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Will We Ever Have Another Sam Bahadur?

Sam’s moral courage and straightforwardness frightened his detractors (across the Line of Control and within).

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As India warms and sighs to the idyll of a classic template of an ‘officer-and-a-gentleman’ via the celluloid reel of Sam Bahadur on the irrepressible Field Marshal Sam HFJ Manekshaw MC, it also queries if he was to be the last of the dashing knights with a code, or is it still possible to have another Sam Bahadur?

Those from the ‘Uniformed’ fraternity may additionally recall a Cariappa, Thimayya, Harbaksh, Arjan, Dawson, Sagat or Hanut from the glittering pantheon of heroes who gave their all for their respective institution, something far bigger than themselves. But they may also struggle to put someone of the same Generalship (or its equivalents) from the last three-four decades, on the same pedestal?

Why so?

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An Authentic Alpha-warrior With Huge Amounts of Genuine Empathy

Living in an era where we gleefully knock down revered heroes of the past by cherry-picking their odd human failings and reimagining/recreating history to stitch (creatively, and often falsely) heroes who fit the topical air of the times, that be – Sam Bahadur will all his charming quirks, joe de vivre, and anglicised irreverence remains a counterintuitive hero with his unique bearings, narrative, and Teflon qualities!  

Perhaps the ‘dislodgers’ sense that to question a Sam Manekshaw is tantamount to questioning the very essence and DNA of the Indian Armed Forces, and that they are served better by surreptitiously nibbling away at its core and normalised ‘ways’, more discreetly, connivingly, and insidiously. The fact that another Sam Bahadur didn’t emerge is sadly a testimony of the vile and dark success of the suppressive ‘system’.

Fundamentally, Sam Bahadur was a product of past times, and therefore exemplified all the sensibilities, persuasions, and insistences, that could still be circumstantially afforded in those times – that he was an authentic Alpha-warrior with huge amounts of genuine empathy for his fellow-soldiers, destined him to true greatness.  

But, like other legend’s recalled in the same breath, each one of them had stood up to the ‘system’, dignifiedly as befitting the ‘Uniform’, but never in a petty partisan way or by resorting to chest-thumping jingoism. Those days, heroes fought hard and loud, and they often came wrapped in the Tiranga after ‘paying the ultimate price’ but were not those who conveniently wrapped themselves in the Tiranga, only to diminish one of our ‘own’, that too from the safety of distance, protection or for any partisan or ‘othering’ purpose.  

Heroes in Indian Military Uniform always had an inclusive and limited agenda, as prescribed by the Constitution of India. They were fierce constitutionalists, and not beholden to any distractions and passions in the realm of societal, partisan, regional or bloodline suggestions.  

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Sam’s Moral Courage and Straightforwardness Frightened His Detractors

Soldiers of Sam Bahadur’s generation birthed, nurtured, and personified the ‘Idea of India’, as India for them was first and foremost an audacious ‘idea’ not centered at privileging any tribe or even majority, but the entirety. The likes of Sam Bahadur didn’t judge anymore more or less favourably owing to their religion, region, ethnicity or any other beliefs but on their character and hearts, as they openly celebrated diversity and took pride in assumed identities e.g., Sam Bahadur the Parsi, born and brought up in Punjab and died in Tamil Nadu, was gladiatorlike in wearing his ‘Gorkhaness’, and felt the same in his bones.

They celebrated differences. They challenged each other’s professional judgements but never their motives. They were wise enough to understand the politics of the corridors of power but even wiser to never behoove partisan preferences. They were not ignorant of ‘Delhi’ or of babudom, the perennial spokes in the wheel.  They knew that the sacred fight for that noble idea called India, was not reserved for the few, but on the contrary demanded of each, as per their own callings, without fear or favour. Today, selectivity is more gratifying than total inclusivity. 

The movie has scenes of Sam Bahadur fiercely protective and vocal about the institutional concerns and defends the same from politicos and bureaucrats, who could/did (always have had), vested agendas. Importantly, he reassures them of his limited agenda that does not seek to undo the civilian control over the military or extend opinions beyond his pay band.

Sam’s moral courage and straightforwardness frightened his detractors (across the Line of Control and within), and he remained brutally honest, no matter who it offended. He was always correct and honourable in conduct, but never a push-over. That powerful combination of dignity, courage and decency was to manifest on many occasions, closely paralleling the calling of India, as an idea and sovereign. He knew that bending to partisan expediency or orthodoxy would compromise the institution. Can any similarly independent, assertive, and even tad bit playful voice of a free spirit survive today?          

Secure leaders like Sam Bahadur disdained abuse of power and recognised ‘enemies’ as equal humans and patriots of their flag, but still befitting of India’s civilisational-constitutional decency – such outlook didn’t make him complacent or any less valourous in a real battle, as the warrior had taken seven bullets on his chest, once. The fount of today’s fearmongering times is trafficked in manufactured outrage that pretends to be brave but is otherwise. But a Sam Bahadur couldn’t be what he wasn’t. He was supremely unapologetic of his ‘ways’ as he needed no lectures on patriotism, the professional inspiration that could accrue from any foreign sources (without pretenses of nativity) or on his social ways as a bon vivant. Can such a template get away without aspersions of Western fixations or lacking native puritanism? 

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His Legacy Lives on in the Ramrod Steel of the Indian Soldier

But above all, Sam Bahadur stood tall with ferocious faith and commitment for the nameless and often forgotten Indian Army Soldier who could be Bhulla (Kumauni/Garhwali), Gorkha, Thambi (Madrasi soldier), Naga, Dogra etc., from the magnificent plurality that is the Indian Soldier, and therefore India. 

He saw past the various inherent differences in search of common ground and vested the same in the constitutional idea of India, that binds us together, and not a farcical ‘improvement’ thereof or purity beyond its intended definition, as prescribed by the founding fathers. By sheer mannerism of defending the diversity that is Indian Soldier, he was defending the ‘Idea of India’, with his tireless passion for justice, equity and fairness.

Therefore, the Indian Soldier on any front or picquet would recognise a Sam Bahadur as his/her leader, not because of the weight of his epaulettes but for the ‘voice’ he afforded, the by-design ‘voiceless’ institution. Sam’s largeness of spirit (even if Westernised in audio-visuals) was palpable to all Indian Soldiers from mofussil areas, and it needed no posturing, theatrical sabre-rattling or coercive put-downs.

He was a Soldier’s General who didn’t need to speak any particular language, wear specific clothes, insist on nativism, eat and drink as per anyone’s whims – he was just Sam Bahadur, more English than the English, but also the most honest and finest Indian, that could ever be. In one epic life, was written the magnificence, grandness and large-heartedness that was India. Many forget he was all that in the times of a Nehru, Shastri, and as the Army Chief in authoritarian Indira Gandhi’s time, no intellectual, political or even personal pushovers, themselves.          

To imagine anyone replicating and walking those steps today, without inviting censure, punitive reaction or small-spirited barbs and disallowances, is to live in denial. Sam Bahadur strode like a colossus and his legacy lives on in the ramrod steel of the Indian Soldier, henceforth the honour is for the current leadership (both, military and national) to sustain. But because the air that be, is predicated on disablement instead of enablement, another Sam Bahadur may not happen soon. Till then, see the life of Sam Bahadur as that of ‘India’ – grand, generous, essentially caring but fierce when it comes to defending its sovereignty and dignity for all of our own, not just for some.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. 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.)

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Topics:  Sam Manekshaw 

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