Sunday, June 29, 2008

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw R.I.P.

The passing of Field Marshal S.H.F.J Manekshaw, commissioned in the first batch of officers from the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, truly marks the end of an era. It also deserves to be noted for another reason, though the government in its wisdom chose to elevate the first Indian to become army chief, Gen. K.M. Cariappa and the man who commanded the Indian Air Force in 1965, Air Marshal Arjan Singh to the field rank as well, only Sam was promoted because he commanded a victorious army in the field. The other two who have provided outstanding service to the country, were conferred the rank well-deserved though it was, well after their retirement, almost as an afterthought as it were.

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the scale of the victory in 1971, an entire army comprising of over 90,000 personnel of the Pakistan Army surrendered to their Indian counterparts and the new nation of Bangladesh was created. Whether or not the battle plan took into account the capture of Dhaka is not germane. What matters is that Sam was the Chief of Army Staff and deserves the kudos, just as we dish out the brickbats to chiefs like General J.N. Chaudhury who let the country down in 1965. As the chief Manekshaw headed not only the eastern army headed by Lt Gen J.S. Aurora, but another one in the west, headed by Lt Gen K.P. Candeth. His problem was not just the Pakistanis, but the Chinese in the north who had bested the Indian army nine years earlier. He was the interface of the army with the political establishment and had to fight within the carefully selected parameters laid out by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her advisers. His great contribution to the victory obviously was his leadership. He refused to commit the army prematurely in March 1971, but patiently built up the forces needed to sweep through East Pakistan, keeping in mind the larger strategic picture. And when the time came, he delivered.

My personal memories of the Field Marshal go back to 1953-54 when my father served as his brigade major, and there is only one distinct recollection. Manekshaw who commanded the brigade in Ferozepur was visiting, and I insisted on fetching the bottle of scotch whiskey to the drawing room. I stumbled and broke the bottle and started bawling. Quick-witted and fun-loving Sam threw a lit match-stick on pool of scotch and the dancing ghostly blue flames were so entrancing that I forgot my mishap. I have another memory but which seems more like fantasy: I was playing near the gate of our house and Manekshaw arrived, asking for my father. He was dressed in the scarlet uniform of the British grenadier guards, complete with bearskin cap, like the guards in front of Buckingham Palace.

I never met him as a journalist, nor did I seek him out. It was well-known though, that even well into his old age, he was distinctly partial towards my colleagues of the fairer sex who never failed to be bowled over by his old world charm.

Manekshaw, was the fifth child of a Parsi doctor and his wife who lived in Amritsar in 1914. He finished school at Sherwood College, Nainital and joined the Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar. After a while, he applied for and was accepted as a cadet in the first batch of the newly opened Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun and was commissioned into the army in February 1934. He saw service in the Burma front, during the bitter early years of World War II when the Japanese defeated the British army. In one action he helped capture a vital point, and was severely wounded, with seven bullets going through him. As a result, he was evacuated to a hospital in Rangoon and also awarded the Military Cross. Fortunately for him, he was evacuated in a ship just before the city fell to the Japanese.

As colonel, Manekshaw was the a staff officer at the Army Headquarters during the Kashmir war. He was the man who accompanied V.P. Menon to the Valley of Kashmir on January 26 when Pakistan-backed tribal raiders were just hours away from Srinagar. He served as Brigadier in Ferozepur in the early 1950s and then began a phase of run-ins with the Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon and his favoured protégé Lt. Gen B.M. Kaul. Sam was nearly court-martialled and escaped only because of the border war of 1962 that led to the disgrace of his tormentors. In the dark days of November 1962, after the Indian army had suffered a terrible debacle, he was appointed to succeed Kaul as commander of the battered and defeated IV Corps in Arunachal Pradesh. His walked into his first meeting with his staff officers with his characteristically jaunty step and said “Gentlemen I have arrived, There will be no more withdrawals in IV Corps, thank you,” and walked out.

A Field Marshal never retires from service so Manekshaw became an icon for the army. Till two years ago, he led an active life traveling frequently to various places as a board member of various companies. He was often in New Delhi where one of his daughters live, but his favourite place was “home” in Coonoor in the Nilgiri hills near the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington at whose hospital he finally passed away. Incidentally, one of his brothers, of a distinctly similar visage, lived in Vasant Vihar and practiced in Delhi.


arun said...

@Your article rang a bell.My father was posted in Beas in 53-54.Many year later he used to relate some interesting anecdotes about the FIELD MARSHAL.
Possibly our families knew one another.I was born much later but on many an evenings I heard the name JOSHI taken with great affection by my father(he was in the JAT REGIMENT) and my brothers who joined the army and IAF.
Does kathgodam, GE Roorkee and NDA 1969 sound familiar?My brothers names are ANIL and JAYANT.

arun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
manoj joshi said...

I can't say. Only Kathgodam, since it is the gateway to Kumaon where we come from. My father had retired by 1968 and he had been in the Rajput regiment.