Sam Bahadur deserves the Bharat Ratna


April 2, 2014

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The birth centenary of Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, who successfully led Indian troops in the battle for Bangladesh, serves as an occasion to honour the life of this great soldier, sadly ignored by the country


Tomorrow, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw would have been 100 years ‘young’, as he would have said. A living legend and a folk hero, Sam, from almost becoming a gynaecologist, rose to being India’s first Field Marshal who bequeathed on his constantly conquered country, a stunning military victory, the first in a thousand years, and helped give birth to a new nation: Bangladesh.

In his most recent book, India At Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy, Mr Jaswant Singh describes this epic event as the revenge of geography over history. Sam’s greatest passion was his beloved Gorkhas, the doughty khukri-wielding fighters who gave him his name. Visiting a Gorkha battalion, he asked a bewildered johnny: “What’s my name”? “Sum Bahadur”, said the Gorkha, confused, which was his name. “But that’s my name”, said Sam, and so he was christened Sam Bahadur for the rest of his life. Till his dying day, he was surrounded by serving and retired Gorkhas. “They’re my life, in a way. It’s what Harka Bahadur made me”, he would say.

At his 90th birthday, in Delhi’s Battle Honours Mess in 2003, mobbed by his admirers and well-wishers, the slightly hunched Sam confessed he had misused the khukri, the legendary Gorkha knife reserved for close quarter battle, to cut the birthday cake. When asked what his life’s biggest achievement was, he said: “I never punished anyone”. Blowing out 90 candles with the help of one Gorkha piper, Sam exulted: “Like everything else in my life, I was born the wrong way around. My father, a gynaecologist, took 40 minutes to straighten me out”.

Sam was a showman par excellence, orchestrating events for, what in today’s parlance, would be called strategic signalling. During the 1971 war, he would make it a point to appear in the newly appointed bar in the Oberoi Hotel in the capital every evening sipping his favourite Red Label, ensuring the media took note that he was on top of the campaigns both in the east and the west. Later, he would rush back to the War Room where in a corner a camp-cot was kept for him. After independence, Sam never belonged to any regiment, though he was commissioned into the 2nd Royal Scots and later joined the famous 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment, with whom during the disastrous battle for Sittang Bridge, he won an instant Military Cross. Although he was posted to 3/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), he never got to command a battalion as then Army chief General PN Thapar wanted him in the Military Operations Directorate.

Sam’s flamboyance and sartorial elegance never escaped notice and mixed brilliantly with his penetrating style of command. Replacing Lieutenant General BM Kaul after the Himalayan debacle in 1962 and on reaching 4 Corps, Sam announced: “Gentlemen, I have arrived. There will be no more withdrawals”. “Lucky for me”, he said later, “the Chinese declared a unilateral withdrawal”. A sense of humour laced the extraordinary confidence he exuded in public life whether dealing with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who became Durga Mata after the war, or cheering Harka Bahadur in the boxing ring. “Whoever says he knows no fear is either lying or a Gorkha” was his favourite quip. With pithy words like these Sam would disarm all manner of people.

Sam’s brush with politicians was not easy, though as he learnt early in life, after the hounding he faced from Defence Minister Krishna Menon, that they were a dangerous species. But for the Chinese and Lieutenant General Daulet Singh who was made to investigate Sam’s alleged misdemeanours as Commandant Defence Services Staff College Nilgiris, he would have been sacked. Another war era Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, who would call him “Saam”, was not enamoured of him either, given his straight talk. Still in early 1972, Indira Gandhi sounded Jagjivan Ram on appointing Sam the Chief of Defence Staff, an elevation he richly deserved. But the combined ministerial and bureaucratic fears torpedoed the idea, it would seem for good, as the appointment remains untouchable to date. Except VC Shukla, who became a close friend, most Ministers of the Indira Gandhi Cabinet were suspicious of Sam and kept him at a distance. When he finally retired, the Ministry of Defence ensured there was no organised farewell at New Delhi Railway Station as his special train chugged off to Coimbatore en route Coonoor in the Nilgiris. There, with his wife Silloo, he joined a dozen Gorkhas, two dogs, Piffer and Ceasar, and Preeti the cow, at Stavka, their new home. Tending to roses, buying vegetables and playing bridge at the Coonoor Club and doing his own typing and answering mail, kept him busy.

The Government fixed his pension at a measly Rs 1,200 plus a Rs 400 allowance for Field Marshal. When terminally ill in Wellington Hospital in 2008, Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt carried arrears of his revised pension amounting to one crore rupees. Typically, Sam looked at the cheque and told Mr Dutt: “I hope the cheque won’t bounce”.

Management manuals are now discovering many of the attributes of leadership that came to Sam naturally. He had a healthy contempt for bureaucratic authority and detested fawning officers. As many as 14 companies took him on their board, mostly as chairman. Surprisingly Sam’s adversaries grew from within, attempting to undermine his great leadership style and strategic acumen, especially during the war for Bangladesh. No matter what they say, the 1971 war has just one stamp of victory —and that belongs to Sam Manekshaw.

The Government made no amends for his farewell during his funeral. Rather, it maintained equal disrespect against the highest military traditions. He was laid to rest at the Parsi Zoroastrian cemetery in Oottacamund, alongside Silloo, and four years later, a gravestone that said, “Good Thought, Good Words, Good Deeds” was laid, this time in the presence of Defence Minister AK Antony and with appropriate protocol.

Apparently the Army has been instructed to commemorate Sam’s centenary, low key. On April 3, Chief of Army Staff General Bikram Singh will unveil a life-size statue of Sam Bahadur, followed by the release of a book written by Brigadier Behram Panthaki, who was Sam’s ADC, and his wife Zenobia.

The Parsi Anjuman of Delhi is hosting a big event to honour Sam. It’s time India shed its blinkers and recognised Sam’s contribution to the country. The next Government should honour the greatest soldier of our times by posthumously awarding Sam Manekshaw the Bharat Ratna.