FSam Manekshaw, was India’s most charismatic army chief. But with the passing of years since his professional high point- the liberation of Bangladesh the myths about ‘Sam Bahadur’ have only grown. Like so many others, I remain a admirer of the man himself, but it is fair to say that above all, his destiny had guided his life: from his days as a GC at IMA to the Burma front in World War II, and then surviving that inquiry at Staff College, Wellington (which would have written off almost any other General), he rose to be an Indian army chief, like no other in history. Straight talking but never appearing ambitious, he often walked the fine line between becoming a Field Marshal and being court martialed!
Good looking and a good sportsman, some say he had a ‘glad eye’, but even then, his dossier at the IMA says, (and I’m paraphrasing here, having seen it over 25 years ago) that though Sam “was rather opinionated, he could rise to highest rank if suitably guided by a good C o m p a n y commander”. Commissioned into the Frontier Force Rifles (4/12 FFR), that went to Pakistan at independence, Sam won over his burly troops with his fluency in Punjabi ( picked up from his years in Amritsar, though he was a Parsi), and then with his self mocking humor, specially when he lay heavily wounded and bleeding on the Burma front. His gallantry won him a Military Cross, pinned on him by a serving British General, who thought he was going to die, as dead men aren’t awarded the MC. It was the only decoration he had till he became army chief, unlike the string of VSM variants that all our Generals now have!
At independence, he was re-assigned to the Gorkha Rifles (8 GR) and went on to do more for the Gorkhas, than any other General. From all that is known about him, it is clear that that he had no insecurities: his entry in the Visitor’s Book at a Mess in Mizoram (that I do recall) simply said: “Sam Manekshaw, Army Headquartes”. No rank, no decorations, and in a page with other names too! And even though he and Lt. Gen. Jacob had differences when he was the Commandant, Staff College, Wellington, he chose to appoint Jacob as the chief-of-staff on Eastern Command. This influential post gave Gen. Jacob a shot at making history, by playing a crucial role in the liberation of Dacca. Although Gen. Jacob’s account of the war has less takers than the large numbers who believe that it was Sam, and perhaps Gen. Sagat Singh (then GoC IV Corps) who orchestrated the victory, Pakistan’s NDC has given Jacob most of the credit.
Sam certainly had the grace not to seek the limelight for India’s spectacular victory in the 1971 war. He didn’t go for the surrender ceremony at Dacca – the largest ever since World War II choosing instead to inform the prime minister, Mrs Gandhi. But she couldn’t contain her excitement and ran up the steps of Parliament house, interrupting its proceedings to announce that India’s victory took two weeks against the expected time frame of four weeks or more. And even though Sam had utter contempt for politicians – no wonder none showed up to salute him as he lay dead, though holidays are announced ever so often when so many lesser beings pass away – he had an excellent rapport with Mrs Gandhi. A photograph of him with his forearms placed on Mrs Gandhi’s table as they both eye other with a smile, shows that he was simply different. No chief today would dare to get so close; but Sam, quite simply didn’t give a damn.
Maroof Raza is a strategic