Soldier extraordinaire

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, India's greatest war hero, with the troops near Kolkata. A file picture. Photo: PTI

A riveting account of the life and times of the first Field Marshal of India.

IN April 1971, General Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), reportedly overruled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she wanted the Indian Army to attack what was then East Pakistan as all diplomatic avenues had failed to move Pakistan into controlling the flow of refugees to India. Manekshaw, who was summoned to a Union Cabinet meeting, stated in unequivocal terms that the Army was not ready to enter into a war with Pakistan.

He is reported to have told Indira Gandhi: “Madam Prime Minister, you may not mind being in the same position as your father was in 1962, but I certainly don’t want to be in the same position that he [the then Army chief] was.” He explained to her why the Army was not prepared for a war: only 11 out of the 189 tanks of the armoured division were operational (for lack of funds), troops needed time to be moved to forward areas, roads had to be built, railway wagons had to be requisitioned, and uninterrupted logistical supplies had to be ensured, and all this was a huge challenge in view of the impending monsoon when the entire eastern India would be inundated. He told the Prime Minister that plunging into a war without adequate preparation would be suicidal.

Indira Gandhi dismissed the Cabinet meeting, and as the Ministers began to leave she asked Manekshaw, who was the last one to leave, to stay back. Sensing her angry mood, he is reported to have asked her: “Would you like me to send in my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?” She told him: “Sit down, Sam, is everything you told me true?” He answered: “Madam Prime Minister, it is my job to tell you the truth. It is my job to fight and it is my job to win.” He explained to her that East Pakistan would capitulate within a month if he was given a free hand, if the timing [of the war] was of his choice, and if he had only one political master to report to, the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi agreed to his terms and the rest is history.

But there are facts about Manekshaw that are not so well known. While the war was raging, the Indian Army was marching to victory, and Bangladesh was being created, where was the Army chief? He was reportedly seen once at Tabela, a popular dance joint at the Oberoi hotel in New Delhi. “Something which may or may not have been true, but was definitely in keeping with the persona that he had,” say the authors of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

The book brings to light such and many other interesting facts about the man who is India’s biggest war hero.

Manekshaw, who became India’s first Field Marshal in 1973 and who helped draw the map of the subcontinent, has been written about extensively, and yet one does not tire of reading more about him. The book under review is another such riveting account of the enigmatic soldier. Reading into a couple of pages it becomes clear that the book is a description of the man by a young officer who was in awe of him and could see no wrong in his boss. Still, some of the personal details presented in the book provide a rare peek into the life and character of Manekshaw.

Another facet of Manekshaw’s personality unfolds as the book progresses, that of a loving family head, for whom the entire Indian Army was a big family. He called the men “all my boys”, and the Army wives “all my wives”. And he took it upon himself to keep his family happy, even if it meant ruffling political and bureaucratic feathers now and then.

In the present times, when there is resentment over the general apathy of successive Pay Commissions towards the defence forces and the defence chiefs’ failure to solve the problem, a story in the book about how Manekshaw dealt with a similar situation is quite revealing. Manekshaw turned out impeccably, as he always did, in shining boots and glittering belt and medals, invited the members of the Pay Commission to his chamber (the Pay Commission was considering reducing the uniform allowance). He paced up and down for some time, like a model showcasing her outfit on the ramp, and then said: “Now gentlemen, you tell me, who would obey my orders if I was dressed in a crumpled dhoti and kurta”? This put an end to the discussion on the uniform allowance.

Such was his concern for his men—there are many such instances of courage and leadership quoted in the book—that his contribution to the Indian Army remains unparalleled. The author refers to a sudden movement of troops from Meerut towards Delhi when Manekshaw was the Army chief and the subsequent rumours of a possible coup. One could not but think of similar circumstances when General V.K. Singh was the Army chief. There was movement of some troops towards Delhi from Agra, especially on a day when the controversy over his age was to be taken up by the Supreme Court.

The conduct of the ruling class then and now only serves to highlight the trust deficit that has developed between the political class and the Army. At least the Prime Minister was an exception in Manekshaw’s days.

Indira Gandhi reportedly summoned Manekshaw to clear the air, and he, in his trademark forthright manner, explained: “Sweetie, as long as you keep your nose out of my business, I will keep mine out of yours.” The rapport that he enjoyed with Indira Gandhi thereafter is well known.

