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Sam Manekshaw, the general who told Indira when Indian Army wasn’t ready for a war

On his 11th death anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the military career of Sam Manekshaw and anecdotes and myths surrounding him.

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New Delhi: Perhaps no military general in the history of independent India has ever captured the national imagination in the way Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw did.

One of the chief architects of India’s 1971 victory against Pakistan, Manekshaw is most famously remembered for bluntly telling Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that the Indian Army wasn’t ready for war in April 1971.

Saying that his job was to fight to win, he asked for a few months’ time — a request which Gandhi, to her credit, accepted. True to his word, when the India-Pakistan war finally broke out in December 1971, Manekshaw delivered India one of its swiftest and most remarkable military victories.

As is true for any legendary figure, anecdotes of Manekshaw’s ingenuity, valour and wit abound. Most are largely true even if few details may have been added over time through errors of communication or to enhance the mythology around him.

Once, for instance, Manekshaw invited the members of the Pay Commission when he heard of a planned cut in the soldiers’ uniform allowance, it was reported. He then asked the members, “Now gentlemen, you tell me, who would obey my orders if I was dressed in a crumpled dhoti and kurta”. This settled the debate.

In his book Leadership in the Indian Army, former major general V.K. Singh recounts from a personal experience how Manekshaw was very affable in his interactions with the young officers.

When Behram Panthaki, who once served as Manekshaw’s aide-de-camp, threw a party at his home in Coonoor, the general, upon hearing the loud music, walked in and said, “You chaps are having a party, and did not invite me.” After finding out that it was a pound party where everyone brought their own food and drinks, he sent one of his men to bring his bottle of scotch.

Early and personal life

Manekshaw was born on 3 April 1914 in Amritsar to Hormusji Manekshaw, a doctor, and Heerabai. The fifth of six children, he acquired his school education at Sherwood College, Nainital. Thereafter, he returned to Amritsar for his studies at the Hindu Sabha College. In July 1932, he joined the Indian Military Academy as part of its first batch. It is believed that he did this as an act of rebellion against his father who refused to send the young boy to London to study medicine.

Manekshaw met his wife Silloo Bode in 1937. They married two years later on 22 April 1939 and had two daughters.

Military career

Manekshaw was commissioned into 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment on 22 December 1934. Initially, he was sent to Lahore for one year to serve an attachment period with a British unit. Thereafter, in February 1936, he rejoined his parent unit.

During his military career, he endured many tough moments. On one particular occasion, he escaped death by the skin of his teeth. Manekshaw, then just a young captain fighting in World War II, sustained multiple bullet injuries against the Japanese in a Burmese jungle on 22 February 1942. He was evacuated from the location by his orderly Sher Singh, and fortunately, survived.

In yet another case, his career almost got derailed. A court of inquiry was ordered against him in the early 1960s, when he was serving as Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington. The precise reasons were never articulated as Manekshaw refused to speak about it.

However, former lieutenant general J.F.R. Jacob writes in his book An Odyssey in War and Peace that “the principal movers in the campaign against him [Manekshaw] were (defence minister V.K.) Krishna Menon and his protégé Lt Gen. (B.M.) Kaul. Kaul considered Manekshaw to be a potential rival”.

But Jacob also adds that Manekshaw had a habit of being overly critical of the government, which irked the political brass.

In his book mentioned earlier, Singh says that in the inquiry that took place, three charges were formally levied against Manekshaw. First, that he was disloyal to the country because he had hung pictures of British viceroys and governor generals in his office, instead of Indian leaders.

Second, he had failed to take action against a military instructor who had made disparaging remarks against Indians. Even though Manekshaw had told the instructor to be more careful, it was argued that he should have taken a more serious approach.

And third, that Manekshaw had made certain derogatory remarks himself about fellow officers’ wives. The officer who had made the allegations, however, told the court of enquiry that he had neither heard Manekshaw make the remark nor could he recall who had told him about it.

The Indian debacle that followed in the 1962 war against China, however, saved Manekshaw, so to speak. Menon and Kaul had to resign, and Manekshaw was given command of 4 Corps.

From thereon, he had a relatively smooth sail and was appointed Army chief by PM Indira Gandhi in July 1969.

Rise to Field Marshal

In his role as the Army chief, Sam Manekshaw made history not only by guiding India to victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War, but also by resisting the political pressure to intervene at an inopportune time, going even to the extent of offering to resign.

