Field marshal Sam Manekshaw’s demise sees the last of the legends of India’s great military leaders commissioned during the Raj fading away into history. Much is rightly made about Manekshaw’s contribution to India’s victory in Bangladesh, yet the leadership which he provided to the Armed Forces in various roles in the critical period after 1962 bears his firmest imprint.
Manekshaw, along with field marshal Cariappa and general K.S. Thimayya, was the harbinger of professionalism and apolitical ethos in the army in the post-Partition era. They were epitomes of courage, propriety and dignity. Manekshaw’s tenure as the chief also saw the establishment of a balanced civil-military relationship, which had been considerably deformed due to the Thimayya-Nehru and Menon-Kaul episodes.
Manekshaw’s rapport with Indira Gandhi was based on a healthy respect for the other, a grudging one at times no doubt for Gandhi, who had to tolerate the cultivated impudence of the wily general. Yet, she knew that Sam, who had prevented her from attending a key briefing in the 4 Corps operations room along with her father as she was not holding an official appointment, or called her “sweetie”, was the man to lead the country to war.
One single quality of Manekshaw which inspired confidence in Gandhi was “character”. She was fully aware that behind the urbane flippancy was Sam’s unimpeachable integrity, honesty of purpose and selflessness. Abundance of self-assurance and charisma aptly supported the inner strength. General J.N. Chaudhuri, who was the army chief during the 1965 operations, had offered to sponsor his name as his successor, but Sam politely refused, pointing that general P.P. Kumarmangalam was his senior and he would not like to supersede him. A stellar lesson for us living in this age of instant self-gratification.
His severest test came in 1971, when the cabinet led by Indira Gandhi wanted him to launch military operations in then East Pakistan in March. He knew the army was not prepared and thus sought more time, even offering to resign to drive home his point. There was consternation in the political hierarchy, with the defence minister even pleading, “Maan jao naa” (why don’t you just agree), or words to that effect. Indira Gandhi relented, and rest is history.
Yet, Manekshaw’s greatest contribution was the impact he had on the post-1971 generation officers of the Indian Army. I recall two anecdotes that I fondly cherish. The first was his stirring speech at the passing-out parade at the academy. Given that military protocol restricts such speeches to a few minutes, his counsel immediately after the 1971 victory was short, “Be a leader”, be it in the army or in life. His words ring true in many of our hearts to this day.
The second incident happened many years later, in 1996, at the Army War College, Mhow, where he addressed a select audience, including the spouses of officers. Manekshaw always insisted that the wives attend his talks, in the process making them stakeholders in the system of soldiering. Recounting the many problems faced by our country then, I gathered the courage as a young colonel to ask his sage advice: What was the way ahead? He answered in one word, “youth”, and explained that it was not he but the youth in India who would show the path to prosperity. Today with India’s development graph driven by hundreds and thousands of young men and women working in diverse fields, that vision is coming true.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that the army can give to its most celebrated soldier is to live up to his expectations of modern leadership, purity of purpose and selfless service for the overall national good.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org