Sam Manekhsaw, India’s Bravest, Passes Away

Friday, July 4, 2008

You know it is hard to try to create a list of great Indians, even of the last 150 years.  After all this is the land of Mahatma Gandhi, and Pandit Nehru, and Sardar Patel, and Rabindranath Tagore, and Swami Vivekananda, and Lokmanya Tilak, and on and on.  My personal favorite from the military realm, after my Dad, is Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw.  Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw passed away last week.  A collection of obituaries from around the world…

SHFJ Manekshaw, Soldier
Apr.3, 1914 – Jun.27, 2008



…..Manekshaw’s first battle was to withstand the political pressure to launch his forces that spring, as around 10 million refugees poured across the border.  He held his ground until he had created the conditions for almost certain victory.  Inspired by the example of Israel’s pre-emptive air strike on its Arab neighbours in the six-day war of 1967, on December 3 1971 Pakistan attacked airfields in north-west India, hoping that if it could make inroads in the west, then it would be able to relieve pressure in the east.  But these sorties, carried out with just 50 planes, caused only temporary damage, and India made inroads into West Pakistan and launched a coordinated assault by land, sea and air on West Pakistani forces in East Pakistan.  The lightning speed of the operations in the east led to the fall of Dhaka and Lieutenant General AAK Niazi’s surrender on December 16, with 93,000 soldiers taken prisoner.  Under intense US and UN pressure, India agreed to a ceasefire in the west the following day.  Gandhi asked Manekshaw to go to Dhaka, the capital of the new nation, to accept the surrender of the Pakistani forces, but he declined the honour, which he said belonged to the eastern army commander, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora.  It was the sort of gesture that marked him out as a great leader, respected by all who served under or came into contact with him, notably the Indian army’s Gurkhas, of whom he remarked: “If anyone tells you he is never afraid, he is a liar or he is a Gurkha.”  A colourful figure, he was known by the nickname Sam Bahadur – Bahadur being an honorific indicating bravery.  He was forthright in his personal dealings: when Gandhi inquired about his state of preparedness for the 1971 war, he is reputed to have replied: “I’m always ready, sweetie,” his boldness disarming any possible reproach.  Once that conflict was over, the jaunty military march Sam Bahadur was composed in his honour and his popularity was such that the premier reportedly confronted him with rumours that he was planning a coup against her.  He is said to have replied: “Don’t you think I would be a worthy replacement for you, madam prime minister?  You have a long nose.  So have I.  But I don’t poke my nose into other people’s affairs.” 

Born to Parsi parents and brought up in Amritsar, the capital of Punjab, Manekshaw went to Sherwood College, Nainital, and, in 1932, belonged to the first batch of 40 cadets to be selected for the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, with the intention that Indians should become commissioned officers in the British Indian army.  In February 1934 he joined the 12 Frontier Force Rifles as a second lieutenant.  The outbreak of the second world war led to Japanese forces invading Burma, and, in February 1942, Manekshaw saw action on the Sittang river.  While involved in a counter-offensive, he was hit in the stomach by machine-gun fire.  Recognising his courage, Major General David Tennent Cowan took off his own Military Cross ribbon and pinned it on the wounded officer’s chest, saying: “A dead person cannot be awarded a Military Cross.”  Nonetheless, Manekshaw returned to Burma once recovered, was wounded again, and ended the war in Indo-China, rehabilitating thousands of prisoners of war.  Thereafter he rose through the military operations directorate at army headquarters, and was involved in planning for the partition and the consequent Indo-Pakistan war of 1947, with fighting in Jammu and Kashmir.  By 1959 he was commandant of the Defence Services Staff College, and came into such conflict with the defence minister, VK Krishna Menon, that there was a risk that he would be sidelined by the disciplinary proceedings started against him.  However, in October 1962, the army was defeated in a battle with Chinese soldiers over a disputed area of the Himalayan border region of Arunachal Pradesh, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, sent Manekshaw to take command, now with the rank of lieutenant general.  His absolute instruction that there would be no further withdrawals helped to restore morale pending moves towards a political settlement…..His first order was: “There will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued.”….By the end of 1963, he was army commander in the west, and the following year attained the army’s top operational role, as commander in the east.  During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, centred on Kashmir, Manekshaw advised against attacking East Pakistan, a factor that played to his advantage six years later…..His rakish charm and razor-sharp wit could have landed him in trouble on several occasions, but no one ever doubted that he would uphold the oath that he had taken on being commissioned in the Chetwode Hall in Dehradun.  Manekshaw was married to Silloo Bode, whom he first met at a social gathering in Lahore in 1937.  On occasion, she could outdo him for directness.  At a much later function, when he was chief of staff, they encountered the defence minister who had aspired to best him – but who had resigned after the humiliation by China.  “Darling, you remember Mr Menon?” the general inquired diplomatically.  “No, I don’t,” she responded.  She died in 2001, and he is survived by his daughters Sherry and Maja.


