Sam Manekshaw was the army chief in 1969, the year I was released from army. Reason given for my release was, ‘ Services no longer required’. I joined army as second lieutenant and left army as a captain. Options before released officers were either to appear for civil services examinations, both at state and All India level, apply for jobs in Border Security force and other para military forces, or try their luck in public sector and private sector.
Competition was tough and jobs scarce. We had heard about Sam Bahadur, our fair, frank and compassionate army chief as general Manekshaw was affectionately called by the troops. So we tried to meet him and seek his help.
Army chief belonged to a Parsi family and his full name was, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, a name etched in the annals of Indian military history. His journey to become one of the most celebrated military leaders in India was nothing short of extraordinary.
When our group of eight released emergency commissioned officers, in short ECOs decided to go to him with our grievances, he held rank of full general. It was only in 1973, just before his retirement, that he became first Indian army officer to be conferred the coveted rank of Field Marshal.
He was also the recipient of Padam Bhushan and Padam Vibhushan. We knew it would be a tough task getting appointment to meet him in his office at army headquarters. So we decided to take a chance to meet him at his residence in New Delhi. As Rumi says if you have a strong desire to achieve something, the entire universe conspires to help you.
We reached his official residence one evening in 1969, parked our scooters and reached the main gate. The security guard asked reason of our visit and then went inside to talk to someone on intercom. Within minutes, ADC of army chief was at the gate to interact with us. Since he was himself from the army, he seemed sympathetic to our cause.
He went inside and lo and behold, General Manekshaw came out in the lawn of his Bungalow and beckoned us to come in. There he was, our army chief in shorts, tee shirt and PT shoes , with a big smile . He shook hands with us and politely enquired reason of our visit. He gave us patient hearing and said, look boys, I cannot promise anything right now but yes, I have contacts in private sector. Leave your biodata here. I shall do my upmost to help you. Also give your best shot at competitive examinations where conditions have been relaxed for you. And try para military forces who are also recruiting ECOs. Remember, a soldier always moves forward with never say die spirit. We felt good and motivated. It was indeed heartening that our army chief met us without appointment, gave us patient hearing and listened to our problems.
Manekshaw joined the first batch of 40 cadets at the Indian Military Academy Dehradun in 1932 . He was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, 12th Frontier Force . He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry during the Second World War .
Manekshaw displayed exemplary courage to secure victory against the Japanese army at Sittang bridge despite losing half of his soldiers and sustaining a major
Injury. Major General David Cowan, Commander-in-Chief of the 17th Infantry Division, saluted Manekshaw's bravery, personally pinning his own Military Cross ribbon on him, proclaiming, "A dead person cannot be awarded a Military Cross." Manekshaw was evacuated from the battlefield by Mehar Singh, his orderly who took him to an Australian surgeon.
Mehar Singh picked up Sam on his shoulders and walked approximately 14 miles from the battlefield to the doctor. The surgeon initially declined to treat Manekshaw, saying that he was badly wounded. 7 bullets had been shot through Manekshaw's body. Manekshaw's chances of survival were very low, but Mehar Singh Badesha persuaded the doctor to treat him. Manekshaw regained consciousness, and when the surgeon asked what had happened to him, he replied that he had been "kicked by a mule". Impressed by Manekshaw's sense of humour, he treated him, removing seven bullets from lungs, liver, and kidneys.
As Chief of the Army Staff, Manekshaw orchestrated the seamless collaboration of the army, navy, and air force, leading to the defeat of the Pakistani Army in the Eastern Front in 1965.
The crowning achievement came during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, resulting in the liberation of Bangladesh and solidifying his legacy as a strategic genius.
Beyond his military prowess, Sam Manekshaw was known for his wit, charisma and unique leadership style. He could easily connect with soldiers at every level, and had a penchant for straightforwardness .
His famous words, "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," exemplify his characteristic wit and candour .
Another story goes that once former prime minister Indira Gandhi called Manekshaw to her office and said, I believe you want to take over from me. His counter question was, and what do you think. Her reply was, I do not think so. Manekshaw looked at her and said , I have no such interest. I am quite happy with my army job.
Another anecdote is about former defence minister , Krishna Menon asking Manekshaw what he thought about his army chief , Thimayya Please do not ask such questions about my seniors. It is against army discipline and protocol. Tomorrow ,you may ask same question from my juniors. Menon was annoyed and said you know if I want, I can sack him. Manekshaw replied, but then, I Will have another army chief.
Manekshaw is a true legend, and the broad details of his life are widely known. But here are some of the lesser known aspects of his life and distinguished military career.
