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When destiny played its part

Last updated on: June 27, 2008 17:07 IST

Field Marshall S H F J 'Sam' Manekshaw, India’s greatest military commander, would have turned 100 on April 3, 2014. To mark the occasion and to celebrate a brilliant mind, we reproduce some of the articles had published over a period of time on one of India’s most-loved soldiers.

Was Sam Manekshaw destined to be elevated to the highest rank in the army in the world, that of a Field Marshal? It would appear so in this case because Sam Manekshaw, when a student, had set his eyes on following in the footsteps of his father, Dr Hormusji Framjee Manekshaw, and one of his elder brothers, the late Air Vice Marshal Manekshaw of the Air Force Medical Corps, into the medical profession. And this is where destiny stepped in.

Sam Manekshaw's father had settled in Amritsar. Sam was sent to the well-known Sherwood College, Nainital, in the beautiful Kumaon Hills, Jim Corbett country, as a boarder. He did well in the Senior Cambridge Examination and had no difficulty in obtaining a seat in the Hindu Sabha College, Amritsar, to do his inter science examination in biology and chemistry, a prerequisite to qualifying for a seat in a medical college. He did well in this examination and had hoped to be sent to England, in the footsteps of his two older brothers. But his father Dr Manekshaw thought that Sam, who was then just 16, was too young to be exposed to the flesh pots of England. And this is where destiny took over.

While glancing through a newspaper, Sam saw an advertisement issued by the government, calling for eligible young Indian gentlemen to apply for the first ever course at the newly established Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun. The first course was to commence in 1930. Of the 1200 young Indians who applied, Sam Manekshaw was one of the 16 to quality, which was quite an achievement.

The soldier who created a nation

He had set his sights on asking for a good infantry regiment, and in making his choice he was influenced by a Major Moore, one of his instructors, who belonged to the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, to join that regiment which carried with it the tag Frontier Force (FF), flaunted with much pride by those Indian and Cavalry Regiments entitled to use it.

When World War II ended, Sam was selected to fly with 35 Sikh Troops of his regiment as part of General Gracey's force to Indo-China and was the first to land at Saigon to implement the task of disarming 60,000 Japanese troops, including a Japanese general. He took this unusual role in his stride.

His exceptionally gifted qualities, both professional and personal, were soon recognized when he became the first ever Indian officer to become the Director General of Military Operations in Army HQ at a period when India's future was being shaped. Perhaps what influenced the powers that be in making this appointment were his ability to grasp the geo-political and military situation prevailing, and his uncanny ability to translate and apply them to India's military problems.

Images: Beloved Sam Bahadur

The next step in his steady rise in the Army hierarchy was the predicted move from Mhow to do the year-long course at the Imperial Defence College, London. This was strictly by stringent selection and senior officers deputed for this course were obviously headed for greater things. Brigadier Manekshaw returned from this course having earned the symbol idc, which he added to his psc earned at the Staff College, Quetta.

On his return to India he was posted on promotion to take over 26 Infantry Division responsible for the security of the Jammu-Pakistan border. But he did not stay here for long. Having successfully done the course at the IDC, predictably, he was moved to the then most important training institution of military training, the prestigious Defence Service Staff College, Wellington, nestling in the Nilgiri Hills or the Blue Mountain.

He was moved to the East in November 1962, to take over 4th Corps at Tezpur in the rank of Lieutenant General. This was a sensitive command after the recent Chinese incursions and much rethinking was demanded.

After a stint of a year, an experience he treasured, he was moved once again, but on this occasion to the North to take over the prestigious Western Command, headquartered in Shimla. But he did not stay here long. With trouble brewing in the East, he was moved to Calcutta to take over the very sensitive Eastern Command facing two major powers, China and Pakistan.

Manekshaw's Kashmir mission

Lieutenant General Manekshaw faced numerous critical situations not only in NEFA, Nagaland and Mizoram, but in West Bengal and Calcutta, with firmness and personal courage. He would face howling mobs baying for blood. His very presence – armed with only his cane and in his inimitable side cap, he would move around nonchalantly – had the desired help.

In 1969, General PP Kumaramangalam's tenure as Chief of the Army Staff was coming to an end and the government was faced with the problem of selecting a new Chief. The race was between two distinguished infantry Generals, both with good records of service and both Army Commanders, Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw and the very impressive Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, a contemporary and an IMA product as well, the GOC-in-C Western Army. Whereas General Manekshaw had a better all-round record in command, staff and instructional appointments, General Harbaksh Singh had field experience as a Brigade Commander in the Uri sector and had led the Western Command successfully during the 1965 War against Pakistan; the choice facing the government was a delicate and narrow one.

Sam Bahadur

Both were commanding 'operational' Army Commands, both were war experienced, Sam Manekshaw earlier in his service but Harbaksh Singh later, and both were decorated. The latter had powerful connections, belonging as he did to the Patiala royal family. The prime minister was Indira Gandhi and the defence minister was Sardar Swaran Singh. There was a delay in announcing the choice, which meant that there must have been a debate. Eventually, at 1315 hours on that fateful day news seeped through the grapevine that Lieutenant General Sam Hormusji Framjee Manekshaw was to be the next Chief of the Army Staff. For his supporters the tense period of waiting had ended. Yet again destiny had intervened. Had the choice been otherwise, would India have had a Field Marshal? And a Parsi at that!

Excerpted from Enduring Legacy, Parsis of the 20th Century, Volume II – The Professions, Pages 492, 494, 497, 501, 502, 503, 504, 505 and 506. Editor: Nawaz B Mody

Image: File photograph of Field Marshal SHF Manekshaw, who passed away early on Friday morning, with Army Chief N C Vij at a parade in Delhi Cantontment in October 2004.

Maj Gen E D''Souza (retd)