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.
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.
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.