Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw

Sam Manekshaw




The man eventually destined to be free India's first Field Marshal was born on 3rd April 1914 at Amritsar. How did a Parsi couple settle for the holy city of the Sikhs? I once asked him and was told that in 1899, his father recently qualified as a doctor and just married, could make no professional headway in Bombay, and was advised to try his luck at Lahore in the Punjab. With his young wife, he set off by train for Lahore. The long dusty and hot journey took five days and by the end of it, his young wife, who had never left the comforts and civilization of Bombay, was in hysterics and cried to go back.

Sam Manekshaw's parents.

Poor Dr Manekshaw did all he could to comfort her, but as the train steamed into Amritsar, with her first sight of the Sikhs the young bride screamed her lungs out and refused to go any further. So they left the train at Amritsar, and there they stayed for forty-five years. The Manekshaw's had six children, four boys and two girls, and Sam was the fifth child. Sam had his schooling at Nainital's Sherwood College.

After completing his schooling, he should have gone to England to pursue higher studies; this was the promise made to him by his father but, fortunately for the Indian Army, Dr Manekshaw felt that this particular son was far too young to be on his own in a foreign country, even with his two elder brothers already studying there. So he was admitted to the Hindu Sabha College, Amritsar. If he had gone abroad, he often reminisces, he would have become a doctor. 'What doctor?' I queried, and was told 'Gynecologists.'

After a stint in Hindu College, he applied for and was accepted for entry into the first batch of the newly opened Indian Military Academy at Dehradun for training Indians for commissioned rank in the British Indian Army.

He received his commission on 4th February 1934 and, after an attachment as was the practice then with a British Infantry Battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Royal Scots, he joined the 4th Battalion, 12 Frontier Force Regiment, commonly called the 54th Sikhs.

In 1937, at a social gathering in Lahore he met his future wife, Silloo Bode; they fell in love and were married on 22nd April 1939. Silloo is a graduate of Bombay's renowned Elphinstone College and also studied at the JJ School of Arts there.

A voracious reader, a gifted painter and an extremely intelligent and interesting conversationalist, she has made an admirable wife and a wonderful mother.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw the 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment in action in Burma with the famed 17 Infantry Division. Sam was separated from his family for over three years and this separation was the cause of a celebrated example he was later to give while answering questions put to him in his capacity as Chief of the Army Staff by the Pay Commission. The question, which triggered off the reply was, "Why should the army continue to get separation allowance?" This, to clarify, is a token sum every officer and enlisted man gets when his unit moves to a non-family station thus necessitating separation.

For example, an officer used to get just seventy rupees a month and the men an even smaller amount. The answer to explain the need was "After my marriage, I went off to war and didn't see my wife for three long years, and when I returned I found I had a brand-new daughter, and the only reason I am sure the child is mine is because she looks just like me." Needless to say, the Pay Commission broke up in laughter, but went away convinced. The separation allowance continues. On 22nd February 1942, occurred the much publicized event when Sam was wounded.

The retreat through the Burma jungle ended abruptly for him on 22nd February 1942, when seven bullets from a Japanese machine gun whipped through his body. The young captain who had just led two companies in the courageous capture of a vital hill was awarded the Military Cross. "We made an immediate recommendation," a senior officer explained, "because you can't award a dead man the Military Cross." His orderly Sher Singh evacuated him to the Regimental Aid Post where the regimental medical officer, Captain G M Diwan, treated him overruling his protestations that the doctor treat other patients first. Sam was evacuated to the hospital at Pegu where he was operated upon, and then evacuated further to Rangoon, from where he sailed for India in one of the last ships to leave that port before it fell to the Japanese. He still carries the scars of this wound. He and some other grizzled old veterans of the 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment were frequent visitors to Army House and South Block. The entire staff including all guards and sentries, had strict orders that if a man said he was from the 54th Sikhs he was to be led straight to the Chief, whatever the time or whatever the Chief happened to be doing. Consequently, these gentlemen would turn up whenever it suited them with a string of requests that ranged from wanting a bag of sugar for a daughter's marriage (easy to solve) to asking that a relative or friend's relative be given immediate out-of-turn promotion. When I patiently attempted to explained the impossibility of the latter request and others like it, the worthy would bristle and inform me:

"In the British time if the Jangi Lat gave an order it was executed without question."

