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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

Tribute: An Iconic Army Chief

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by R K Bhatnagar

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, India’s iconic Army Chief who led India to victory in the 1971 war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, died at the Military Hospital in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, half-an-hour after midnight on June 26, 2008 at the age of 94. He was the first of the only two Indian military officers to hold the rank of Field Marshal of the Indian Army, the other being Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa.

Born in Amritsar on April 3, 1914 Manekshaw was commissioned into the Army from the first course of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, in 1934. He assumed charge of the Indian Army, as its 8th Chief, on June 7, 1969, succeeding General P.P. Kumaramangalam. Fondly called ‘Sam Bahadur’ because of his association with the Gorkha Rifles, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972 by the then President V.V. Giri for his selfless service to the nation. He was conferred the rank of Field Marshal on January 1, 1973.

While the President and the Prime Minister have expressed their deep shock on his demise, the Defence Minister A.K. Antony said: “India has lost a fine soldier.” In a rare gesture, the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, visited the Military Hospital in Coonoor to look up ailing Field Marshal Manekshaw on February 24, 2007. “Please look after him. He is a great son of India,” the President told the Army doctors attending on him. Shaking hands with one of the most brilliant field commanders of the Indian Army, the President exchanged pleasantries with Manekshaw and was at the bedside of the ailing soldier for over 15 minutes. Coming out of the room Kalam wrote in the hospital visitors’ book: “He (Manekshaw) is a great son of India.”

A brilliant and competent Army officer, he exhibited a kaleidoscopic picture of all the facets of leadership. In his initial years in the Army he participated in an action at the Sittang river bridge in Burma where he nearly lost his life. Leading his company, he had charged into the Japanese position and taken a burst of light machine gun in his stomach and chest (in all nine bullets) and he won the Military Cross for that display of gallantry and valour in the battlefield. His was the last ship to leave Singapore before it fell to the Japanese. In his condition he would not have survived the Japanese prisoners-of-war camp. Twice destiny had intervened to pull him from the jaws of death, for fulfilling his larger mission in life.

His contemporary officers in the Army narrated with pride details of his abiding quality of large-heartedness, generosity and forgiving nature. His concern and care for the welfare of the officers and troops endeared him to his staff and the Army. He faced the infamous inquisition against him, while he was Commandant of the Staff College, with equanimity and dignity; he later never harmed those who gave false evidence against him. He was a bold and courageous officer.

When the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, told him that she had reports of his planning a coup, he responded by saying: “Madame Prime Minister, you have nothing to fear from me or the Army. You do your job and let me do mine.” He was fearless and his commitment to the Army and the nation was total. This scribe, who was an Army PRO in uniform as a Captain in 1971 in the Eastern Sector, heard Army officers like Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, Major General Gandharv Nagra and Brigadier H.S. Kleer praising his strategic grip over national security issues. In the face of pressure from the Union Cabinet and Indira Gandhi to mount an offensive against East Pakistan in April 1971 itself, he offered to resign rather than go against his professional judgment. He chose to strike at the right moment in December with all the “defence preparedness”. He was considerate in uniform as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, alive to the sensitivities of the other two services. He displayed a natural charm and people were inexorably attracted to him.

A man of rare qualities and a military officer of exceptional talent, he has left an indelible impress on the Indian Army which will never forget him for his extraordinary courage, sincere dedication to the nation and immense contribution for the well-being of our sentinels of freedom.

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