May 25, 2020
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Play It Again, Sam

A tribute to the man whose wit was as astounding as his military skill

Play It Again, Sam
Play It Again, Sam
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw—Soldiering With Dignity
By Lt Gen Depinder Singh
Natraj Rs 450; Pages: 247
The man who in 1973 became India’s first Field Marshal— S.H.F.J. Manekshaw (his full name will cover the page, he says) or Sam as he was popularly known—had a year earlier also come close to becoming the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the appointment that 30 years later still eludes the services. For someone who was nearly sacked as a two-star general for being too Anglicised and rubbing the wrong way defence minister Krishna Menon and Lt Gen Bijji Kaul, his rehabilitation was remarkable. What saved him from the guillotine was the 1962 war (the Chinese came to my rescue, he says). Ironically he was promoted to relieve Kaul, the very man gunning for him. Immediately on reaching the demoralised 4 Corps headquarters, he announced: "Gentlemen, I have arrived. There will be no more withdrawal in 4 Corps".

Providentially, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire. From then on Sam rose to be a legend and gave India its first decisive military win in 1971. Most extraordinary about his Sputnik-like rise is that with him as chief, even the prime minister, defence minister and bureaucrats felt insecure. Rumours of coup d’etats and martial law would crop up periodically.

That Sam is not made of ordinary stuff becomes apparent from Soldiering With Dignity, sadly the only book on the man and his ways, by Lt Gen Depinder Singh. The gaps in the story are filled by a film on Manekshaw made by the Parsi Association of India. Both fall short in measuring up to his life and standards. Both were released last month at Dehradun where the Field Marshal—still sprightly at 89—took the salute at a Passing Out Parade, 75 years after his own that gave him a commission in the British Indian Army. Except for the more pronounced stoop, Manekshaw was, in spirit and form, the Sam that he is, exhorting the young officer to fight to win, nothing less, otherwise the gharwali would never accept him back.

Had Sam not gone off to join the army, he might have become a gynaecologist. Luckily he did become a soldier and went on to win the Military Cross in Burma, later joining the 8 Gurkha Rifles. But he never commanded a battalion. A favourite with the Gurkhas, it was during his visit to Nepal in 1972 that King Mahendra conferred on him the title of Honorary General of his Army which ruffled some feathers in the foreign ministry at Delhi. Since then both countries have made each other’s army chiefs generals of their armies. For the Gurkhas, he is Sam Bahadur, a name given to him on the spur of the moment by Harka Bahadur, a young soldier from his battalion.

Sam is no thinking general with great strategic vision. Rather, he is a down-to-earth soldiers’ soldier like the officers of his time, meticulous in detail and human to a fault. His greatest asset: he was a lucky commander. His showmanship, style and ability to communicate, relax and laugh made him stand out. "Sweetie", "Sweetheart", "Sweetiepie", "Lovely", etc was the way he addressed his officers and their wives. He could communicate with Harka Bahadur as easily as he could with Indira Gandhi. He is unconventional to the core.

Depinder Singh’s narrative is essentially a collection of Sam anecdotes which have matured over time and even undergone a change of flavour. These cover mainly the four-year period during which Depinder was his military assistant. The book contains no startling revelations or fresh insights into the 1971 war. While Lt Gen Jacob in his Surrender at Dhaka has been critical of Manekshaw’s management of the war, Depinder has tried to defend his chief.

Manekshaw’s sterling achievement was warding off the pressures from his prime minister Indira Gandhi to go to war following the crackdown by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan. "War, yes. But not now," he said. During a cabinet meeting, Manekshaw managed to convince Mrs Gandhi that more time was required to ensure victory. "I guarantee the capture of East Pakistan in two weeks," he said on at least two occasions. Jacob and others have claimed that Manekshaw gave limited military objectives to the Eastern Army. The capture of Dacca was not among them.

As in service, after retirement too, Manekshaw was surrounded by controversy. Two media stories sullied his image. One was about London being his favourite city and the other that "Jinnah had asked me to join the Pakistan army in 1947. If I had, you would have had a defeated India." This was said in jest, Sam style, but the Indian leadership got its knickers in a twist over it. Never one to fade away, Manekshaw stormed the corporate world. At one time, he was on the board of 14 companies and was the chairman of six. He was director with Escorts when Swraj Paul tried to take it over.

The government responded by changing the entire board, a Mr Naik replacing him. "This is the first time in history when a Naik (corporal) has replaced a Field Marshal," he quipped. Depinder Singh’s book is a treasure trove of such anecdotes. But those who know Sam know he is much more than that.

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