Manekshaw was a Parsi who was born in Amritsar and raised in the city in his initial years before being sent to study in Sherwood College, Nainital. He was naturally fluent in Punjabi, and Army officers who met Sam in the field areas reported that he would converse in Punjabi with Sikh soldiers whenever he came across them.
The fact that he also served with an Infantry battalion with Sikh troops in the early years of his service also contributed to his fluency in Punjabi. Many of his fellow soldiers from his old Frontier Force battalion would often visit him to seek help and he would readily oblige.
Sam was given the affectionate title of ‘Sam Bahadur’ by the troops of 8 Gorkha Rifles whom he held very close as their Colonel of the Regiment. However, Sam did not serve with the Gorkhas for even a single day.
A Court of Inquiry was launched against Sam Manekshaw in 1962 to investigate several trumped-up charges against him. At that time , Sam was serving as Commandant of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington in the rank of Major General.
Many believed that these charges were instigated at the instance of the then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, and certain Generals who were close to the political establishment of the time. The then GOC-in-C Western Command Lt Gen Daulet Singh presided over the inquiry.
Many serving Army officers deposed in that inquiry and most spoke in Sam’s favour while some testified against him. Lt Gen Daulet Singh cleared Sam of all charges.
When Manekshaw turned 90, his grandson, Jehan and a young filmmaker, Jessica Gupta, convinced him to talk about his life for a documentary film as part of the UNESCO Parzor Project. In the film, Jehan could be seen asking Manekshaw about his greatest achievement in life. “From the ranks of second lieutenant to field marshal, I have never punished a man,” replied Manekshaw. “I would sign court martial proceedings when the verdict was not guilty. But if it said guilty, I would take the file home and look at it and then would say no. They would question my decision, and I would tell them that sitting happily in Delhi they had no idea what those chaps on the ground are going through.”
In the film, Manekshaw spoke of an interesting encounter with Morarji Desai when he was prime minister. “One day when I met him, he told me, ‘I believe you drink’. I said yes. He told me not to drink anymore as it was very bad for me. I told him, ‘I come to my Prime minister and he says I must not drink. I go to a party and I talk to a pretty girl and my wife says I must not talk to her. I am a field marshal. Is life worth living?’ The prime minister replied that my wife was quite right and that seeing pretty girls would ruin me. So I told him that they have not ruined me so far.
Manekshaw took part in five different wars, including World War II, the India-Pakistan conflict of 1947, the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the India-Pakistan war of 1965, and the pivotal Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
In an interview to The Week from Nepal, Sule Bahadur, Gorkha batman and cook of Manekshaw for more than 40 years, revealed that Manekshaw’s refrigerator was a treasure trove of exotic delicacies . It had everything from Russian caviar to canned fish, many of which would remain inside the fridge long after they had crossed their expiry dates. “Yet, he would not let anyone throw them out,” said Sule Bahadur . In the Manekshaw household, there were two kitchens—one that belonged to Bahadur and the other run by Manekshaw.
Sam had a really big freezer. Those days people were not comfortable keeping food in the freezer for long, but he would proudly brag about all the stuff he had in there, especially the dhansak (a traditional Parsi delicacy made by cooking mutton or goat meat with a mixture of lentils and vegetables) which was always at least a year old. And then he would taste a spoonful and animatedly pat himself on the back,” Said Sule Bahadur. He loved cooking, especially doing the barbecues. He had an elaborate collection of all the latest cookware.”
Silloo , wife of Sam Manekshaw was a graduate from JJ school of Arts , Mumbai . All the walls in their home everywhere had her paintings. She also sold her paintings to raise money for the poor.
She also set up a Charitable clinic at Coonoor in the south where Silloo and Sam settled down after retirement from army. Silloo’s room at Stavka, name of their home, was done tastefully in pink and blue, but Manekshaw had the biggest wardrobe and dressing room that stretched from wall to wall and ceiling to floor. “We used to laugh and say we all know who was the vain one in the house. While Silloo wouldn’t give a damn about what she wore, Sam would be immaculately groomed even for a night walk,” said Raj Shinde, who helped Silloo run the clinic. Her husband, Colonel Dr Anil Shinde (retd), served as Manekshaw’s physician for over two decades.
The illustrious journey of Sam Manekshaw came to an end when he succumbed to pneumonia on June 27, 2008, leaving behind a legacy etched in the annals of Indian military history.
Sam Manekshaw, India’s beloved war general and the country’s first Field Marshal, is now the subject of a biopic, Sam Bahadur , directed by Meghna Gulzar. Vicky Kaushal plays Sam Bahadur in the Bollywood movie and has done a commendable job.