A great soldier fades away
“One who excels at employing the army,” wrote Sun Tzu in the sixth-century classic, The Art of War, “leads them by the hand as if they were only one man.” Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, who passed away Friday at Wellington at the age of 94, will be remembered for his exceptional demonstration of this skill during the Indian Army’s historic, nation-creating victory at Dhaka in 1971. He will also be remembered for representing the finest traditions of the Indian Army: professionalism, discipline, and an unwavering commitment to the core values of democracy. Sam Manekshaw was born in Amritsar to Parsi parents in 1914, and his adult life was entwined with the making of the modern Indian Army. He served the British Indian Army against Japanese forces in what is now Myanmar, twice suffering serious combat injuries; helped put down Partition riots; and fought against Pakistani forces from Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-1948. Sidelined in the run-up to the 1962 war with China, Sam Manekshaw was rehabilitated during the subsequent military reconstruction drive. He was elevated as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command before the India Pakistan war of 1965. He counselled against offensive operations in what is now Bangladesh, demonstrating a concern for avoiding civilian casualties that paid off six years later. His services in Nagaland as Eastern Army commander were rewarded with a Padma Bhushan in 1968. He was awarded a Padma Vibhushan and, in 1973, elevated to the highest rank a soldier can aspire to. He remains one of just two Generals of the Indian Army to have been made a Field Marshal.
Field-Marshal Manekshaw’s military legacy has been the subject of energetic debate in recent years, with some critics arguing that he was not the principal architect of India’s 1971 victory. The official history of the war of 1971 — which for some opaque reason remains a classified document, even though it can now be downloaded from the Internet — suggests that none of the protagonists ever issued an unequivocal order to seize Dhaka. Both Army Headquarters and Eastern Command “had thought of and made some provision for the capture of Dhaka, but had played safe and issued no formal order to any of the formations in the field” — a not-unreasonable position given the prospect of a United States-backed Pakistani counter-offensive. In the event, Lieutenant-General Sagat Singh and Major-General Gandharv Nagra took “the bit in their teeth and gallop[ed] for Dhaka even before receiving any order.” Field-Marshal Manekshaw’s real genius lay in his selection of his field commanders — and his ability to inspire the confidence that, if things went wrong, their commander would stand by them. He refused to condone wrongdoing: on one occasion, he told a subordinate facing credible corruption charges that his choices were to resign or shoot himself. ‘Sam Bahadur,’ as the men of the 8 Gurkha Rifles proudly called him, will be remembered not just for the military triumph he helped achieve — but as an exemplar of military leadership.