Army had subsumed the state and became the central actor in the hostile relationship with India, the Indian military was kept outside the national decision-making framework. To compound the damage, the ruling politico-bureaucratic culture sustained this distancing and denigration of the Indian fauj (soldier). Manekshaw became the symbol of both public adulation and private anxiety – both in his life and death.
Soon after the December 1971 victory and the birth of Bangladesh, Indira became India – a veritable Durga who had slain the wicked demon, an accolade that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a young Opposition parliamentarian, generously paid his political opponent. India and Indira, who were both going through a period of post-1962/post-Nehru despondency and lack of esteem, found their confidence after this victory.
This achievement of the nation and its Prime Minister was enabled to a great extent by Manekshaw and his service peers – and nobody realised this more keenly than Indira Gandhi. In Pakistan, the people were baying for the blood of their disgraced generals, while in India, their counterparts, Sam Manekshaw and Jagjit Singh Arora (the commander of the Indian forces in the east), were being publicly feted.
In 1973, Manekshaw was elevated to the rank of Field Marshal and his public profile was unparalleled for any Indian fauji. Then occurred one of those historic accidents – triggered by Manekshaw’s spontaneous sense of humour and repartee. Responding to a question about what would have happened if he, as a Parsee, had opted to join the Pakistan Army in August 1947, he joked that maybe Pakistan would have won the 1971 war. That was to be a costly quip and the Field Marshal was publicly upbraided by many who were envious of his growing stature.
The Indian state had found its opportunity to cut the soldier to size and cast him in a poor light. Manekshaw stepped down as Army chief in early 1973 and retired gracefully from the limelight – which he no doubt revelled in but had never actively sought.
An anecdote is illustrative. Post-retirement, Sam Bahadur went to Indore where the local citizens organised a public reception. The Field Marshal was mobbed by crowds shouting “Manekshaw ki jai”, and he reached the podium with difficulty.
The keynote speaker made an adulatory speech in Hindi, which went on thus: “We have in our midst today a soldier whose very name is synonymous with valour. He makes us remember Rana Pratap, Jhansi ki Rani and the gallant Shivaji, whose deeds form our national heritage. When we hear him speak, blood courses through our veins with great speed….”
Manekshaw also made his speech in Hindi, quipping: “I have only one request. Could I have an English translation of the speech I just heard? I want to give it to my wife. Whenever I tell her that I am a big man, a great man, she does not even listen. Perhaps after reading this, she will believe me!” Predictably, he brought the house down, and the ovation continued. Later, he was to joke that life had ordained that he obey two women all his life – his wife at home and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at work.
Manekshaw was a flamboyant soldier who combined the best of the British tradition that he was groomed in and the distinctively Indian ethos that he was born into. Many tales abound about his special relationship with Indira Gandhi, including the “I am always ready, sweetie” response. To her credit, Indira Gandhi enjoyed this gentle sparring with an Army general who could tell her with a naughty twinkle in his eye, without transgressing certain lines of politico-military propriety, that she looked beautiful.
Manekshaw was neither a George Patton or an Erwin Rommel in the classical sense of the battlefield general, nor a theorist like Alfred Mahan. But he was a rigorous professional soldier and an outstanding manager of higher defence planning and prosecution. The politico-military-bureaucratic synergy he arrived at as Army chief with Indira Gandhi, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram and Defence Secretary K.B. Lall during the 1971 operations remains distinctive and unparalleled.
As K. Subrahmanyam, the doyen of the strategic planning community, notes: “… the lesson from the Bangladesh campaign had not been drawn and absorbed by the Indian politicians. The lesson was the Prime Minister and the Cabinet should be in constant touch with external intelligence and should have a continuous rapport with the leadership of the armed forces. Our politicians and senior civil bureaucracy have woefully failed to learn this lesson to this day.”
Regrettably, Manekshaw never wrote an authoritative personal biography recounting this experience. I recall a conversation I had with him in 1986 when Gen. Cariappa was elevated as Field Marshal.
Like many of my generation, I was in awe of Manekshaw and ventured to ask him about the 1971 War. His reply was characteristically modest and he gave greater credit to the civilian leadership that was at the helm and encouraged me to highlight the role of the late K.B. Lall, “that extraordinary but forgotten ICS officer”.
Sad to say, post-1971, the Indian governing ethos progressively relegated the Indian military to the background. Ironically, in his death, Sam Bahadur, for all his monumental contribution to the making of India, was treated in a rather graceless manner by the Indian state. But this lack of magnanimity taints the state structure more than the glory of Sam Bahadur, which will remain shining and inviolable for a grateful nation.
The fact that despite being accorded a state funeral, no senior member of the Cabinet was present when his body was laid to rest, leave alone the President as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces or the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister, will remain a taint on the record of the United Progressive Alliance government. Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju was the sole senior political representative.
Ironically, the three Service chiefs were not present either. To add insult to injury, in keeping with the rule-bound mendacity of the Indian state, it was pointed out that since the rank of a Field Marshal was not (yet) included in the Government of India’s warrant of precedence, the great Indian state edifice was unable to respond.
It mattered little that Manekshaw had been elevated as Field Marshal – a five-star rank in 1973 – and that Field Marshals never retire. But for some inexplicable reason, for 35 years the appropriate rules and regulations were not formulated. The government departments concerned and Army headquarters have besmirched themselves indelibly in the public eye and many Indians have pointed out in letters to editors of newspapers and in cyberspace that our highest political representatives found the time and motivation to attend the funerals of less illustrious fellow Indians.
But if Manekshaw was treated shabbily by the political spectrum, he was always held in high esteem and remembered with enormous affection by the Indian fauj. News of his death led to a spontaneous outpouring of tributes and accolades both from within the country and from neighbouring Bangladesh, a nation that he helped create. Perhaps the manner of his final march into history symbolises what he represented to India and its people.
Amends were made with a condolence book being placed at India Gate in New Delhi for the Delhi hierarchy and public to pay their tributes to the Field Marshal. Rarely has there been such a turnout.
Manekshaw’s greatest and most abiding contribution was the manner in which he restored the muddied pride of the Indian soldier after the ignominy of the 1962 war with China.
Maybe Manekshaw’s handicap was that he was too much of a “bahadur” while the military as an institution remained marginal to the Indian political scheme of things.
This visibly disdainful attitude to the Indian soldier was nurtured by Nehru as Prime Minister and bolstered by the civilian bureaucracy of his time, which always spoke in whispers about the danger of a military coup – as had happened in Pakistan and Myanmar – in the event the higher military leadership was given its due and brought into the loop of higher governance and security planning.
More than 60 years after Independence, the political dispensation in India is yet to maximise the many potentialities that a truly apolitical and professional military can bring to the national quiver. Sam Manekshaw remains the exception. Field Marshals never retire but only die, but this legendary figure will not die in public memory.
The image of an upright and highly professional soldier with that jaunty Gorkha cap and a twinkle in his eye, who did his nation proud, will abide.•
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is a former head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.