Manekshaw for Bharat Ratna: Will you undo this wrong, Mr Modi?


April 30, 2015

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Dear Prime Minister

Allow me as a citizen of the Republic which has the good fortune of having you at the helm of affairs, to thank you for the bold decision to create a memorial for the much-underrated P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose prime ministership not only ushered in economic reforms in 1991 that launched India on economic growth trajectory, but also conclusively demonstrated the dispensability of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to provide leadership for governing India.

Article by H. N. Bali | The Statesman

2015_4$largeimg20_Apr_2015_045140113As one who has over the last six and a half decades been witness to the goings-on of our polity, I crave your indulgence to set right another egregious wrong of our post-Independence history. And that is to show the nation’s gratitude to a great soldier who won a decisive war for the country, but was treated most shabbily because he refused to kowtow to his political masters. I’m referring to Field Marshal Manekshaw who did India proud by winning the Bangladesh war in 1971.

Soldiers live and die for izzat – their izzat as much as their country’s. This virtually untranslatable concept symbolizes at once a sense of pride in one’s calling, a resolve to uphold professional traditions built over decades by human sweat and blood, an unflinching determination to vanquish the aggressor and, above all, to live up to the exhortation of the Gita (IV:8): vinashaye cha dushkritam (for the extermination of evil deeds of the wicked).

And nothing symbolizes all this better than the repression and genocide in the then Eastern Pakistan in 1970 and 1971. This we successfully ended under the leadership of Gen. Sam Manekshaw. Not only that. The 1962 war had severely dented the izzat of the Indian fauj. It was given to Manekshaw to resurrect that most precious possession of the men he commanded. It is he who (almost singlehandedly) re-instilled the sense of confidence in the Indian jawan – the feeling of pride built on the foundation of decades of sacrifices.

The Government took the decision to honour the General who not only wiped off the stigma of 1962 reverses but won a decisive victory. Someone had repeated the feat after over two millennia. Chandragupta Maurya had done it in 300 BC when he drove the remnants of Greek armies that opened the gateway to the invasions of India. Only Maharaja Ranjit Singh thereafter not only repulsed attacks from the North West but actually ruled over the territories that the invaders hailed from. It was in the fitness of things that the Government decided to give, after the Bangladesh War, the Indian Army its first Field Marshal who achieved a decisive military victory over an adversary and thereby dismembered that country.

Since no Indian had held the rank earlier, neither the insignia nor a replica of the baton was available; Encyclopaedia Britannica was consulted and the insignia fabricated overnight in an Army workshop in Delhi. On 3 January 1973 Padma Vibhushan General SHFJ Manekshaw, Military Cross, smartly stepped up to the Presidential dais in Rashtrapati Bhavan and stiffly saluted President V V Giri, who ceremoniously handed Manekshaw an ornate silver-tipped baton to give the nation her first Indian Field Marshal. And soon began the Field Marshal’s troubles with politicians of the day. An interesting sidelight of the investiture concerns the baton, which is traditionally used by a Field Marshal for paying or accepting compliments.

After the ceremony, some politicians pointed out that Manekshaw had become swollen-headed and did not salute the President properly after investiture as Army officers normally do. The Service officers present on the occasion had to explain to know-all politicians and senior bureaucrats that a Field Marshal traditionally uses his baton to salute, instead of his hand. We created a Field Marshal but didn’t know how he conducts himself. Indira Gandhi had also decided after the Bangladesh War to appoint Gen. Manekshaw as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

However, the bureaucracy was not in favour of this. The CDS would become part of the Ministry of Defence and perform most of the tasks handled by babus of the jack-of-all-trades Indian Administrative Service. There was a hitch when Y.B. Chavan, as Defence Minister, recorded his opinion that the effect of Gen. Manekshaw’s promotion on the other two Services should also be considered. Eventually, the proposal to appoint the Chief of Defence Staff was torpedoed by the time honoured strategy of divide and rule that senior bureaucrats had learnt from their British masters.

Indira Gandhi was always apprehensive of Manekshaw. As a person she was deeply insecure. One day – so goes the story – Manekshaw was summoned by the Prime Minister to her office in Parliament House. When he entered, he found Indira Gandhi in very low spirits. She was sitting at her table, with her head in her hands. On being asked what was troubling her, she replied that she had problems. He asked her what the problem was and was surprised when she told him that he was the problem. When Manekshaw asked her to elaborate, the Prime Minister said that she had heard that he was going to take over. Sam was shocked. He assured her that he did not harbour any political ambition. He knew more than anyone else that military coups had not succeeded in the long run in any country in the world. India was, he firmly believed, a democratic country and would always remain so. He was quite happy commanding the Indian Army, and as long as he was allowed to do that, she could run the country the way she wanted. Indira Gandhi seemed to be relieved and, it is said, thanked him profusely. But Indira’s aides were always ready to see in the irrepressible Field Marshal a threat largely because of his unabated popularity.

The Prime Minister soon found a chance to cut him to size. A young lady reporter asked him for an interview and he agreed. She came to his house and during their conversation, Manekshaw mentioned that during Partition he had been asked to opt for Pakistan, but he had chosen to remain in India. When the reporter asked him what would have happened if he had opted for Pakistan, and been commanding the Pakistani Army instead of the Indian, he replied, “they would have won”.

Soon afterwards, he had to go to UK and while he was there, there was a question in Parliament based on the report which gave undue prominence to his remark. The Prime Minister was in the House but chose to remain silent. Manekshaw was branded an egotist, and soon became persona non grata. After her triumphal return from the Shimla Conference, Indira Gandhi, in a meeting with Manekshaw apprised him with the terms of the agreement with Bhutto. The irrepressible Manekshaw told her: “He (Bhutto) has made a monkey of you.” And that was the last nail in the coffin of the Field Marshal- Prime Minister equation.

Though the Government could not take away his rank, it did take away everything else and treated him shabbily indeed. He retired in January 1973. Field Marshals get full pay and allowances till death. Manekshaw never got even the pension of the rank he held nor a house or a car after retirement. It took the Government of India 36 years to decide his scale and entitlement. That’s how works, Sir, the system you preside over today.

When he was in Coonoor Military Hospital in June 2007 suffering from complications of pneumonia, a babu called on him in the hospital to hand over a cheque of Rs 1.60 crore towards arrears of his entitlement. I don’t have the heart to type what he told the august functionary of a heartless system that presides over our destinies. A few days later – on 27 June 2007, he passed away. None of the VVIPs of Delhi was present at his funeral.

The ruling sovereign in England – custom has it – attends the funeral of every Field Marshal with the Prime Minister and Service Chiefs in tow. The President of India, the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and the three Service Chiefs (obviously, on orders from above) were too busy to attend the last rites of India’s first Field Marshal. Minister of State for Defense, Pallam Raju was the sole political representative.

That’s how, Prime Minister, the political establishment chose to honour the victor of the Bangladesh war. Indira Gandhi did an unpardonable injustice to the man, which Congress Party loyalists compounded. Will you, Prime Minister, be gracious enough to set the wrong right? If ever there was a soldier who deserved a Bharat Ratna it was Manekshaw — the man who did India proud by scoring a decisive military victory for his country in the Bangladesh war.

Sincerely yours An ordinary citizen who cares about his country.

The writer is a retired organisational development consultant.