Despite his differences with him, J.F.R. Jacob writes, “He did more than any other chief to maintain the dignity of the army”, and always stood up against the bureaucracy when necessary.

In January 1973, the month of his retirement, Manekshaw was appointed as Field Marshal — a largely ceremonial rank, but reflective of his stature in the Indian armed forces history.

He was the first Indian to be awarded this rank, and as of now, shares this laurel with one of his predecessors — General Kodandera Cariappa — who received it later in 1986.

Also read: The liberation of Bangladesh — the Indian armed forces’ finest hour

Not without flaws

As great as Manekshaw was, he often got into trouble with the authorities. As former civil servant P.R. Chari notes, Manekshaw once told a reporter that he had been asked to join the Pakistan Army in 1947, and if he had, the result of the 1971 war would have been different.

V.K. Singh notes that due to this incident, Manekshaw fell out of favour with the government. “Though the government could not take away his rank, it did take away everything else… [and] he was given a salary which was much lower than what he was entitled to”, he writes.

Chari mentions another incident. At a girls NCC cadet event, Manekshaw was the chief guest and kissed one of the prize winners on the stage, resulting in a big furore. To handle it, an enquiry was ordered. However, it was carried out at such a pace, writes Chari, that the issue receded from public memory.

But Manekshaw, ever the braveheart, was defiant even in his last moments. “I am OK” were the last words he ever spoke two days before he died on 27 June 2008.

Also read: Field Marshal KM Cariappa, so much more than just the first Indian Army chief


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  1. The Indian army lacks a cariappa, thimmayya and manekshaw today. Raise the standard of all the sainik schools and college to sandhurst level. The cariappas will come again

  2. Sam Manekshaw was a great personality. and was made Field Marshall. .When Indira Gandhi told him to attach Bangal Desh in June , Manekshaw told Sweeti my Army is disbursed,there is complete flooding in East Bengal and I can assure you of our loss. Indira Gandhi agreed and the Indian Army Attacked in December.Other great General was Cariappa ,Arjun singh

  3. I was 5 years when China invaded in 1962 and 14 years at the time of 1971 Indo-Pak war. During China war daily my father used to tell us about Chinese advances in NEFA and loss and valiant act of our officers and jawans. Maj Shaitan Singh became our hero overnight . But the deceit and loss in 1962 left a painful and indelible mark on my young mind. Come 1971 the face of Gen Manekshaw was confident and redeeming . I saw photographs he shaking hands with jawans immediately before break out of war on western front. I was sure Indian Army under his command and Air Force and Navy would give a crushing defeat to Pakistan on both eastern and western fronts. That really happened and Bangladesh was liberated. Hats off to Gen Manekshaw and his men. Men like him are rare breed. He lived and passed off graciously. Long live Gen Manekshaw.

  4. I agree 100% with Mr Dharmjit Singh..Only the close family members of the soldiers know what sacrifices our Indian Armed Forces Men make. Its sad that drawing room Patriots do not know the reality of ground zero.
    In my opinion,Army training should be made compulsory so that people realize the true value of Courage and Valour needed to defend the Honour of our great Nation..I salute all the bravehearts and undoubtedly Field Marshal Manakshaw is a shining star..

  5. Now where have such Dare Devil Generals gone. A lot to learn for the New generation as well as present lot in Intrest of the Force. Jai Hind.

  6. A true soldier who genuinely cares for the organisation and the men under him. One of his famous quote is what he told Indira Gandhi about the war,” Sweety, we are not ready(or words to that effect)”

  7. The events and things that have been recited here shows , Sam was human first and last. A victory of 1971 war made Sam larger than life which no body should desire. He got the chance to defeat a weak front of Pakistan with the support of people of BANGLADESH, went , really just not in his head but every Indian and made him to believe what he is being interpreted , a hero. India and not Pakistan being lucky to have him after 1947 partion as he boasts is as good as saying Sam was not German Chancellor Adolf Hitler , otherwise Churchill, Truman and above all Joseph Stalin would have bitten the dust. That no one would believe except Hi Hitler only. That’s the reason Sam was ORDINARY .

