Woe Betide a Polity ... by H.N. Bali SignUp

In Focus

Photo Essays


Random Thoughts

Our Heritage


Society & Lifestyle


Creative Writings

Book Reviews
Literary Shelf
Analysis Share This Page
Woe Betide a Polity ...
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Unresolved Military-Civil Equation – Part V

Continued from “The Man Who Redeemed National Honor”

... Whose Government Knows Not
    How to Honor Those Who Do it Proud

Soldiers live and die for izzat – that untranslatable concept that symbolizes at once a sense of pride in one’s calling, a resolve to uphold professional traditions built over years by human sweat and blood, an unflinching determination to vanquish the aggressor and, above all, to live up to the exhortation of the Gita (IV:8): vinashaye cha dushkritam (for extermination of the evil deeds of the wicked). And nothing symbolizes all this better than the Bangladesh War in December 1971 under the leadership of Gen. Sam Manekshaw to end the repression and genocide in Eastern Pakistan.

The 1962 war had severely dented the izzat of the Indian fauj. It was given to Manekshaw to resurrect that most precious possession of the men he commanded. It is he who (almost singlehandedly) re-instilled the sense of confidence in the Indian jawan – the feeling of pride built on the foundation of decades of sacrifices.

The Government took the decision to honor the General who not only wiped off the stigma of 1962 reverses but won a decisive victory. Someone repeated the feat after over two millennia. Chandragupta Maurya had done it in 300 BC when he drove the remnants of Greek armies that opened the gateway to the invasions of India. Only Maharaja Ranjit Singh thereafter not only repulsed the attacks from the North West but actually ruled over the territories that the invaders hailed from. In 1823, he defeated a large army of Yusufzai tribesmen north of the Kabul River in what is now Pakistan, while the presence of his Sikh general, Hari Singh Nalwa prevented the Afghan army from crossing the river and going to the aid of the Yusafzais at Nowshera.

India’s first Field Marshal

It was in the fitness of things that the Government decided to give, after the Bangladesh War, the Indian Army its first Field Marshal who achieved a decisive military victory over an adversary and thereby dismembered that country. Since no Indian had held the rank earlier, neither the insignia nor the replica of the baton were available. Encyclopaedia Britannica was consulted and the insignia fabricated overnight in an Army workshop in Delhi.

On January 03, 1973 Padma Vibhushan General SHFJ Manekshaw, Military Cross, smartly stepped forward to the Presidential dais in Rashtrapati Bhavan and saluted stiffly President V V Giri, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who ceremoniously handed Manekshaw an ornate silver-tipped baton to give the nation her first Indian Field Marshal in history.

And soon thereafter started the Field Marshal’s troubles with politicians of the day. An interesting sidelight of the investiture concerns the baton, which is traditionally used by a Field Marshal for paying or accepting compliments. After the ceremony, some politicians were smart enough to point out that Manekshaw had become swollen-headed and did not salute the President properly after investiture as Army officers normally do. The Service officers present on the occasion had to explain the know-all politicians and the senior bureaucrats that a Field Marshal traditionally uses his baton to salute, instead of his hand. We created a Field Marshal but didn’t know how he conducts himself.

Indira Gandhi had also decided after the Bangladesh War to appoint Gen. Manekshaw as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). However, the bureaucracy was not in favour of this. The CDS would become part of the Ministry of Defence and perform most of the tasks presently handled by bureaucrats from the jack-of-all-trades, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). There was a hitch when Y.B. Chavan, as Defence Minister, recorded his opinion that he felt that the effect of Gen. Manekshaw’s promotion on the other two Services should also be considered. This delayed his promotion. Eventually, the proposal to appoint the Chief of Defence Staff was torpedoed by the time honored strategy of divide and rule that senior bureaucrats had leant from their British masters. Since the CDS was to exercise control over the Army, Navy and the Air Force, the views of all the three were solicited. As expected, the Air Force strongly objected. Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, who was the Chief of Air Staff, had been unhappy with the manner in which Manekshaw had functioned during the Bangladesh War.

In My Years With The IAF, P C Lal recorded: “From the way Manekshaw carried on in 1971 and in the publicity that was showered on him both during the war and after, the impression was created that he was, in fact, operating as a de facto Chief of Defence Staff even though he was at the time Chairman of the COSC (Chiefs of Staff Committee) in which capacity he was one of three equal partners.”

Sense of Humor

Manekshaw’s puckish sense of humour was as unmatched as it was irrepressible, howsoever serious the occasion might be. (And that, as in case of Laurel and Hardy, invariable landed him in a mess.) In October 1996, while delivering the inaugural of the Cariappa Memorial Lecture on Leadership in New Delhi, he began to reflect (in a philosophical vein) on how times had changed. Even the English language had changed; he lamented, and went on to cite several examples. In his younger days he said, the word gay was used to describe someone full of the joys of spring; a queer was a chap who’d rather spend his evenings in his room reading Milton than playing games; and only generals had aides. (The whole house burst out in laughter.)

