There can be little doubt that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw is the greatest Indian military leader since independence. This is for the simple reason that the armies under his command won one of the greatest military victories in the subcontinent, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh and the utter defeat of Pakistan's army with the surrender of some 90,000 personnel.
Manekshaw’s leadership in 1971 wasn’t in this tactical stroke or that operational achievement. As the Commander-in-Chief, his task was strategic—marshalling forces and equipment, parceling them out to field commanders and supervising their moves on the field, and most importantly, dealing with the political leadership.
All through his life Manekshaw was known for his sense of humour, and his moral and physical courage. Fighting in Burma, in World War II, he was severely wounded and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.
‘Flamboyant’ and ‘colourful’ are some of the words associated with his personality, but in reality, he was somewhat reserved and proper, opening up only when he was with soldiers.
Standing Up to the Top Brass
Among the little known things about him is that he played an important role in the planning of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir and Hyderabad. At the time he was in the Military Operations directorate in New Delhi. He even accompanied V P Menon to Srinagar to obtain the signatures of the Maharaja on the Instrument of Accession to India.
Many people don’t know that Manekshaw’s stirling career almost came apart in the late 1950s, when the controversial Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon clashed with the Army Chief General K S Thimayya and wanted to promote his own men to the top Army ranks. He created a clique of senior officers to attack Thimayya and attempted to rope in Manekshaw into their ranks as well.
Needless to say, Manekshaw, at that time commanding the 26 Division in the Jammu region, was not game. Menon asked him a probing question as to what he thought of his chief. But according to one of his biographers, the latter responded, “Mr Minister, I am not allowed to think about him. He is my chief. Tomorrow, you will be asking my brigadiers and colonels what they think of me.”
Menon was outraged and Manekshaw joined the growing list of Menon’s enemies.
In March 1959, Manekshaw was promoted to the rank of a Major-General and appointed Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington, Tamil Nadu. Various charges were made up against him for making derogatory comments about the political leadership, of being an anglophile and of allegedly hanging portraits of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings in his office. He was even accused of disparaging Shivaji.
Sam was literally charged with sedition and an inquiry was ordered with respect to those allegations.
The charges, which were supported by a clique of officers close to Menon, were dismissed by the court of inquiry presided over by Lt Gen Daulet Singh.
Sam’s career was saved only because of the disaster suffered by the Indian army in the 1962 war against China in which the Army was led by Menon’s chosen generals.
Rise to Field Marshal
Ironically, when Lt Gen B M Kaul was sacked as commander of the 4 Corps, he was replaced by Manekshaw, promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General just days after the war ended on 1 December. His first task was to stabilise the defences of Assam, in case the war was resumed. This he did with considerable vigour and elan, providing a measure of reassurance to the troops thrown into battle and to the leadership sitting in New Delhi.
A year later, after Lt Gen Daulet Singh died in a tragic helicopter accident, Manekshaw was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Command. His trajectory was firm now, and from there he went on to head the Eastern Command and become Army Chief in June 1969.
He retired at the end of 1972 and was immediately appointed Field Marshal, a rank a soldier serves for his lifetime. Strangely enough, and this speaks volumes of our bureaucracy, he was not given the perks and salary as a Field Marshal. It was only in 2007, when he was bed-ridden and ill, that he was given a cheque of Rs 1.3 crores as his arrears of pay.
He rejected a belated offer of other privileges that had been denied to him. A year later he passed away.
Lots has been spoken about Manekshaw’s bluntness and sense of humour. He was certainly an old-fashioned man with a proclivity to play with a straight bat. It is this attitude that led him to his key achievement—delaying the Indian offensive in East Pakistan by nine months, over the wishes of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Cabinet.
He realised that reorienting the Army from the west, where it was largely located to the east, would take time, and furthermore, the riverine terrain of Bangladesh would require different tactics and equipment. Monsoon would be a major hurdle and the winter would close the northern passes preventing any Chinese assistance to Pakistan.
My Personal Reminiscences
In 1952, I was two years old, Sam was appointed the commander of the 167 Infantry Brigade located at Ferozepur on the border with Pakistan. He selected my father, then a Major, to be his key staff officer, known as the “Brigade Major”. This was a position he had himself held in Razmak in Waziristan for a brief while. It is here that he met my father who was served with the Razmak Brigade in the 1/19 Hyderabad Regiment.
Life in Ferozepur was idyllic and typically military. This was a period when tensions with Pakistan, too, were not significant. Indeed, the Indian and Pakistani officers often met for a cup of tea or a beer on a designated island on the Sutlej river that marked their border.
There was a lot of shikar (hunting) and picnics but being just of the ages between 2 and 4, when Manekshaw was in Ferozepur, I have little memory of the man who was my father’s direct boss. He must have been quite unconventional because of two memories I have of him coming to our house.
The first could well be my imagination at play or a false memory but it is stuck firmly in my mind — Brig Manekshaw arriving on foot at the gate of our house dressed in red British Grenadiers Guards uniform complete with a bearskin cap and a swagger-stick in hand. He asked me whether my father was in. I said no and he went away.
The second is more definite. Maneskshaw sitting in our living room with my Dad who offered him a drink and asked the sahayak (military helper) to get that bottle of whiskey lying in the dining room side table.
I heard that and rushed to get the bottle and bring it to the living room. But in my hurry I stumbled and the bottle fell from my hands and shattered. I started howling. Manekshaw promptly whipped out a match box, lit a match and threw it onto the spilt liquor saying “Hey look !”. As the alcohol lit up and lapped the pool with that typical blue flame, I was transfixed and immediately stopped crying.
I never did meet Field Marshal Manekshaw again, though I could have in my trips to Wellington’s Defence Services Staff College. Why? I can’t say, perhaps it was to do with honouring his privacy.
In any case, given his storied career, he would have hardly understood why I wanted to meet him anyway.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)