An Egregious Wrong Clamoring to be Set Right
Dear Prime Minister
Allow me as a citizen of the Republic which has the good fortune of having you at the helm of affairs, to thank you for the bold decision to create a memorial for the much-underrated P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose prime ministership not only ushered in economic reforms in 1991 that launched India on economic growth trajectory, but also conclusively demonstrated the dispensability of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to provide leadership for governing India.
As one who has over the last six and a half decades been a witness to the goings-on of our polity, I crave your indulgence to set right another egregious wrong of our post-Independence history. And that is to show the nation’s gratitude to a great soldier who won a decisive war for the country, but was treated most shabbily because he refused to kowtow to his political masters. I’m referring, Sir, to Field Marshal Manekshaw who did India proud by winning the Bangladesh war in 1971.
Soldiers, Prime Minister, live and die for izzat – their izzat as much as for their country. This virtually untranslatable concept symbolizes at once a sense of pride in one’s calling, a resolve to uphold professional traditions built over decades 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 the extermination of evil deeds of the wicked).
And nothing symbolizes all this better than the repression and genocide in the then Eastern Pakistan in 1970 and 1971. This we successfully ended under the leadership of Gen. Sam Manekshaw. Not only that. 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 had 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.
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 was 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 the babus of the jack-of-all-trades Indian Administrative Service. 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 honoured strategy of divide and rule that senior bureaucrats had learnt from their British masters.
Manekshaw had a puckish sense of humour, which 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.) His sense of humour was legendary. In October 1996, while delivering the inaugural 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.)
Admittedly, he had 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, 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”.
Indira Gandhi was always apprehensive of Manekshaw. 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 harbour 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 its futility. Remember Cromwell!) India was, he firmly believed, 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.
After her triumphal return from Shimla Conference Indira Gandhi in a meeting with Gen Manekshaw apprised him with the terms of the agreement with Bhutto. The irrepressible Manekshaw told her: “He (Bhutto) had made a monkey of you.” (For once Manekshaw understated. Actually, Bhutto made an ass of her.) And that was the last nail in the coffin of the Field Marshall-Prime Minister equation.
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, Prime Minister – 36 years to decide his scale and entitlement. That’s how it works, Sir, the system you preside over today.
When he was in Coonoor Military Hospital in June 2007 suffering from complications of pneumonia, a babu from your Ministry of Defense called on him in the hospital to hand over a cheque of Rs one crore sixty lakhs towards arrears of his entitlement. I don’t have the heart to type what he told the august functionary of a heartless system that presides over 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 that tribe – 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 political representative.
That’s how, Prime Minister, 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 de-moralized nation.
Field Marshals, goes the adage, never retire. This legendary figure is, however, an exception. He will not die either at least in public memory. He will always be remembered – an image of an upright and highly professional soldier with that jaunty Gorkha cap and a twinkle in his eye.
Indira Gandhi did an unpardonable injustice to the man, which the Congress Party loyalists further compounded. Will you, Prime Minister, be gracious enough to set the wrong right? If ever there was a soldier who deserved a Bharat Ratna it was Manekshaw – the man who did the Indian polity proud by scoring a decisive military victory for his country in the Bangladesh war, which is deemed along with the Six-Day War (as the Third Arab–Israeli War of 1967 is called) and the 1982 Falkland War as the three most notable military achievements after the Second World War.
Additionally, will you kind enough to sanction immediate demolition of the statue of V K Krishna Menon in Lutyens zone of Delhi and have it replaced by a statue of Manekshaw? One put the nation to shame by his pig-headedness and the other, brought glory to it. Those who lose wars and national territory, are not honored. They are only forgotten, and as quickly as possible. A grateful nation perpetuates the memory of victors of just wars.
An ordinary citizen who cares about his country