He had, moreover, unconventional views on everything. Even leadership was not an exception, In April 1993, well into his post-retirement life, he was invited by the Bombay Parsi Panchayet to deliver the inaugural address of a programme for Parsi youth. Imagine the horror and consternation of the elders in the community hearing their maverick idol talking about leadership: “By and large, men and women like their leaders to have all the manly qualities. The man who says he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t.... that man doesn’t make a good leader. He may make a mahatma, he may make a saint, and he may make a priest, but he doesn't really make a leader.”

He went to add, “Julius Caesar was a great leader. He had his Calpurnia, and he had his Cleopatra. And when he came to Rome and walked down the streets, senators used to lock up their wives. Take Napoleon Bonaparte. He had his Josephine; he had his Marie Walesca, Georgette, Ninette and every other vette. And you will agree that he was a great leader. Take the Duke of Wellington. Do you know, before the Battle of Waterloo, there were more countesses and marquees’ with luscious proportions in his ante chamber than staff officers and commanders.”

Sam Bahadur had a very prominent nose, and he often drew attention to it, in his own inimitable way. After talking about Caesar, Napoleon, and the Duke of Wellington, he would close with the remarks, “All these great leaders had one special characteristic in common; they all had long noses.” He would then turn side-ways, presenting the famous Manekshaw profile in a theatrical pose. This would invariably bring down the house.

Most around Indira Gandhi disapproved of Manekshaw addressing her as “Prime Minister” instead of “Madam”. Some bureaucrats were shocked and complained to the Cabinet Secretary about the disrespect being shown to the Prime Minister. When the Cabinet Secretary mentioned this in Manekshaw’s presence at a meeting of the Committee of Secretaries, he got a reply that made him speechless. “I hope you know that the term is reserved for certain ladies who are in charge of houses of ill fame.”

Sam's aversion for the new breed of Indian's politicians is well known and this was largely responsible for landing him in trouble when he was the Commandant of the Staff College. However, this did little to change his attitude and he continued to hold the tribe in contempt. Once he said, “I wonder whether those of our political masters who have been put in charge of defence of the country can distinguish a mortar from a motor; a gun from a howitzer; a guerrilla from a gorilla – although a great many in the past have resembled the latter.” Not surprisingly, there was little love lost between Manekshaw and his political bosses, who ultimately had their revenge.

Indira Gandhi’s Misgivings

Ever since Nehru, the Indian political establishment always harboured misgivings of a possible coup. S L Menezes records, for instance, that at the time of Nehru’s funeral in 1964, General J N Chaudhuri made elaborate arrangements for security, by bringing troops into Delhi, recalling the confusion that prevailed at Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral, when Mountbatten had feared for Nehru’s life. Chaudhuri was later to recount that his telephone had then been tapped as the fear had circulated that a military takeover was imminent. Because of the inbred feeling of their own incompetence (that manifested itself in misgovernance and public discontent as its side-effect) the political powers-that-be always harbored the possibility of a military take-over

Like Thimayya, Manekshaw was very popular with the troops, who literally adored him. When visiting the messes of JCOs and OR, he always drank rum instead of whisky or beer, which are normally served in officers messes. His behaviour and conduct with his orderlies and domestic staff was particularly informal.

Indira Gandhi was always apprehensive. As a person she was, deep within her, a very insecure being. One day – so goes the story – Manekshaw was summoned by the Prime Minister to her office in Parliament House. When he entered, he found Indira Gandhi in very low spirits. She was sitting at her table, with her head in her hands. On being asked what was troubling her, she replied that she had problems. He asked her what the problem was and was surprised when she told him that he was the problem. When Manekshah asked her to elaborate, the Prime Minister said that she had heard that he was going to take over. Sam was shocked. He assured her that he did not harbor any political ambition. He knew more than anyone else that military coups had not succeeded in the long run in any country in the world. (England perhaps was the first to try and discover. Remember Cromwell!) India was a democratic country and would always remain so. He was quite happy commanding the Indian Army, and as long as he was allowed to do that, she could run the country the way she wanted. Indira Gandhi seemed to be relieved and, it is said, thanked him profusely.

But Indira’s aides were always ready to misconstrue the irrepressible Field Marshal as a threat largely because of his unabated popularity. The Prime Minister soon found a chance to cut him to size. A young lady reporter asked him for an interview and he agreed. She came to his house and during their conversation, Manekshaw mentioned that during Partition he had been asked to opt for Pakistan, but he had chosen to remain in India. When the reporter asked him what would have happened if he had opted for Pakistan, and been commanding the Pakistani Army instead of the Indian, he replied, “they would have won”.

