Master of the Field: Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw Soldiering with Dignity


December 9, 2014

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This book is a revised and updated edition of Sam Bahadur’s approved biography, written by his trusted military assistant. Many biographies tend to be anecdotal and chronological, and this one is no exception. The chapters, The Early Years, Move to Delhi…. Prelude to War, The War, and The Aftermath, substantiate the same.

Reviewed by Khushwant S. Gill

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: Soldiering with Dignity
by Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, PVSM, VSM.
Natraj.Pages 271. Rs. 525

bk2As a record of Sam Manekshaw’s interactions with people around him, the book sheds considerable light about his life. He was forthright in his dealings and spent a lot of time visiting junior officers to discuss their issues and problems. The author quotes an incident when he was a Corps Commander and he personally intervened on behalf of an officer to help him get his leave approved. Manekshaw called the officer’s immediate superior and said, ‘Look, I have had a letter from the youngster’s father asking that the boy be sent on a spot of leave as there is some family problem to sort out. I am sure we can spare the bugger for a few days, let him go, we won’t miss him’.

Manekshaw, for all his bluster, was still an officer cut from the ‘traditional, no-nonsense’ mode. On one occasion, while visiting a battalion, he asked the Commanding Officer what action he took against a man who had contracted venereal disease. The disease could have been prevented by being self-discipline, which is quite a big deal in the army. It shows a laxity in command and general carelessness in approach. The Commanding Officer in question announced that strict action would be taken and that his head would be shaved off. Manekshaw boomed in retort, “Shave his head off? Dammit, he didn’t do it with his head.”

Running a contented and happy team was Manekshaw’s specialty. Some officers have this quality but some don’t. But Manekshaw had far more to his credit as we saw later during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. In the past, he has been criticised for not having a firm grasp on strategy that he was known for. Lt Gen. JFR Jacob, the erstwhile Governor of Punjab has written that Manekshaw lacked strategic sense and that instead of setting Dhaka as the main objective, he was overly concerned that China would intervene in the war.

The author refutes these allegations and states that Manekshaw had a shrewd strategic mind. His advice to Indira Gandhi that they would have to wait till winter to launch full-scale operations against East Pakistan showed that he understood the disastrous strategic implications of launching an attack just before the monsoons set in and also when the Army was widely dispersed on election duty in Assam and Bengal. A lot of other reasons convinced Indira Gandhi about Manekshaw’s wise advice, and consequently she suggested him to start operations at a time that he thought was apt.

Manekshaw was one of those generals who had the ability to look into the future. He realised the importance of helicopters in the present-day battlefield and had plans prepared for training a large number of officers on piloting helicopters. He was an avid advocate of a well-educated Army and advocated the affiliation of the Defense Services Educational Institutions with the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The Field Marshal was obviously a great leader too. And leaders don’t hesitate in taking bold decisions. One famous ‘Manekshawism’ was ‘If you are going to be a bloody fool, be one quickly’.

This biography makes for an interesting read in parts. However, there is only some anecdotal writing one can take, before the need for an underlying storyline or character development arises. Plot and character are central to any writing, fact or fiction, and their paucity results in some heavy reading. Sam Manekshaw was a colourful character and to bring him alive within the covers of a book probably takes a truly supreme effort by any author.