Sam Bahadur

Published July 6, 2008

SAM Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw was his full name by which he was rarely called, as he was known familiarly and affectionately by his men and officers and friends as Sam Bahadur.

Manekshaw was no ordinary run-of-the-mill man. Born in Amritsar in 1914, he died in Wellington, Ootacamund, in the Nilgiri Hills of South India at the age of 94. Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, MC, was the second Indian soldier to be so honoured, with justification, with the highest rank that can be bestowed upon a soldier, the other being Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa, the first Indian to command the Indian army, friend and contemporary of our Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the first Pakistani to command the Pakistan army. (However, unlike Ayub, both Cariappa and Manekshaw were honoured for their military skills and prowess.)

Sam Bahadur became India’s chief of army staff in 1969 and, as we in Pakistan must accept with heavy hearts, the highlight of his outstanding career was his resounding victory over the armed forces of Pakistan in 1971, when we lost East Pakistan to Bangladesh.

Anecdotes about the field marshal abound. His most famous remark, according to one obituary in the English press, was made on the eve of the outbreak of the December 1971 war when India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, asked him if he was ready for the fight. His reply came pat: “I am always ready, sweetie.” He famously said that he could never bring himself to call Mrs Gandhi ‘madam’ because it reminded him of a bawdy house. His other well-known exchange with Mrs Gandhi was when she once questioned him about rumours that he was plotting a coup. He asked her if she would accept his resignation on grounds of mental instability.

Held in awe by India’s politicians for his military professionalism, he was loved by the men of the army he led. I had the good fortune and honour of meeting him in Delhi, in 2001, when he was 87 years old, upright, with his moustaches bristling. I had heard much about him from my very good friend Lt Gen Attiqur Rahman who knew him from the days when they served in the British Indian Army and as young officers of the Fourth Frontier Force Regiment were sent to the Burma front.

In February 1942, they were together holding a bridge over the Sittang River when Sam nearly lost his life. After a night sharing a mackintosh in a bit of hollow ground, Sam was ordered to take his company down the road to investigate firing from the jungle. When Attiq later went off down the road, he saw Sam being carried on his orderly’s back, unconscious, his face ashen. He asked the regimental doctor how badly he had been wounded and was told that he would probably be dead by the time he reached the other end of the bridge.

Later, whilst reorganising, he heard that Sam was in hospital at Pegu. He went to see him and it was obvious he was in terrible pain. He hung on to Attiq’s hand, and whispering, asked him to leave his pistol so that he could shoot himself. Attiq told him not to be silly, that all would be well. As we know it was, but it was a close call. The surgeon attending to him almost gave up on the bullet-ridden body. The story goes that as he lay in hospital, an English general pinned his own military cross on to the chest of Captain Manekshaw as the medal could not be awarded posthumously. Attiq and Sam did not meet again until 1945 when Sam was one of his instructors at the Quetta Staff College.

Another good friend of Manekshaw from this side of the border was our Rangila Raja Gen Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan. At the time of partition Major Manekshaw and Major Yahya Khan were together on the staff of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. Sam owned a red James motorcycle which Yahya had always had an eye on. He offered to buy it, and did, for the princely sum of Rs1,000 which he promised to send over from Pakistan. Yahya, being Yahya, let it lapse. After the 1971 victory, Sam was heard to quip, “Yahya never paid me the Rs1,000 for my motorbike, but now he has paid with half his country.”

When I met the field marshal I told him that Yahya had never forgotten the debt, but had never got round to it. I offered to pay back the Rs1,000 with interest, on his behalf. No, no, said the field marshal, Yahya was a good man and a good soldier, we served together. There was not one mean or corrupt bone in his body. Your politicians are as bad as ours. Yahya was condemned without being heard. After he was put under house arrest at the end of December 1971, up to his death in 1980, he clamoured unceasingly for an open trial. Why was he condemned unheard?

Sam was buried quietly in his home in Tamil Nadu, a modest affair rather than the grand funeral he should have had in the capital, Delhi. Last year his name was linked to bizarre allegations made by the son of President Gen Ziaul Haq, our ‘exceedingly clever’ politician Ejazul Haq, against an unnamed Indian brigadier who allegedly had sold Indian war plans to Pakistan. The slur lingered on and the prime minister, the army, navy and air force chiefs all stayed away from the field marshal’s funeral.

Many were angered by this lack of respect shown to the nation’s brave soldier and one website is devoted to the comments of Indian citizens on the reaction of their politicians:

As the editor writes, “The death of the only Indian to be appointed field marshal when in active service has been remarkable for the warmth of the ordinary men and women who queued up to say ‘thank you’…. It was also remarkable for the complete lack of grace and gratitude, civility and courtesy, decency and decorum on the part of the bold-faced names rapaciously grazing the lawns of power in Delhi and elsewhere, for the brain behind India’s only decisive military victory.”

And a sentence which would have made Sam Bahadur chuckle: As he [Manekshaw] rightly surmised once: ‘I wonder whether those of our political masters who have been put in charge of the 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 of them in the past have resembled the latter’.



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