The Soldier’s Soldier

on Tuesday, July 8, 2008

MAJOR GENERAL ASHOK KUMAR MEHTA remembers ‘Sam Bahadur’ as an officer and a gentleman, a gallant showman and a fearless soldier

I KNOW NOTHING about war fighting. The only fighting I knew was what I learnt from my wife, Silloo. She died two years ago.” That was in 2004. This is the kind of selfdeprecating stuff India’s most celebrated soldier and first Field Marshal was famous for in the twilight of his life.

Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw gave India its first military victory in 1971, in a campaign planned with impeccable politico-military detail. India’s most memorable hour in the 20th century has become synonymous with this man.

He acquired his nom de plume thanks to a Gorkha from his regiment, Harka Bahadur. His long nose sticking out way beyond his curled moustache, Manekshaw asked, “What’s my name?” Completely stumped, Harka Bahadur belted out, ‘‘Sam Bahadur”. And so he was christened.

When he died last week at 94, he left behind two happily married daughters, three grandsons and a platoon of retired soldiers, mostly adopted Gorkhas looking after him, his Stavka home in Coonoor, in the Nilgiris, and an animal farm. After retiring from the corporate world, he seldom left the Nilgiris, preferring his own company and that of the Gorkhas to the “unmitigated boredom of uninvited visitors”.

On his 90th birthday, at the Battle Honours Mess in Delhi, surrounded by admirers and well-wishers, he admitted to having misused a khukri — the renowned Gorkha knife traditionally used to sever enemy heads. He used it to cut the chocolate cake with 90 candles on it. When asked what his life’s greatest achievement was, he replied, “I never punished anyone.”

Sam’s most enviable quality was leadership, and it made him India’s first soldier’s soldier. He could interact as easily with Rifleman Harka Bahadur as with Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram or Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Once, at a presidential banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he had walked up to Indira Gandhi and told her, “You look most beautiful tonight”. She smiled and said, “Thank you Sam.” At parties he would make a beeline for young officers and their wives, charming them with jokes and anecdotes, mostly about stuffy politicians, whom he loathed. On one occasion he had to explain to Jagjivan Ram the difference between a gun and a howitzer, and between a gorilla and a guerilla.

Sam was a showman. He planned, even rehearsed, all his displays. During the 1971 war, he would be dutifully seen at the Oberoi Hotel’s bar in Delhi, in the hope of attracting the foreign media. The Reuters correspondent wrote that the Indian Army Chief was so confident of the outcome of the war, that he spent most of his time drinking single malt. But the truth was that Sam would rush back to the war room to review the battle, and even sleep there.

He was fearless. During the Burma campaign in World War II, as a young Captain with 4/13 Frontier Force Regiment, he led a bayonet charge against the Japanese army across the Sittang River in 1942 and took a hail of bullets in his stomach. Refusing to be evacuated, he led his company from the front. For his outstanding act of bravery he was awarded an instant Military Cross. Once, he pulled out his shirt to show his bullet-scarred six-pack.

Though larger than life, Sam Manekshaw could not escape controversies. A memorable one was the interview he gave to a journalist in London, after the 1971 war. He said that, had he joined Pakistan after Partition, India would have been defeated. Although he said it in jest, he was pulled up in Parliament for his unpatriotic remark, and was never quite forgiven.

He never contradicted his critics who challenged his claim that Dhaka was the objective of the war. He was a fabulously lucky commander and once told me that luck and Harka Bahadur (meaning the good wishes of the Gorkhas) were responsible for his success. Field Marshal Sam Bahadur Manekshaw will be remembered as an officer and a true gentleman. He deserved a better farewell than the one he got from his country.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 27, Dated July 12, 2008