The narrative is naïve and the authors admit that they have simply chronicled their recollections. The most striking feature of the book is its crackling humour and wit. The authors, Brigadier (retd) Behram M. Panthaki, who had served as aide de camp (ADC) to Manekshaw, and his wife, Zenobia Panthaki, were witness to many incidents from close quarters.

Wit and humour

Examples of Manekshaw’s wit and humour are scattered all over the book. Manekshaw’s humour sometimes served well even to explain some grim problems facing the Army. In one such instance, as the eastern Army commander, Manekshaw was visiting a Garhwal battalion in the Mizo hills. During field postings, cases of sexual misconduct and contraction of diseases were reported in the forces. After asking routine questions, Manekshaw asked the commanding officer (CO) how many cases of STD (sexually transmitted diseases) were there [in the battalion]. When the CO mumbled a number, which was on the higher side (this is closely monitored by the Army), Manekshaw asked the CO how he dealt with it. The CO said: “Sir, we shave off their heads.” “What? I did not know that in the Garhwal Regiment you did it with your heads,” Manekshaw said as he turned around and left, leaving the poor CO wondering.

Yet another incident quoted in the book is when Manekshaw was a young captain with 4/12 FFR (Frontier Force Regiment) and posted in Burma (now Myanmar). One of his soldiers was found guilty of visiting a red light area and was confined to the military lock-up for 48 hours. But on second thoughts, knowing the problems soldiers faced when staying away from families for months, Manekshaw went up to the soldier and asked: tumhara paisa vasool hua (did you get your money’s worth)? The soldier replied: Nahi sahib, kuch karne se pahle CMP aa gaye (no sir, the CMP [Corps of Military Police] arrived before I could do anything). Manekshaw thought that this was rather unfortunate and reduced the punishment!

There are nuggets scattered all over the book. In 1973, after Manekshaw was made Field Marshal and he relinquished office as COAS, he visited the United Kingdom. At a dinner he hosted for British officers, one of his old commanding officers walked up to him and asked him whether he could address him as Sam now that he had become a Field Marshal. “Please do, Sir,” he replied, “you used to only call me a bloody fool before. At one time I thought that was my Christian name.”

After his retirement, Manekshaw served on the board of several companies. Once, when he was replaced on the board of directors of Escort by one Naik, Manekshaw is said to have quipped: “This is the first and only time that a Naik [corporal] has replaced a Field Marshal.”

Another aspect of the book which stands out is the undertone of disgust with the civilian administration. The authors explain how Manekshaw, who is one of the most decorated Indian Army officers, never allowed politicians and bureaucrats to run the forces down. They quote an instance when the Defence Secretary addressed a colonel at a meeting, which was attended by Manekshaw, as “you there” and asked him to open the window. Manekshaw immediately told the official to never again in future address “one of my boys” in that manner. “You can order me to open the window and I will gladly do so,” he is quoted as saying.

Blunt ways

In another instance, the Defence Secretary wrote to Manekshaw asking for some explanation. Manekshaw wrote back saying that he (the Defence Secretary) was only a bridge between him and the Defence Minister, and hence had no business to ask him, the Army chief, for an explanation. Manekshaw had to pay a price for his blunt ways, but he did not care. Despite being promoted as Field Marshal, the pay and perks that went with the post were denied to him until 2007.

It was President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who took a personal interest in the matter and released the amount, a sum of Rs.1.16 crore. The Defence Secretary, Shekhar Dutt, personally delivered the cheque to Manekshaw at the Wellington military hospital in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, where he had been admitted. The government also released the perquisites, which included an office, two residential guards, two orderlies, a staff officer, and a staff car. Manekshaw looked at the cheque with disbelief and asked the Secretary whether he owed the government some tax on the amount. As the author says, it was a case of too little, too late, and obviously Manekshaw turned down the perks, for at age 93, what would he have done with all that, that too when he was confined to a hospital bed.

The sense of hurt at the bureaucratic and political apathy, which runs deep in the forces, surfaces time and again in the book.

On June 28, 2008, when Manekshaw passed away, an epoch ended, as the authors correctly say. But they note with regret that the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister did not deem it necessary to attend his funeral. The Army chief was away in Moscow. The national flag was not lowered to half mast and the government’s explanation was that it had “forgotten” to add Field Marshal to the Warrant of Precedence!

The book provides rare glimpses into Manekshaw’s childhood, his growing-up years, his initial days in the British army, his courageous escapades, his unusual ways of getting things done, and his unique personality. A must read for anyone who wants to know what makes a good leader.

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