The Weekend Leader - A 'soldier's soldier' is belatedly remembered

A 'soldier's soldier' is belatedly remembered

Vishnu Makhijani


From largely being ignored post-retirement, the officer who crafted the Indian Army's finest victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw received a belated, yet tepid, remembrance on his 100th birth anniversary Thursday in the form of quarter-page advertisements in two national dailies.

There were three large photographs and four smaller ones and a four-paragraph text extolling the "soldier's soldier" but the spirit was lacking -- almost as if a formality was merely being gone through.

Sample this:

"Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, Military Cross, was born on 03 Apr 1914. Manekshaw belonged to the first batch of 40 cadets to be selected for the Indian Military Academy and was commissioned into the 12 FF Rifles on 04 Feb 1934.

Manekshaw was awarded the Military Cross for exceptional bravery in the Battle of Pagoda Hill, Burma, in 1942.

Field Marshal Manekshaw was the Chief of the Army Staff from 08 Jun 1969 to 15 Jan 1973. As Army Chief he rendered yeoman service to the nation by leading the Indian Army to a spectacular victory in the 1971 War.

For his distinguished service to the Nation, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972 and conferred the rank of Field Marshal on 01 Jan 1973, becoming the first Army Officer to be bestowed with that rank."

That was as bland as it could get for a career spanning 39 years and which saw the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation after the surrender of over 90,000 Pakistani troops in what was then that country's eastern wing.

It was typical of "Sam Bahadur" (Sam the Brave), as he was fondly called by his troops, that he bore the victory lightly.

"Jaggi did all the work, I got all the credit," he would often say of Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, then the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Calcutta (now Kolkata)-based Eastern Army Command who led the ground offensive.

The planning, of course, had Manekshaw's stamp all across it and also saw a decisive victory on the Western front during the Dec 3-16, 1971 operations.

For good measure, too, because Manekshaw insisted that he wouldn't be hurried and would launch the ground operations only when he was fully ready. Thus, while Bangladesh declared its Independence on March 26, 1971, the military offensive began some 34 weeks later.

The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had no option but to acquiesce. This was the same individual, let it not be forgotten, that Manekshaw had refused to address as "Madam", saying it was a title reserved for an individual who occupied a certain house.

"I shall stick to prime minister," he insisted, another measure of the man, who was otherwise closely associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family.

But to get back to the "tribute", like a budget - or a bikini - that hides more than it reveals what it glosses over is the fact that Manekshaw might have been elevated as the Indian Army's first field marshal but this came sans the trappings.

How was that? It happened like this:

A youngish tabloid reporter, at the fag end of an interview, asked a seemingly innocuous question: "What would have happened had you opted for Pakistan at the time of independence (in 1947)?"

With the usual twinkle in his eye, Manekshaw replied: "I guess Pakistan would have won (the 1971 war)."

All hell broke loose when this appeared in print and there were demands that he be stripped of the Field Marshal's rank but he stood his ground.

"The question was asked in jest, the reply was in jest and I never dreamed it would get into print. Now that it has, I do not deny saying so," Manekshaw maintained.

Anyone else in his place would have taken the "I've been misquoted route" -- and this is what differentiated Sam Bahadur from the others.

Even in his death, Manekshaw was all but forgotten. M.M. Pallam Raju, then the minister of state for defence, represented the ministry at the low-key state funeral at the Ooty hill station in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Army was represented by its vice chief, Lt. Gen. M.L. Naidu.

The three service chiefs were absent at the funeral. Only the IAF head, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major issued a condolence message.

There was no word from the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who, as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, was the nominal head of the country's military. The Indian Army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, who was in Russia at the time, also did not issue a statement.

Possibly to make amends for this, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the three service chiefs, about a week later, signed a condolence book opened at the India Gate war memorial to the Unknown Soldier in the national capital for the public to pay their last respects to the departed soul.

Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw -- April 3, 1914-June 27, 2008 -- no words are adequate to celebrate your life.

(Vishnu Makhijani is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal.)

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