The war over, saw Sam working in the military operations directorate at army headquarters, first as a general staff officer grade I, and later as director of military operations. It was from here that he oversaw the fighting that broke out between India and Pakistan, over Kashmir, the two nations that until so recently had been one. It was also under his direct supervision, when the cease-fire was declared, that the famous line called the Cease Fire Line was drawn. Many, many years later, by a strange coincidence, while he was Chief of the Army Staff, it was he whose brainchild it was to scrap the Cease Fire Line and call it the Line of Actual Control. Promotions followed in rapid succession and 1959 saw Sam as commandant of the Defence Services Staff College. There his outspoken frankness got him into trouble with the defence minister, V K Krishna Menon, and his protégé of the time, the late Lieutenant General B M Kaul; a court of inquiry was ordered against him.

The North Eastern Frontier Agency, now called Arunachal Pradesh, was where we suffered our worst defeat, and it was to 4 Corps that providence ironically decreed and Army Headquarters ordered Sam Manekshaw to succeed Lieutenant General B M Kaul, the man who had almost ruined his professional career.

He took over 4 Corps on 28th November 1962 on promotion to lieutenant general, and the same day addressed a conference of what must surely have been a very shaken group of staff officers. He entered the room with his usual jaunty step, looked as if he were meeting each eye trained on him and said, ‘Gentleman, I have arrived! There will be no more withdrawals in 4 Corps, thank you;' and walked out. But the charisma that surrounds the man had preceded him and soldier and officer alike knew the 'chosen one' had arrived and henceforth all would be well.

It was as if the dark and oppressive atmosphere had suddenly been lightened and Sam was the bearer of the light.

On 4th December 1963, Sam took over as army commander in the west, the second rung from the top.

His mastery of detail was fantastic and, as I was to learn later, he could quote an answer given verbally or in writing months previously to correct someone who was saying something else. A battalion employed in the Mizo Hills, paying perhaps a little more attention to the welfare of its troops and, in the process, a little less than desirable to the operational side received a rude reminder that 'someone up there' was watching, very keenly, every move that was made.

A parcel of bangles was delivered to the commanding officer with the compliments of the army commander with a cryptic note: 'If you are avoiding contact with the hostile give these to your men to wear.” Needless to say, the next few weeks saw a flurry of activity by this battalion resulting in another, more soothing message: 'send the bangles back.'

He was officiating as army chief in 1967 when the Chinese had their first clash with the Indian Army since 1962. This occurred at the 14000 foot high pass, Natu La, in Sikkim where the Chinese learnt to their cost that the Indian Army of 1967 was a different kettle of fish from that of 1962. He was summoned to a meeting of the Cabinet where, as he recalled later, everyone present at the meeting was vying with the others to present to the prime minister his grasp of the situation and offering one suggestion after another as to what should be done. After hearing most of the speakers, the prime minister enquired whether the officiating army chief, until then a silent spectator, had something to say. "I am afraid they are enacting Hamlet without the Prince," he said. "I will now tell you exactly what has happened, and how I intend to deal with the situation."

Bengal in those days was a very troubled state where anarchy was prevalent, and law and order was almost on the way out. Sam was traveling to Dum Dum airport, Calcutta, once when he found the road blocked for traffic by a huge crowd being harangued by one person. The outrider and the staff officer accompanying him both advised a detour, but this would have meant running away and would have been noticed by the locals. So he got out of his staff car instead, and started walking up to the speaker who, he discovered to his disquiet as he approached, was a 'huge fellow, well over six feet tall.' Anyway, hiding his mounting uneasiness, he put his hand out and announced, 'I am Sam Manekshaw.' This unsettled the other person somewhat as he had probably anticipated an argument. He too, put his hand out and mumbled his name. He was then asked to clear the road, as otherwise 'I shall miss my plane.' The speaker, by now completely confused, hastened to obey, and the last glimpse the army commander had of his latest acquaintance was of that worthy helping to clear the road. By then Sam Manekshaw had become one of the most popular and well-known officers in the Indian Army.

Stories of the many admirable qualities he possessed and did not hesitate to display were legion. Always an unconventional dresser, he once met Lieutenant General Kulwant Singh, at that time commanding Western Army and an awe-inspiring man, in a jacket that could best he described as a cross between a regulation shirt and bush shirt. When the army commander pointed this out he was asked: "Have you come to see my formation or my dress?" While he could stand up to his superiors, he always stood by his subordinates.