An Interview With The Field Marshal

The below interview was carried by the August 10, 1974 issue of Swarajya

In the course of a 45-minute interview the author had with him in a Calcutta hotel on July 5, the retired Field Marshal H. F. J. Manekshaw, former Chief of the Indian Army, pooh-poohed the idea of Army rule in India, the all-pervading crisis of leadership notwithstanding. Atom bomb or not, he feels India must become powerful if she does not want “to be kicked about”. Besides, he expressed interesting opinions on such topics as the ensuing Presidential election, J.P.’s movement, Naga-Mizo problem, DIR and demobbed Jawans.

Here is an adequate summary in the form of questions and answers of the scintillating interview: “We must become powerful”

Q. Is atom bomb necessary for India?

A. Whether an atom bomb is necessary or not, in this world if you want to be recognized, if you don’t want to be kicked about, you have to be powerful both militarily and economically. A great deal of envy and fear follows from such might. When Russia got the bomb, it came to be feared. Then came China with 700 million people. Now after her nuclear explosion (of May 18) everyone fears India with her 560 million population. It speaks a great deal of technological evolution that each country has to go through to achieve the explosion.

I honestly don’t know if our country is going to have the bomb. I was never consulted. But as a thinker, I would say you had one explosion and that is not enough. But India has no doubt the capacity to produce the bomb if the Prime Minister wants it. The greatest thing that has happened in the Rajasthan explosion is its secrecy. I doubt if anybody other than the P.M. knew about it. She kept it very close. And you know how difficult it is to keep anything secret in this country.

Army Rule is nowhere a success

Q. You made some observations at a recent Rotary meeting about shortages in food, fuel, steel, cement, etc., and remarked that these were all due to a crisis of leadership in every walk of life. Do you think Army rule can save the situation?

A. Where has Army rule been a success? What is the difference between you and me, except one of alignment and fear? When an Army officer commits a crime, he is court-martialled and given, say, two years’ jail. But when two officers are involved, it becomes a mutiny and they may get 14 years. A Police officer, on the other hand, when caught on the wrong foot, is suspended first and then produced before a court. It may take anything up to 20 years in the process, and even then nothing perhaps happens. In the Army, therefore, once this fear is removed, I am exposed to all the temptations to which civilians are prone. What makes you believe I would do better than you? Also remember, we are not trained for this job. We are trained to fight, to kill, to protect others from being killed. If otherwise, we might fail to do our primary duty. Recall what happened to Pakistan (in similar circumstances). There has been chaos in the UK, in the USA. They did not think of Army rule. Why should you think about it? I am absolutely convinced that individuals selected by the people can deliver the goods. An additional point: We are a very large country, more populous than Europe.

Makes no difference who is elected

Q. Any opinion on the next Presidential election?

A. The Congress Parliamentary Board representing the vast majority of the people has selected in its wisdom Mr F. A. Ahmed. I’ve worked with him as the Chief of Staff when he was a member of the Cabinet’s Political Affairs Committee. He is a sound, sincere man. What difference does it make to me, as a citizen, whether it is he or the existing President, Mr. V. V. Giri? As the Supreme Commander, Mr Giri had been kind to me. He is a dignified person, so is Mr Ahmed.

J.P., a genuine person

Q. What is your reaction to Mr Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement for dissolution of the Assembly in Bihar and elsewhere?

A. Knowing J.P. as I do, I feel he is a genuine person. Genuine people have certain ideas, they feel they are right. Also it is all very well when you have no responsibility. But given actual responsibility, they have to act in a different way. I don’t blame him.

Naga rebels can be liquidated

Q. What do you think of the rebel Nagas and Mizos?

A. When my Chief of Staff, General J. N. Chaudhuri, asked me to come over to the Eastern Command as the GOC-in-C in 1964 from the Western, I was initially not keen. But when he said my services were needed to tackle, among other things, the old insurgency of the underground Nagas and the unrest of the Bengalis, I accepted the assignment. The eastern theatre was very lucky for me. With Gen. Rawley, then Divisional Commander, Nagaland (now GOC-in-C, Eastern Command), between us we broke the back of Naga insurrection. The situation there is now steadying, I believe. May be a handful of people never want to surrender. But they will get liquidated in time. Nagaland administration is progressing extremely well.

The Mizo insurgency started while I was here. Like all guerrilla warfare, it is extremely difficult to know who a guerrilla is and who is not.

Arms for Naxalites

Q. How about Pakistan supplying arms, etc., to the rebels?

A. Very little possibility indeed because any supply will have to come by ship in a roundabout detour. They got supplies from the Chinese in the past. But that also involves long haul.

Q. Are Naxalites in any event a very small group compared to the Nagas or Mizos?

A. A hundred or 200 guerillas can effectively tie down a vast number of the Army, especially when the terrain is extremely difficult as in Nagaland or Mizoram. And the rebel Mizos would not be more numerous than 400 or 500. Honestly, I have no knowledge of the existing strength of underground Nagas.

Q. What about the Mizoram Chief Minister, Mr Chhunga’s reported support to the rebel demand for direct negotiation with the Government of India?

A. It is bound to happen. Naturally everyone wants to talk to the people at the top. Natural, again, for Delhi to uphold the prestige of the local administration. The dispute has, however, to be sorted out by the people of the area among themselves.

Don’t trust politicians!

Q. Have you anything to say on the Nagaland and Mizoram Chief Ministers’ reported suggestion to suspend Army operation and withdraw Army pickets?

