There is so much awe and enigma about one of the most celebrated Generals of India that one can just keep on reading about him and never be saturated with the information. Anybody who reads about the Armed Forces consistently would definitely know a lot about the legendary Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw widely known as Sam Manekshaw/Sam Bahadur who, much like his extraordinary character, had a career that began with World War II lasting four crucial decades, strategically leading four major wars while rising from the rank of Second Lieutenant to being the first ever Field Marshal of India.
The man, infamous for his long nose and signature bushy moustache, who could joke that he was hit by a donkey, after being hit nine times by bullets; the man who was bold enough to tell the Prime Minister of the nation, to postpone the war against then East Pakistan lest we would lose; the man who, while addressing a group of Officers at the Defence Services College could say that the Prime Minister had not taken a timely decision during the Babri Masjid Demolition, could only be Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who was known for his humor, his bravery, his forthrightness and outspoken behavior.
Sam Manekshaw remains one of the most celebrated Generals of the Indian Army and continues to inspire many even years after his demise. So what is it that makes him so special and such an inspiration?
Sam Manekshaw was born on 3rd April 1914 in Amritsar. Sam did his schooling from Amritsar and later on graduated from Nainital’s Sherwood College. He desired to go to London to pursue medicine. But his father refused to send him abroad. Sam later appeared for the Indian Military Academy entrance examination as an expression of his anger. He however cleared the exam and was one of the first batch of 40 cadets who had been selected for Indian Military Academy.
In 1934, he was commissioned into 2 Royal Scots and later on to the Frontier Force Regiment. In 1939, Sam Manekshaw got married to Siloo Bode.
As a Second Lieutenant, Sam Manekshaw was commissioned to the 2nd Bn Royal Scots. Later he was deputed to 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment. For one year, he served an attachment period with a British unit and later rejoined his parent unit in February 1936. Here he was made the company commander of the Battalion that fought against the Japanese in Myanmar.
During this battle, he was grievously injured with nine bullets in his stomach. Yet he continued to fight, till he had clinched the Sittang Bridge. Due to his serious injuries, it was assumed that he may not survive and the Divisional Commander, Sir David Tennent Cowan, rushed to his side, removed his own Military Cross and pinned it on Sam Manekshaw’s Chest and remarked that a dead person cannot be awarded a Military Cross. [A Military cross is a recognition that is granted in acknowledgement of ‘an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during the active operations against the enemy on land to all members of any rank in the Armed forces’]. Despite being so grievously injured, his sense of humour remained intact. When the surgeon operating on him asked him what had happened, he replied saying ‘Nothing happened, I was kicked by a donkey’.
After recovering from his injuries of the 1942 battles, Sam Manekshaw was in Quetta for a brief period from August to December 1943, to take part in the Staff Course at Command and Staff College. Later he was sent to 9th Battalion, 12 Frontier Force Regiment after his brief posting as a Major of Razmak Brigade.
As World War II came to an end, Sam Manekshaw was duty bound on General Daisy’s staff, where he handled the repatriation of 10,000 former prisoners of war (POWs) post Japanese surrender. Later, he went to Australia for six months on a lecture tour. Upon his return, he got promoted as a Lieutenant Colonel, and began his stint as a Staff Officer in the Military Operations Directorate.
In 1947, when the partition of India took place, 12th Frontier Force Regiment, his parent unit became a part of the Pakistan Army. Thus, Sam Manekshaw was posted to 16th Punjab Regiment and later to 3rd battalion, 5th Gorkha Rifles. On account of the Partition and the events that unfolded later, Sam had to continue with his tenure in the Military Operations Directorate. This is when he displayed his exemplary planning and administrative capabilities. Later, during the operations that took place in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947 - 48 he commanded a Brigade and subsequently became the Commandment of the Infantry school, Mhow and a Colonel in 8 Gorkha Rifles. This was followed by a stint in the Defence Services Staff College as a Commandment. This stint was marred with a court of inquiry set up against him for around 10 charges that were levelled against him (in his own words). Some of these charges included him being more British than Indian and also having made derogatory remarks about the wives of the instructors of the Defence Services Staff College. However, he was exonerated on all charges and he was promoted as a Lieutenant General and posted to Tezpur as GOC of 4 Corps.
During his tenure as General Officer Commanding in Chief, Eastern Command, he was successful in eliminating Naga insurgency, after the Indian Army apprehended 300 Nagas, who were equipped with arms & ammunitions, on their way back from China. For this, Sam Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1968.