    • Mr Saha, let your facts get straight, the Bangala Deshi’s were not in state to support that time. As part of preparation for war he had detailed officers to raise and train mukti vahini in Apr it self. Officers who had been instructor in Indian military academy and were bold were chosen for this task. My elder brother was one of them. Pakistan is doing the same thing with us in Kashmir. Only a real hero can take bold decisions and act on these. A Chief of Army Staff has to show his heroism by taking strong decision and acting on these without unduely risking his men. That’s why he could tell Indira Gandhi, he needs six months. I don’t know who you are but I am certain you are one of those who envy and dislike Indian Army….. what do you know about heroism…. Mr Saha. I have served in Kashmir for 10 yrs out of my 38 yrs I spent in Army, have faced bullets and seen bravery of young men…. this is what we expect from a Chief rest on ground we deal on our own… as long as he doesn’t sell our interests to the govt and fights for it he is a hero and in return we give him victory for which he is equally responsible… Credit is all his for his planning, preparation and getting it executed… So don’t dare take his credit

      • What Manekshaw said about the chance of not joining Pakistan Army is just about the purely professional attitude of the army personnel. A professional military is very contemptuous of politics. When politics, I mean it includes even Independence struggle as well. That is why the lay public or even the political leadership fails to understand the above statement of the Field Marshall.

  8. A legend. He was a real hero. Salutations to him and to all those bravehearts who are ready to make any sacrifice to protect the nation.
    Jai Hind

  9. Had the opportunity to receive a prize from HIM during my college days on 1972..It is one of the most cherished moments of my life..Being an Army kid will always have great respect and admiration for the legend.. He is my real life HERO..

  10. ..1973-74, after his retirement, Field Marshal General Manekshaw was on a visit of our State Bank of India, Mandvi branch, Vadodara. Shaking hand with a strong Braveheart is still a fond memory as i was one of the fews, been selected for conversations with him !! Long live in the memory of true Indians, You jovial, génial & confident soldier !!!!

  11. Fondly remembers him delivering a speech in Indian Military Academy. This was the first instance where i started reading about him after listening his speech delivered to cadets one year senior to mine. A great General and I must say a soldier’s General he was. I pay tribute to the Great military leader on him death anniversary. Jai Hind

  12. Army men have through history have been handed over a second hand in life . When they retire no one cares for them or their families .All the soldiers that die everyday on the battle lines their life goes in vain , the public never understands their sacrifice.Some nare baaji for few moments and then no one turns up . This is still the most noble of profession ,understand INDIA to take a bullet on your chest needs guts,Courage, knowing well you will leave behind loved ones for whom no one will care .Saare jahan se acche mere desh ke sainik .

  13. Nagraj. Ever the venom spitting cobra. Stop being the Nehru Gandhi dynasty toilet roll. They’re🤗 dead and gone. Sam Bahadur was a legend And so is Narendra Modi. The rest have been flushed down the commode of history. Along with the toilet rolls.

    • It looks you are probably doing for Modi what you claim I am being toilet roll. I have given my time and hard earned money to Janata Party and voted so that Ms Gandhi shown her place. I have voted more time to Atalji and even participated in protests with Jaitley as students union office bearer in Delhi University. I have nothing against personally against him, I only disagree with his policies and his rough talks. Also I don’t hero worship or treat someone as god like you and that’s why your language also is like that of Modij

  14. Don’t know what would have been if Manekshaw was alive, PM would have been shown his place. Atleast, Ms Gandhi was gracious to accept his advice timig of attack on enemy territory. Also he dislikes staff working overtime as he considered those who cannot complete job in office hours are inefficient. He used check before leaving office and give such staff a dressing down.

    • Sir can you please put some light on general Shabeg Singh, who gave the name mukti vahini

      • Google him out, you will find him a great soldier of Indian army. Indira got him dismissed from service on filmsy grounds, just few hours before his retirement. However later all of his honours were restored by the courts. But it was too late. Indira’s dishonouring him caused this nation a great loss, operation Blue Star, Indira’s unfortunate killing and shamelessly sikh Massacre at Delhi and other places.

  15. Manekshaw sir was a great soldier and a great warrior who led the army from the front. He did have some differences with political bodies but never compromised when it came to national security and welfare of soldiers.
    Manekshaw sir will remain in our hearts forever.

  16. If a father is matric and his child is a graduate. Then you need a brain of substance to adjudicate who is more educated. Leave speaking about, what manekshaw is for India and Indian Army.

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