A. I am not sure if those suggestions were really made. Troops have to be posted at international borders. Army operation started in Nagaland and Mizoram when there had been disturbances. For that matter, Army presence was also needed to meet the dacoit menace in Madhya Pradesh. The Army have in any case to be located somewhere in the country. They are called out in times of need but remain within barracks at other times. In both Nagaland and Mizoram, Army pickets had to be posted for protecting roads, convoys of essential supply, etc. Even in the North-West Frontier Province of undivided India and the Jammu and Kashmir State, Army units stand by (to come to the assistance of the civil administration). Don’t read too much in the statement of a Chief Minister. He is a politician and has often to say things for his own party. His views are not always that of the administration.

Q. What are your views about prolonging Emergency which empowers the Government to detain people without trial under the Defence of India Rules?

A. Emergency was declared, if I remember correctly, during the Bangladesh trouble in 1971. Like all taxes, Emergency once imposed is difficult for the authorities to take off. Now, you must also agree that certain people owe allegiance to outside forces, say, some to Pakistan, some to China, still others to Russia. The Government naturally takes upon itself the duty of guarding the country’s interests.

Rehabilitate demobbed (demobilised) jawans

Q. You warned the country in your Rotary talk against neglecting the resettlement of demobbed Jawans. Do you have any specific scheme?

A. These Jawans are very innocent, live a sheltered life. Most of the jobs are in cities but they are not used to city life by and large. To obtain jobs after they are demobbed fairly early in life because the Army must be kept young, these Jawans are required to knock about the employment exchanges. More often than not, they are cold-shouldered and rarely they land any job. Returning home in the villages, they grumble and fall into bad company. I wonder whether concerted efforts can be made jointly by the administration and the industry to provide employment to nearly 50,000 educated, mentally alert, physically fit and disciplined Jawans struck off the Army rolls every year. The need for employing them should be of mutual interest because unlike the labour force of the day, they are not likely to give trouble. The Army authorities have tried several schemes but the response from the industry had been poor so far. If this excellent material gets frustrated, in ten years, society may be threatened with half-a-million potential killers.

Unquestioned loyalty to India

Q. What did you actually say at Sandhurst last year about your preferring UK to India as the place for your permanent settlement after retirement?

A. Nothing of the kind. I made no Press statement like that in the UK where I had stayed for about three months from April 1973. I never gave a talk on the subject either. In the course of informal, friendly discussions, I remember, I was asked about my intentions to settle after retirement. Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied it would be India, the Nilgiris to be precise where my wife had built a beautiful house. To the hypothetical question where outside India I would like to stay, I said: Naturally UK. I know the British, know their language, whereas elsewhere I will have to get myself familiar with the people and learn their language refresh.

(In this context, the Field Marshal himself referred to another controversial Press report from Delhi about the same time. The report had alleged that the F.M. had been invited by the late Mr M. A. Jinnah to go over to Pakistan at the time of Partition and also that if he had been the Chief of the Army there during Bangladesh conflict, he would have defeated the Indian Army.)

I was horrified, he remarked, when I saw the news item. People raised much dust on the subject in Parliament and outside. Actually, an 18-year old girl representing some magazine interviewed me and asked me personal questions in addition to examining my residence. Seeing my wife’s and my beds in two separate rooms, she expressed surprise and I had to explain that my wife would not sleep in the same room with me because I snore.

However, to her questions, I said Mr Jinnah had invited me to join the Pakistan Army. But I rejected the offer because I was born in Amritsar and married a beautiful girl from Bombay, my years of association with the Frontier Force notwithstanding. When she asked what would have happened in the Bangladesh conflict if I had gone over, I slapped her bottom and quipped: I would have smacked you like this. Strange stroke of ill-luck that some people should be so much wanting in a sense of humour.

I like Calcutta

Q. What is the object of your present Calcutta visit?

A. I was invited by the Rotary Club of Calcutta to be their chief guest at the installation ceremony on July 2. I readily accepted. I never miss an opportunity of visiting Calcutta, the wonderful city of charming Bengalis. Because I can meet a number of old friends, I am always nostalgic about Calcutta. The four and a half years I was in this city (as the GOC-in-C, Eastern Command from 1964) were my happiest years.

Q. What changes do you notice in Calcutta?

A. Very difficult to tell after a less than three days’ stay. I’ll say this much: This is the safest city in the country to live in. People here can walk about the streets any time without fear of molestation. I can’t say the city is cleaner but you must consider that it is thickly populated, if not more then (what I found) before. More beggars are also encountered any time your car pulls up at the red traffic light.

I am a keen gardener

Q. How do you keep yourself occupied now?

A. My wife has built a beautiful house in the Nilgiris. We have four Labrador dogs, a cow and a few chicken. I look after them. I am also a keen gardener. My garden has 200 rose plants, a number of gladioli, chrysanthemum and dahlias, for which some handsome bulbs have been sent by my Calcutta friends. Out of the 3.5 acre our house has been built on, I have grown 6,000 tea plants on 1.5 acre on the hill top. I have my hands full, therefore, with the usual domestic work. During my four years as Chief of Staff, I was so busy wlith my administrative job that my wife used to grouse and grumble. Now I try to make up for that neglect.

I remain out of my place for about seven to ten days in a month lecturing here, addressing groups of people there. Back home, I catch up with the correspondence.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. None. I have had my full quota. It’s a long time from 1932 to 1973 (in the Army). I am now 60. Physically fit. (He looked it every inch of his slim, upright figure). I am very fond of music, have an excellent Hi Fi equipment. But my wife often shouts at it.

Q. What has been your contribution to the country although no longer the Army Chief of Staff?

A. I go round where people want my advice as an elder statesman.

Q. Did the Government of India ask for your advice since your retirement?

A. No request of any kind from the GOI. I don’t think there is any need either, for there are younger but competent people.