On 7th June 1969, he took over as the 8th Chief of Army staff. Following the influx of thousands of refugees into India from East Pakistan, the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi summoned Sam Manekshaw and her council of ministers and asked him to enter East Pakistan. In other words she wanted him to wage a war against Pakistan. Sam Manekshaw, being the forthright man he was, appraised them that he had divisions deployed in places like West Bengal, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Jhansi- Babina, from where he would take a month or two to get them back to their formations. This would mean using every road and rail transport at their disposal. Not only this, since it was harvest season and all the transports would be used by the divisions, it would’ve been impossible to move the harvest. Additionally, his Armoured Division had only thirteen tanks functioning. He also added that by the time all this movement would have completed, it would start raining in East Pakistan and the weather would not be conducive for the Air Force to provide support to the Army. Thus, entering East Pakistan then would mean a suicide for the Indian Forces. In a private meeting with Mrs. Gandhi, he asked to be left alone to plan, make arrangements and fix a date before facing East Pakistan. If he was allowed so, he could guarantee an absolute victory.
The rest, as they say, is history. At the end of the Indo Pak War in December 1971, which lasted less than a fortnight, the world witnessed an unconditional surrender of Pakistan, and more than 93000 soldiers taken as Prisoners of War (PoWs), the biggest ever number after World War II. Despite being the Chief of Army Staff, Manekshaw refused to visit Dhaka to accept the surrender of Pakistani Forces, in spite of the Prime Minister asking him to do so. He opined that the honour of this should be given to his Army Commander in the East, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora.
Sam Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972, for being the man behind India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Indo – Pak war.
It is believed that once as a Chief, when Sam Manekshaw was at one of his Regiment units, he stopped by a Gorkha soldier and asked him if he knew what Sam’s name was. The Gorkha immediately replied ‘Sam Bahadur’. Thus the name stuck.
Sam Manekshaw was an exceptional leader, who believed in walking the talk and standing by his men. He was known to be forthright and never mince his words.
Once when Sam Manekshaw heard about a cut in Soldiers’ uniform allowance. He decided to take matters in his own hands and invited the members of the Pay Commission to his chamber. Sam Manekshaw was impeccably dressed, as always and started pacing up and down the chamber as a model walking the ramp. After some time, he turned to the others in the room and said “Now gentlemen, you tell me, who would obey my orders if I was dressed in a crumpled dhoti and kurta?” Such were the tales of Sam Manekshaw’s ingenuity. Thus, the debate on the uniform allowance came to an end.
Another incident about how he dealt with his men and their behaviors was narrated by the legend himself when he made an address at Defence Services Staff College. With his illustrious anecdote he explained that every man is a frightened man, but to show fear when you are frightened is quite another. The incident goes back to when he fought in World War II. Upon Sam Manekshaw’s advice, their Commanding Officer had prevented the promotion of a rather notorious soldier, Surat Singh. When Surat Singh learnt of this, he told everyone that he was going to kill Sam Manekshaw. When Sam Manekshaw got to know of this from his Subedar, he summoned Surat Singh to come and meet him. When both were face to face, he walked up to Surat Singh and returned his pistol to him after loading it and told him in Punjabi “You told me you wanted to shoot me. Have you got the guts to shoot me? Here, shoot me.” The soldier said he was guilty and apologized, Sam Manekshaw gave him a tight slap, asked him to go and dismissed his case.
In the evening of the same day, when Sam Manekshaw returned from the Mess, his Subedar came back and told him he’d made a mistake dismissing Surat Singh, for now he declared he would shoot Sam at night. He immediately summoned Surat Singh. When Surat Singh came, Sam ordered that he was to bring him a mug of tea and a mug of shaving water at 6 in the morning. Sam Manekshaw did not sleep that night. Surat Singh did bring him what he had asked for.
This is how Sam behaved in front of his men. He believed in leading by example and in displaying courage thereby inspiring his men to never show fear, even if they were frightened.
He was considerate and friendly with not just his men, but he also ensured that the 93,000 PoWs captured in Bangladesh were also treated equally well. In fact, he was at the station when the train bringing in these PoWs arrived. He also visited them and checked if the beds given to them were good, devoid of any bed bugs and the food being served was decent and whether the toilets being used were clean.
Such was the empathy that Sam Manekshaw had for all soldiers, even if they were enemies.
On 1st January 1973, Sam Manekshaw was conferred with the title of Field Marshal by the President of India. After a fortnight, he retired from active service after an illustrious career of four decades. Post retirement he settled in Coonoor, with his wife Silloo.
On 27th June 2008, he died at the Military Hospital in Wellington at the age of 94, due to complications from pneumonia. He was buried in the Parsi Cemetery in Ooty, by the side of his wife’s grave.
While there are many quotes that exemplify Sam Manekshaw’s character, the one that is most relevant in current times and applicable across all professions, all ages and all walks of life is:
A ‘Yes man’ is a dangerous man. He is a menace. He will go very far. He can become a minister, a secretary or a Field Marshall but he can never become a leader nor ever be respected. He will be used by his superiors, disliked by his colleagues and despised by his subordinates. So discard the ‘Yes man’.
Is it any surprise then that Sam Bahadur is missed by many and continues to be an inspiration, years after his demise?