Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: Remembering India’s Finest Soldier


July 5, 2018

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On the tenth anniversary of his passing away (27 June), a few reminiscences of the iconic Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, with whom I share my alma mater.

I was but four years of age when I first set eyes on India’s most iconic military leader. It was 1957 and Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw (Sam in short, for all) was then commanding India’s Tiger Division at Jammu and I was residing not too far at Damana, where my father was the Brigade Major of the brigade stationed there.

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During the division’s athletics tournaments, my only intent was to enjoy the sumptuous tea and the bottles of Vimto, which were always available, Army events are so enjoyable for the young brats. As I flitted from table to table with the third Vimto of the afternoon, I ran into Sam, and him into me. He smiled even as I spilt part of the treasured Vimto, but I still remember that twinkle in the eye. Cut a few years later, Sam was commanding the Staff College at Wellington in the Nilgiris, and I was again with my father, who was a member of the Directing Staff. I ran into him again, but this time with a little more dignity. He gave me a prize for an academic achievement at the Staff College Children’s School of which I remain a proud alumnus.

I remember him hating to be called Uncle or even General Manekshaw; he wanted everyone to call him Sam and we obliged quite gladly. Sam’s personality had permeated Wellington in every way. People posted there were expected to do their work, but more than that they were expected to enjoy themselves and lead a quality life. He was everywhere; riding, fishing, playing golf and bridge and never missing the jam sessions post the movies screened at the great auditorium called Sardar Patel. Sam’s was a personality that was simply infectious. None who served with him ever recall an unpleasant moment, and yet, all the work was done efficiently.

While much has been written about Sam’s great exploits as a soldier only a few people have delved into other aspects of his fascinating personality which made him stand out as a leader. We all know about his background, of how he joined the Indian Military Academy out of protest against his father’s refusal to allow him to become a doctor. His military career involved several infantry regiments and units, being wounded in action in Burma with a Military Cross to boast, and handling the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-48 as a senior staff officer in the Military Operations Directorate. Not to forget his unforgettable message on taking over 4 Corps (straight from Wellington) at Tezpur in 1962, as the Chinese war machine was moving south towards the Assam plains. The message read – “Gentlemen, I have arrived and now there will be no withdrawal.” He went on to command the Eastern Command, Kolkata, for almost five years before he was elevated as the Army Chief in June 1969.

Just before that he attended the Sherwood College Centenary function at Nainital as the chief guest. That was his alma mater, and mine as well. As he walked into the Centenary play he threw up his hands and said – “Oh all these All Saints girls, they are still the prettiest”. All Saints is the sister school of Sherwood located on the same ridge. This statement by the handsome General sent the girls into a tizzy. His Centenary speech had us all wide eyed as he went on to claim that his stay at Sherwood had made him a better soldier because he was so used to not knowing where his next meal would come from, and when. He also claimed that he developed the killer instinct by learning to hate his rivals; that was said with finger pointing to the rival school across the hill, St Joseph’s College. There were cheers sufficient to be heard across the hill.

While he was the Army Commander Eastern Command Kolkata, Sam’s presence in Kolkata’s social scene was legendary. He strongly advocated that he did not trust anyone who did not drink or smoke; he was a pipe smoker in those days and gave it up later. Once in a public function, a young Bengali got up and started shouting slogans against him, disturbing his speech. He got down from the podium and walked over to the youngster and gave him a sound whack while admonishing him in his anglicised Hindi. The stunned young man blurted out – “Sir ,I only wanted your autograph, nothing else”. Sam, always the man of the moment told him – “Don’t be stupid, don’t take my autograph. Go to my wife and take hers, and a have photo with her too”. Siloo Manekshaw, his charming spouse, so used to Sam’s ways, could always be expected to say, “Oh that Sam, he is mad”.

Just after he became the Army Chief, Sam paid a visit to Binaguri near Siliguri. He was undertaking a longish drive and even being the Chief preferred to go by road. While he arrived for the night halt at Binaguri, people still recall how he refused to enter the guest rooms until he had been taken to the rear to see for himself how his sahayak and the residential guard were staying, and whether they would be comfortable.

No write-up on Sam can ever be complete without a rendering of the legendary stories on how he advised then prime minister Indira Gandhi during the run up to the 1971 India-Pakistan Conflict, which created Bangladesh. New to the idea of war as a means of gaining strategic advantage, Indira Gandhi was, of course, dependent entirely on Sam, who gave her the sanest advice of not to rush into attempting anything big until the nation had been prepared for it. It worked exactly as he wished. It is only his witty statement in response to a query which put him on the wrong side of Indira Gandhi. When asked what may have happened in 1971 if he had joined the Pakistan Army during Partition, Sam replied, tongue in cheek, that the Pakistanis may have won the 1971 war. That remark was never taken too kindly by the establishment, leading to the virtual isolation of a figure who continues to inspire many millions.

If one had to do a professional analysis of what qualities stood out in Sam’s personality that made him an iconic leader, I would classify three of them as the most significant – the ability to state his mind upfront or simply forthrightness, power of persuasion through the most innocuous actions and his immense sense of humour. He could convert the most serious situations into light hearted ones, relieve tension and thus create the environment for decision-making. Because of his sense of humour, he was the finest of public speakers, connecting with the audience almost the moment he stepped on to the stage. With young officers and troops, he had an automatic connect.

There are two lessons for India’s military set-up to learn from the life and times of Sam Manekshaw. First, he remained a General Officer for 13 years before becoming the Army Chief; by contrast, today, an Army Chief steps into the appointment with six years of experience as a General Officer. The difference in experience is palpable. Second is the manner in which Sam handled the political leadership. With nothing to take away except the reputation with his officers and men, Sam could speak his mind and, more importantly, speak his mind very strongly. That is something the Armed Forces leadership finds impossible to do today. It is not for nothing that Indira Gandhi waited for Sam to retire before clearing the proposals of the Third Pay Commission in 1973, which the nation should know reduced the soldiers’ pension and increased that of the bureaucrat – the root cause of the One Rank One Pension issue which hung fire for 43 years.

It seems strange that India’s greatest military leader in years remains unrecognised, without the conferment of the highest decoration that the nation can bestow on him. It is not for us to question why many others have received the Bharat Ratna. It is for us to only state and never demand that nations remain great when they recognise their true heroes. India will become only greater if its Soldier Number One, Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, posthumously receives the highest honour that can be bestowed on an Indian citizen.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.