The defeat of the Pakistan Army in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war owed much to Sam Manekshaw’s thorough preparation and careful timing of the Indian Army’s offensive…..Manekshaw had become Chief of Staff of the Indian Army in 1969 and found himself embroiled in the East Pakistan crisis as soon as it broke out.  After returning from an inspection tour of the affected border region in March, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him what the Indian Army could do to help.  In typically frank fashion he replied: “Nothing,” going on to explain that the Army was unprepared but that, given time, he could prepare it.  At a Cabinet meeting a few days later he said that his troops would be ready in June, yet counselled against intervening at that point.  He argued that the monsoon would seriously hinder the movement of troops and supplies and that the passes through the Himalayas would have to be protected against possible Chinese involvement, with the risk of India having to fight on two fronts.  It would be better, he advised, to wait for the monsoon to end and for snow to seal the mountain passes.  Those who demanded an immediate invasion pointed out that India could not handle more refugees…..Despite stiff resistance from Cabinet members, Manekshaw stood his ground, warning of a debacle if troops, artillery and vehicles floundered in the monsoon mud.  He offered to resign but Indira Gandhi wisely let him have his way…..His obduracy, which had often led him into conflict with politicians and senior bureaucrats, doubtless saved India from something approaching the humiliating war with China in 1962.  Yet Manekshaw’s insistence on thorough planning for the invasion induced a whispering campaign that he lacked the stomach to fight.  Some Cabinet ministers wanted to sack him and order immediate war — just as the monsoon was about to break.  In the event, on December 3, 1971, Pakistani aircraft were considered to have violated the Indian frontier and war began.  When Indian troops finally crossed the border of East Pakistan they were well supplied and trained, scarcely pausing in their march on Dhaka.  In contrast, the West Pakistan troops were demoralised and many already resigned to defeat.  Manekshaw’s delay had also allowed time to arm and train the guerrillas of the Mukti Bahini, who had seized control of much of the countryside and harassed the Pakistani troops until they withdrew into garrison towns, all of which were cut off from the main command in Dhaka.  Thousands of Pakistanis surrendered without a fight, resulting in the largest single capitulation of troops since the end of the Second World War.  On December 16 General Abdullah Khan Niazi, in command of Pakistan’s Eastern Army, formally surrendered in a public ceremony and was held as a prisoner of war.  Manekshaw became an overnight hero.  The war changed the map of South Asia and established India as the regional superpower; it might so easily have turned out differently, had Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet had its way.

…..He had a great love for his 1958 Sunbeam Rapier car, which he took with him everywhere: to Kashmir, Bombay and to Calcutta when he was Commander of the Eastern Army.  At 90, he would still sometimes ask to be driven around in it.  Just before Partition he had sold a James motorcycle to his friend Major Yahya Khan, who moved to Pakistan and became Chief of the Army Staff there — a job he lost after Manekshaw’s triumph in Bangladesh.  Manekshaw said Yahya never paid him for the motorcycle, “but he made up for it by giving me East Pakistan”…..


…..There was something of British military tradition in his stiff upper lip, the lavish handlebar moustache in which he cloaked it, the dapper little embellishments to his uniform and his partiality for Scotch whisky. Yet he was born into a very particular and tight-knit community: India’ s small and dwindling Parsi minority, which has produced a disproportionate number of leading Indians, such as the members of the Tata and Godrej business dynasties. Sam Manekshaw was another Parsi overachiever. He was the first of only two field-marshals ever created in the army……General Manekshaw was able to demand courage from his soldiers because his own was not in doubt.  Known as Sam “Bahadur”, or Sam the Brave, an honorific given him by the Indian army’s Gurkhas, the first of his five wars was for the British in Burma, where he was seriously wounded.  Assuming he would die, an English general pinned his own Military Cross on Captain Manekshaw’s chest, since the medal could not be awarded posthumously.  Another story has it that a surgeon was going to give up on his bullet-riddled body, until he asked him what had happened and got the reply, “I was kicked by a donkey.”  A joker at such a time, the surgeon reckoned, had a chance…..


(click for full article)


“I offer my deep condolences to the people of India, on the passing of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.  He was a legendary soldier, a patriot, and an inspiration to his fellow citizens.  Field Marshal Manekshaw provided an example of personal bravery, self-sacrifice, and steadfast devotion to duty that began before India’s independence, and will deservedly be remembered far into the future.”

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