His most famous remark was not, strictly speaking, true. On the eve of the war with Pakistan in December 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh, India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, asked her army chief, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, if he was ready for the fight. He replied with the gallantry, flirtatiousness and sheer cheek for which he was famous: “I am always ready, sweetie.” (He said he could not bring himself to call Mrs Gandhi “Madame”, because it reminded him of a bawdy-house.)
Yet General Manekshaw himself recounted a cabinet meeting in Mrs Gandhi’s office in April 1971. To forestall secession, the Pakistani government had already cracked down in what was then East Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of refugees had crossed the border into India. Mrs Gandhi wanted the army to invade Pakistan. General Manekshaw resisted. The monsoon, he pointed out, would soon start in East Pakistan, turning rivers into oceans. His armoured division and two infantry divisions were deployed elsewhere. To shift them would need the entire railway network, so the grain harvest could not be transported and would rot, bringing famine. And of his armoured division’s 189 tanks, only 11 were fit to fight.
He was not, in other words, ready. But, as he put it, “There is a very thin line between being dismissed and becoming a field-marshal.” Mrs Gandhi rejected the resignation he offered, and acceded to the delay he wanted. His job, he told her, was to fight to win. In December he did, cutting through the Pakistani army like a knife through butter, and taking Dhaka within two weeks. Quibblers later noted that this was not one of his original war aims. He had the most important attribute of any successful general: good luck.
That was not the only time he threatened to quit. Mrs Gandhi once questioned him about rumours that he was plotting a coup. In response, he asked if she wanted his resignation on grounds of mental instability. Yet if she and other politicians were in awe of him as a professional soldier and grateful for his lack of political ambition, his men loved him for his willingness to take on their civilian bosses and stand up for the army’s interests.
He had shown this in the Indian army’s darkest hour, the abject defeat in 1962 by China. Already a general, he had the previous year quarrelled with India’s defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, about national security. He was vindicated when the Chinese army swatted aside Indian resistance and briefly occupied what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Mr Menon resigned. General Manekshaw was rushed to the front to rally the demoralised troops. His first order was: “There will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued.”
General Manekshaw was able to demand courage from his soldiers because his own was not in doubt. Known as Sam “Bahadur”, or Sam the Brave, an honorific given him by the Indian army’s Gurkhas, the first of his five wars was for the British in Burma, where he was seriously wounded. Assuming he would die, an English general pinned his own Military Cross on Captain Manekshaw’s chest, since the medal could not be awarded posthumously. Another story has it that a surgeon was going to give up on his bullet-riddled body, until he asked him what had happened and got the reply, “I was kicked by a donkey.” A joker at such a time, the surgeon reckoned, had a chance.
There was something of British military tradition in his stiff upper lip, the lavish handlebar moustache in which he cloaked it, the dapper little embellishments to his uniform and his partiality for Scotch whisky. Yet he was born into a very particular and tight-knit community: India’ s small and dwindling Parsi minority, which has produced a disproportionate number of leading Indians, such as the members of the Tata and Godrej business dynasties. Sam Manekshaw was another Parsi overachiever. He was the first of only two field-marshals ever created in the army.
Yet his retirement since 1973 was not one long bask in glory. Former deputies felt he had monopolised the credit for various victories. Then last year his name was linked to bizarre allegations, by the son of a former Pakistani president, against an unnamed brigadier who had once sold Indian war plans to Pakistan. All nonsense, said those who knew him. Already in hospital, General Manekshaw was in part shielded from controversy.
After his death, anger at the slur, and at the lack of proper honour for one of India’s true heroes, rumbled on. The prime minister, along with the army, navy, and air-force chiefs, all missed his funeral—which was a modest one held in Tamil Nadu in the south, not a grand one in the capital. His friends grumbled that even foreigners such as Lord Mountbatten were afforded greater respect in death. Bangladesh, however, paid grateful tribute to his part in the nation’s foundation.
He too might well have been disappointed that his obsequies were not grander. His last words were “I’m OK”, though he had rehearsed a better line nearly 37 years earlier. For death at least, the brave soldier had indeed shown himself “always ready”.