The wonder that was Sam
APRIL 3, 1914 - JUNE 27, 2008
Ashok Mehta / New Delhi June 28, 2008, 0:30 IST
For managers struggling to learn the intricacies of that complex thing called leadership, the model to follow is Manekshaw.
So Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw is gone. The last time I met him was in Delhi over a drink. He was here to attend one of innumerable board meetings. We spoke of soldiering in war and peace. I learnt several lessons anew. One of them was a facet of Sam I hadn't known before.
The fact is there were other Generals in the Indian Army cleverer than him. But it was he who became a living legend of the Indian Army. How? One reason is Manekshaw was one of the finest communicators the Indian Army has ever had. And for managers struggling to learn the intricacies of that complex thing called leadership, the model to follow is Manekshaw.
On March 30, 1972, three and a half months after his victory over Pakistan, in a speech to cadets at the passing out parade at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, Manekshaw said: "You are leaving here this morning as officers, as leaders. You will be going from here to your units that are deployed on the border. They are facing an enemy whom they have but recently fought and vanquished. You are going to be given command of troops in an operational area. You are indeed fortunate. Your tasks will be to administer to their needs and to lead them in battle. What sort of men will you be leading? You will be leading veterans, men who have fought, men who have won, men who are used to good leadership. Make sure you give it to them." His speech, his bearing, suggested grace was more important in victory than in defeat.
Management manuals are now discovering many of the attributes of leadership that came to Manekshaw naturally. He had a healthy contempt for bureaucratic authority and detested fawning officers. He wrote in the confidential report of one such officer: "Why this officer has not developed a stammer is incomprehensible to me. I know I shall never suffer from piles."
He was obsessive about the welfare of the troops, although few know that the Field Marshal never commanded a battalion. He was a fastidious and unconventional dresser, his uniform never conformed to regulation, it was always that little bit smarter. And he flirted outrageously with the ladies. All this came together to create a mystique that made people listen to Manekshaw — after all, how many chiefs would refuse to call the prime minister Madame on the grounds that it would be impolite to use a word more appropriate in bawdy houses?
Not everything Manekshaw described about his days in the Army was strictly accurate. Lt Gen JFR Jacob, in his Witness to Surrender, an account of the war for Bangladesh, says the capture of Dacca — the event that led to the complete surrender of the Pakistan Army — was never an objective set out by those who planned the war from Delhi, namely Army Headquarters. Gen Jacob's book is intended to demystify India's military victory over Pakistan in 1971 and Manekshaw's part in it.
But although that is probably the truth, the reality is that because of his personality and the way he told the story, Manekshaw's version of the war is the one that India internalised. He warded off pressures from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to go to war following the crackdown by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. "War, yes. But not now" he said. During a cabinet meeting Manekshaw managed to convince Gandhi that more time was required to ensure victory. "I guarantee the capture of East Pakistan in two weeks" he said on at least two occasions. It was the timing of the war that won it for India, though Mankshaw accepted, luck played a part.
Sam became a Field Marshal in 1973. For someone who was nearly sacked as a two-star General for being too anglicised and rubbing the wrong way, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and Lt Gen Bijji Kaul, his rehabilitation was remarkable. What saved him from the guillotine was the 1962 war (the Chinese came to my rescue, he used to say). Ironically he was promoted to relieve Kaul, the very man gunning for him. Immediately on reaching the demoralised 4 Corps headquarters he announced: "Gentlemen, I have arrived. There will be no more withdrawal in 4 Corps". Providentially the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and from then on Sam rose to give India its first decisive military victory in 1971.
Today Manekshaw's home Stavka, in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, custom designed by his late wife, Silloo, must be silent. He used have half a dozen Gorkhas in attendance, two dogs, one called Piffer and the other one called Ceasar; and a cow. He used to do his own typing and replied to his mail himself. His bridge partners at the Wellington Gymkhana Club must be desolate — he was regular visitor. He used to be on the board of 14 companies. Then it became six, and lately, he had been excusing himself from most.
Manekshaw had many stories to tell. But one of the most exquisite was the one when at a presidential banquet, he told Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi: "You look very pretty tonight". Surrounded by her ministers, she bowed and said: "Thank you, Sam".
Had Sam not gone off to join the Army he might have become a gynecologist. Luckily he did become a soldier and went on to win the Military Cross in Burma later joining the 8 Gurkha Rifles. He was a favourite with the Gurkhas. It was during his visit to Nepal in 1972 that King Mahendra conferred on him the title of Honorary General of his Army which ruffled some feathers in the Foreign Ministry at Delhi. Since then both countries have made each other's Army Chiefs Generals of their armies. For the Gurkhas he will always be Sam Bahadur, a name given to him on the spur of the moment by Harka Bahadur, a young soldier from his battalion.
Sadly in the twilight of his life, he became a victim of a TV assault. After then President APJ Abdul Kalam handed over Rs 1.6 crore as pension arrears following a hike in the Field Marshal's pension, a TV channel raked up Pakistani soldier-diplomat, Gauhar Ayub's charge against an Indian Brigadier who allegedly sold in the early 1950s, Indian war plans to the enemy for Rs 20,000. A conversation between Manekshaw and US Consul General William K Hitchcock in Calcutta in 1967, in which Hitchcock reported how indiscreet Manekshaw was, was also recalled. Ayub's book where he threatened to reveal all, is however, yet to come out.
In 1968 when Sam was about to become Chief of Army Staff, I was sounded to be ready to move at short notice, as his aide-de-camp. That never happened. Later I knew why. Sam said: "that b….r ? I'll end up becoming his ADC". It was an appointment I didn't get. To this day I have not ceased to regret it.
When the Field Marshal was leading the India-Pakistan war of 1972, Major General Ashok K Mehta was racing towards Dacca with a battalion of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles to help capture it