The Field Marshal undoubtedly made the witty remark without considering how it could be taken. Soon afterwards, he had to go to UK and while he was there, there was a question in Parliament based on the story which the reporter had written giving undue prominence (as reporters usually do) to his remark. The Prime Minister was in the House but chose to remain silent. Manekshaw was branded an egotist, and soon became persona non grata.

Shabby Treatment

Though the Government could not take away his rank, it did take away everything else and treated him shabbily indeed. He retired in January 1973. Field Marshals get full pay and allowances till death. Manekshaw never got even the pension of the rank he held nor a house or a car to live after retirement. It took the Government of India – hold your breath – 36 years to decide his scale and entitlement. When he was in Military Hospital in June 2007 suffering from complications of pneumonia, a babu from the Ministry of Defense called on him in the military hospital to hand over a cheque of Rs one crore sixty lakhs towards arrears of his entitlement. I don’t have the heart to print what he told the august functionary of a heartless system that presides our destinies.

A few days later on June 27, 2007, he passed away. None of the VVIPs of Delhi – and India’s metropolis teems with them – was present at his funeral.

The ruling sovereign in England – the custom has it – attends the funeral of every Field Marshal with the Prime Minister and Service Chiefs in tow. The President of India, the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and the three Service Chiefs (obviously, on orders from above) were too busy to attend the last rites of India’s first Field Marshal. Minister of State for Defense, Pallam Raju was the sole senior political representative. That’s how the political establishment chose to honor the victor of Bangladesh war – a great soldier who restored the ‘izzat’ of the Indian fauj after the debacle of the 1962 China war, and thereby instilled a sense of confidence in a demoralized nation.

Field Marshals never retire but only die, but this legendary figure is an exception. It will not die either at least in public memory – the image of an upright and highly professional soldier with that jaunty Gorkha cap and a twinkle in his eye.

Share This:
More by :  H.N. Bali
Views: 2171      Comments: 3

Comments on this Article

Comment Sam Bhadur deserves Bharat Ratna. At leat govt. should give him now.

05/21/2013 10:46 AM

Comment In my earlier comment, I mentioned the quality of detachment Sam Manekshaw possessed: this was, I explained, due to his being a Parsi in a majority Indian Hindu/alien culture, one where he could only communicate in objective terms. This paid dividends in his decision making, but it proved also to be his Achilles heel: the very objectivity that when straight to the core of the matter, overruling, finally, the nuances of loyalty breached, 'They (Pakistan) would have won '. Yet, this detachment so marked in the end was there from the beginning, implying it was never really India he was the champion of, but objectivity as a principle, which, in his person, just happened to favour India as it might have favoured Pakistan.

The moral of the tale is that in life generally it is the objective view-point that is aspired to and prevails in any cultural context; but only to the extent it is attributed to that culture: once it is revealed as detached from it, it is defined as traitor. The fate of many great men, esteemed in their culture, has so turned out, not least Mahatma Gandhi who was shot dead by a man who gave him a cultural form of greeting, then pulled the trigger to condemn Gandhi's objectivity.

The question has to be asked: is objectivity greater than culture? We certainly aim for it as a principle in all our dealings, personal or political, but we perhaps are unaware of the clash with culture it inevitably entails, and that it succumbs to, manifest in the prevailing culture of nations that affects internal decision-making, and that keeps them distinct and apart. The UN assembly of nations meets for the very purpose of defining the objective, the proponents of and dissenters to any motion swayed by cultural factors.

05/21/2013 09:12 AM

Comment A wonderful tribute to a great son of India. Wish there was at least one like him among our politicians. Reminds me of a very relevant poem of Tagore.


Having suffered a lot
Those whose minds are wrought
The base of whose existence becomes shaky
Those who are listless
Let them listen –
Don’t ever forget yourselves.
Let you meet every day
Those who have won over death
Those who have kept their torch aflame
Above whatever is mean and small
If you make them dwarf
The sin of their disrespect
Will make you dwarf as well
And you will suffer that indignity forever.
Make yourselves honourable
Honouring them
In the world
Those who are memorable men.

Translation of poem 18 from the collection Janmadine by Rabindranath Tagore.

kumud biswas
05/18/2013 04:13 AM

Name *
Email ID
 (will not be published)
Comment *
Verification Code*
Can't read? Reload
Please fill the above code for verification.
Top | Analysis

1999-2021 All Rights Reserved
No part of this Internet site may be reproduced without prior written permission of the copyright holder