A field marshal & a gentleman
Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw was the quintessential soldier: magnificently mustachioed, charming, dapper, decisive, and above all, impervious to political pressure. He was better known as Sam Bahadur, or Sam the Brave, a title bestowed on him by his beloved Gurkhas. Compared to today’s standards and levels of probity in the Army, he was cool, bold and seminal. And he was considerate to those under his command. His was a highly decorated soldiering career that sp anned four decades.
He was also droll and irreverent, traits long extinct in the Indian military. He was an able listener, irrespective of how junior his interlocutor. He was charismatic, and rarely ever stood on ceremony. Through earthiness and plain-speak he motivated an army that achieved what no other army has done since the Second World War — liberating a nation. Even the U.S., with all its might and technical wizardry, has not managed such a feat in the past 63 years.
The Field Marshal was a team player. He almost always finished his own work in an hour and spent the rest of his time floating from one office to another. He often dropped in on harried juniors, and eagerly helped them with their tasks.
As Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, Manekshaw’s chutzpah helped achieve ‘jointness’ among the three Services. This was evidenced by the coordinated and synergised operations that resulted in Pakistan’s military rout in 1971. Without doubt India’s finest war-time chief, he was also a noble warrior who looked upon his enemies with respect. Addressing troops from atop the bonnet of his jeep in the Chamb Sector in November 1971 weeks before the 1971 campaign started, he asked them not to be rapacious in victory.
Separately, he urged the officers not to misbehave with Pakistani women. If they were ever overcome with “negative urges,” they should put their hands in their pockets and think of Sam Manekshaw, he added. By and large, the Indian Army behaved in an exemplary manner in both the theatres of war. Having begun with the Second World War in which he was awarded the Military Cross on the battlefield during the Burma campaign, Manekshaw actively participated in all the wars that independent India fought. He capped it all with the decisive 1971 triumph that led to the birth of Bangladesh. Measured campaign
Manekshaw’s planning of the 1971 campaign was brilliantly measured, and it showed his well-rounded leadership qualities. He steadfastly refused to cave in to pressure from either Prime Minister Indira Gandhi or her Cabinet colleagues to launch immediate military operations against East Pakistan. Their intention was also to stem the flow of millions of Bengali refugees into India after the Pakistan Army had executed a pogrom of intellectuals and leaders, killing over 50,000 of them.
In March 1971, largely Bengali East Pakistan had revolted against the dominance of its Punjabi and Pathan-dominated Western section. This resulted in a brutal crackdown by the army, which had a similar ethnic mix. The refugee exodus into India followed. This imposed on India a crippling financial burden. In addition, the influx strained the social and political fabric in the northeastern States, the effects of which remain till today. After touring the teeming refugee camps, Indira Gandhi asked Manekshaw what the Indian Army could possibly do to control the situation. “Nothing,” quipped Manekshaw, to the horror of the Prime Minister’s entourage of civil servants and Ministers. No one had ever dared to respond so brusquely to her.
An impatient Indira Gandhi, backed by her eager-to-please Cabinet, wanted Manekshaw to conduct a swift, surgical strike on East Pakistan and install a government led by Mujibur Rehman, the popular Bengali leader. This was to be followed by the return of the refugees. Manekshaw patiently listened, and then went on to elaborate firmly on the enormous logistical exercise that was necessary to launch operations against a 90,000-strong Pakistani Army. Guided by military logic, his capability and the reality on the ground, Manekshaw said that though his army would be operationally ready three months later in June, November 1971 would be the tactically opportune point to launch an attack on East Pakistan.
He had principally two reasons for this. The first was that the monsoon would render the region a virtual lake, making troop movement difficult. If India launched operations in June, the outcome would be catastrophic, he said. The second and equally credible rationale for a postponement was a perceived threat from China, with which India had fought a debilitating border war nine years earlier. Manekshaw wanted the Himalayan mountain passes to be snowed up before troops — at least two divisions of them — could be withdrawn from the Chinese front for deployment in the east.
He maintained in his briefing to Indira Gandhi and her Ministers that India must guard against the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts. “That,” he declared, “would present me with problems far more complex than what had been the bane of the German General Staff for more than 50 years across two World Wars. It would be unwise to rely on diplomatic assurances that the Chinese would not react in support of Pakistan. We must wait for the snow to block the northern passes.”
Indira Gandhi ordered the General to move his formations into position and be ready to engage battle by June. In the ensuing months a whispering campaign was mounted by senior officials and politicians against Manekshaw. He was being accused of cowardice, vacillation and shoddy generalship. Manekshaw was aware of the calumny unleashed against him, but maintained his cool. He went about preparing for combat by bolstering the communication lines around East Pakistan. Indira Gandhi meanwhile secured a friendship and military treaty with the Soviet Union, the country’s principal materiel provider, thereby neutralising the possibility of any interference from either the United States or China. It also enabled the establishment of a formal Bangladesh government-in-exile in India and the arming and training of Mukti Bahini guerilla fighters jointly by the Research and Analysis Wing and Indian Army Special Forces personnel.
