3 April 1914: Sam Manekshaw, Indian army chief, was born

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who as the 8th Chief of Army Staff led the Indian Army to a decisive victory against Pakistan in the 1971 war, was born on 3 April 1914 in Amritsar (British Punjab) in a Parsi family.

His parents, Hormusji, a doctor, and Heerabai had moved from Gujarat to Punjab. Manekshaw went to school in Punjab and Nainital. He wanted to study medicine in England but eventually sat for the Indian Military Academy (IMA) entrance exam, which he cleared. After graduating from the IMA, Dehradun, in February 1934, he joined the 12 Frontier Force Rifles of the British Indian army as a second lieutenant.

Manekshaw first met his future wife, Silloo Bode, during a social event in Lahore in 1937.

During World War 2, with Japanese forces invading Burma, Manekshaw saw action on the Sittang River in 1942. During a counter-offensive he was hit by machine-gun fire in the stomach. He recovered and returned to the Burmese front, and got wounded again. He later helped in the rehabilitation of thousands of prisoners of war in Indo-China.

In the thick of action

Manekshaw took part in the planning for Partition as well as the conflict between the two newly-independent countries over Kashmir in 1947-48. He was at times privy to the tense conversations in the Indian cabinet when the fluid status of Kashmir was being discussed before its accession to India. In an interview to the journalist Prem Shankar Jha, Manekshaw later recalled: “I gave [Lord Mountbatten] the military situation, and told him that unless we flew in troops immediately, we would have lost Srinagar. . . . As usual Nehru talked about the United Nations, Russia, Africa, God almighty, everybody, until Sardar Patel lost his temper. He said, ‘Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away?’”

By the end of the 1950s Manekshaw became the Defence Services Staff College commandant. He, however, had serious differences with the then union defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon. As The New York Times wrote in Manekshaw’s obituary: “In 1961, he had a falling out with . . . Menon. But by then a general, he was vindicated late the next year when Indian troops were overrun by Chinese forces that swept down from the Himalayas. Mr. Menon resigned and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been close to Mr. Menon, rushed General Manekshaw to the front. There he rallied the retreating Indian forces until a cease-fire was declared.”

Manekshaw, who was also in charge of handling the insurgency in Nagaland in the 1960s, was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1968.

The decisive moment

On 7 June 1969, Manekshaw became the 8th Chief of Army Staff. His years of experience in the military would soon be put to test as West Pakistan carried out a brutal crackdown in East Pakistan, millions of refugees started pouring into India, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to support the Bangladeshi rebellion force Mukti Bahini. 

Indira Gandhi was initially keen on a strike much earlier, in April, but Manekshaw resisted. As The Economist put it in July 2008: “The monsoon, he [Manekshaw] pointed out, would soon start in East Pakistan, turning rivers into oceans. His armoured division and two infantry divisions were deployed elsewhere. To shift them would need the entire railway network, so the grain harvest could not be transported and would rot, bringing famine. And of his armoured division’s 189 tanks, only 11 were fit to fight.”

The timing proved right. The war of December 1971, which lasted only 14 days, changed the map of South Asia and Indira Gandhi and Manekshaw emerged as heroes in their country.

The American move to intimidate India by sending the US Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal did not deter the Prime Minister and her general. The Pakistani army was overwhelmed. In the afternoon of 16 December, Indian forces, together with their Bangladeshi counterparts, liberated Dhaka, with Pakistan surrendering unconditionally. General Manekshaw rang Indira Gandhi with the news of the surrender.

Honour and courage

Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972. On 1 January 1973 the prestigious rank of Field Marshal was conferred upon him, making him the only general after K.M. Cariappa to become Field Marshal. He retired from active service a fortnight later.  

In a 1998 lecture on “Leadership and Discipline” at the Defence Services College, Wellington, he said, “Moral courage is the ability to distinguish right from wrong and having done so, say so when asked, irrespective of what your superiors might think or what your colleagues or your subordinates might want. A ‘yes man’ is a dangerous man.”

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw died on 27 June 2008. He was 94.

The Guardian in its obituary observed, “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.”

Also on this day: 

1929 — Nirmal Verma, Hindi writer, was born   

1962 — Jaya Prada, Indian film actress and politician, was born  

1973 — Prabhu Deva, Indian film actor, director and choreographer, was born



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