Over the next few months, until war started, these guerrillas successfully harassed and engaged the Pakistani Army, confining it to the garrison towns cut off from the capital, Dhaka. This made Manekshaw’s eventual task easier. And, when the Pakistan Air Force conducted a pre-emptive strike on Indian airfields in December 1971 from West Pakistan, Manekshaw unleashed his campaign. It all ended in a fortnight with the liberation of East Pakistan and the capture of over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers.
A firm believer in the chain of command, he delegated the battle planning and execution to Eastern Army field commanders. Meanwhile, he used his clout with the political establishment to meet the financial and hardware requirements. He was the uncrowned Chief of Defence Staff. (This is a post India’s military and political establishment has been wrangling over for the past decade.) Inimitable modesty
With his inimitable modesty, Manekshaw declined to preside over the Pakistani surrender in Dhaka. He insisted that the credit go to the Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen. Jagjit Aurora. He jocularly remarked that he would go only to accept the surrender of the entire Pakistani Army.
As Chief of the Army Staff, Manekshaw had issued instructions that if anyone from 54 Sikhs came visiting, he was to be escorted straight to him, whatever time it was and whatever he was involved with. Occasionally, these grizzled veterans would arrive at Army House with a string of ‘sifarishs’ (requests) ranging from a bag of sugar for a daughter’s wedding or a note to the local administration for help. All were received with a robust burst of colloquial Punjabi, which Manekshaw spoke like a native. And none was left unrequited.
Deployed to Burma during the Second World War, he was badly wounded during a successful attack near the Sittang river on February 22, 1942 to capture a vital hill while leading two companies. As he charged forward with his men, a Japanese soldier emerged from the jungle and pumped seven bullets into Captain Manekshaw. The Division Commander, Major General D.T. Cowan, who was witness to the action, whipped off his own Military Cross ribbon and pinned it onto Manekshaw. His rationale was that a dead person could not be awarded one of the most coveted bravery medals in the British Army.
After recovering from his wounds, Mankeshaw was once more dispatched to Burma as part of General (later Viscount) Slim’s 14th Army and was wounded again. In the final days of the Second World War, he was appointed Staff Officer to General Daisy in Indochina. There, after the Japanese surrender he helped rehabilitate over 10,000 prisoners of war.
Appointed to the Military Operations Directorate after Independence in 1947, Brigadier Manekshaw was responsible for Planning and Logistics during the first India-Pakistan war over Jammu and Kashmir. He was reportedly the only military officer and one of three people present, albeit in an ante-room, in the palace in Jammu, when Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession ceding his kingdom to India in October 1947. The third person was V.P. Menon, who was political adviser to Lord Mountbatten at the time of Partition.
A series of staff and command postings followed. But in 1961 Manekshaw’s outspoken nature offended Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. He favoured Lieutenant-General B.M. Kaul. There was also a court of inquiry into a nebulous charge, but he was exonerated.
India’s 1962 defeat by the Chinese followed, and Manekshaw was swiftly given command by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the retreating 4 Corps, which was commanded earlier by General Kaul. Manekshaw did wonders to salvage their battered morale. He became Chief of the Army Staff in June 1969 and was made Field Marshal on January 1, 1973. He retired a fortnight later. Unconventional
He was an unconventional and at times risqué dresser. He once hosted his senior Lieutenant-General, Kulwant Singh, who was commanding the Western Army at Shimla, at an inspection in a “wholly unsuitable” jacket that was a cross between a regulation shirt and a bush shirt. When General Singh referred to it disparagingly, he quipped: “Have you come to inspect my formation or my dress?” Manekshaw invariably supported his subordinate officers, even if they expressed views contrary to his — as long as they were professionally sound. Those who served with him said that he never raised his voice. But even a mild rebuke accompanied by “Sweetheart, this will not do,” was enough to tame the wildest of soldiery egos. Towards some of his peers, however, his attitude was one of disguised mockery.
But Manekshaw’s fabled irreverence got him into trouble with a vindictive Indira Gandhi, who was jealous of his standing after the war. A throwaway line to a news reporter at an airport soon after the 1971 victory that had he decided to migrate to Pakistan at Independence — thousands of Parsis had opted to stay on — India would have lost the war, infuriated Indira Gandhi. She not only castigated him publicly but withdrew some of the perquisites he enjoyed as Field Marshal.
Unlike his successors, Manekshaw faded gracefully into retirement, seeking neither to perpetuate the glory that was justifiably his for personal profit nor compromising his Field Marshal’s Five-Star standing