|The man and his men|
Flowers of veneration,
At somebody’s feet.
Placed by creepers,
Washed away by waves.
-Shambhunath Singh/em in emSamay ki shila par
In the hoary Hindu tradition of eulogising the dead, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting recently declared that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was also an admiral. But even if inadvertently, the writer of the condolence message captured the essence of his personality. The field marshal has indeed been commander of the faithful all his life – the original meaning of admiral, before the term got appropriated by seafarers. There is an interesting anecdote about how the old warrior acquired his popular appellation. It is said that during a routine inspection, he introduced himself to a Gorkha soldier as Sam, and wanted to confirm whether the soldier had gotten his name correct. “Yes Sir, Sam Bahadur,” the Gorkha replied. Bahadur, of course, was meant to be a mark of respect, which Sam understood and wore like a badge of honour.
In colloquial Hindostani, bahadur is often used as synonym for a watchman or chowkidar. Even in formal usage, the word is loosely translated as ‘brave’. A bahadur is invariably bold, courageous, fearless and valorous – bravery personified. But it does not stop there. If courage is grace under pressure, bahaduri lies in taunting adversity, looking danger straight into the eyes, making fun of setbacks and attempting to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, there is no shame in accepting unpleasant outcomes. Bad losers grouse about defeat; samurais commit ritual suicide. A bahadur moves on and lives to fight another day.
Bahadur is a complex concept, and the British Indian Army did not have a word for it. So, they simply appropriated the term, and began to use it rather indiscriminately. That may be the reason their successors in the Indian establishment could never understand Field Marshal Manekshaw’s fascination with the term. Bahadur, as he was in the truest sense of the term, would have undoubtedly been bemused by the hullabaloo that has arisen after he was gone. He would have probably taken the controversy over such arcane matters as warrant of precedence, propriety of the presence or absence of service chiefs, defence minister, prime minister or president with a shrug, a broad smile and a laconic comment: “Corpses do not complain.” The Indian state did seem ungrateful to the man who led the only war it had won hands down. But the fact is that Sam Bahadur had never been a favourite of the Indian establishment. He was a soldiers’ general, and his men will continue to remember him with a mixture of admiration and fondness.
Sam Bahadur did not have an easy relationship with the establishment in New Delhi for one simple reason: he was a warrior, while the political class was more interested in having a loyal soldier leading one of the world’s largest armed forces. Perhaps that was the difference that led to his famous rift with V K Krishna Menon during the Indo-China War of the 1960s. In the game of one-upmanship, Menon prevailed initially, but Manekshaw was ultimately vindicated and rehabilitated. However, he had an even more strained relationship with Indira Gandhi, the prime minister to whom he gave the glory of being anointed a goddess after the 1971 victory.
Indeed, after the independence of Bangladesh, opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee equated Mrs Gandhi to Durga astride a tiger. Inadvertently, perhaps, but Vajpayee had depicted the dilemma of an ambitious daughter who desperately wanted to restore the dignity of her father. Jawaharlal Nehru had died a broken man in wake of the setbacks suffered by the Indian Army in its confrontation with Chinese forces in the Himalaya. Bangladesh provided a unique opportunity to boost the morale of the defence forces.
Despite tall claims of a victorious Indian Army, as well as apologies manufactured by the defeated generals of Pakistan, it was primarily the people rather than the Indian combatants who won the War of Liberation. There was no way Pakistani General Amir Abdulla Niyazi’s forces would have been able to hold on to a territory where an entire population was up against them. Manekshaw’s genius lay first in recognising this. Second, it lay in waiting for the moment, concentrating his forces, attacking weak points and then mounting an attack that was impossible to repulse. It was a grand military operation in the tradition of Napoleon.
In the Anglo-German tradition of warfare, deceit plays an important role. What they call OSI (observance, surveillance, intelligence) is basically shorthand for war by deception – guerrilla war on a larger scale. Napoleonic warfare is more conventional, hence troop morale rather than technology is more important. This is where Sam’s ingenuity came in handy in the floodplains of Bangladesh. He chose the timing, location and size of force, and overwhelmed the Pakistani defenders already isolated from the local population. One widely known but rarely discussed facet of the 1971 war is that Mrs Gandhi had wanted to shift the conflict to the western front. It is said that Manekshaw refused. He would have probably obeyed had the prime minister issued an official order, but Sam did not want to stigmatise his forces by involving them in clandestine warfare.
The relationship remained strained, but Mrs Gandhi was too shrewd to make it a public issue. However, resentment against Manekshaw remained within the Nehru-Gandhi family and its coterie. The ambitious generals of Kashmir and Punjab believed that the era of Napoleonic warfare ended with the First World War, and they fuelled the silent feud between Mrs Gandhi and Sam Bahadur. But there must be something in the enduring tradition of grand, rather than dirty, wars: all the three filed marshals of the Indian Army have been from the Napoleonic tradition, but none of them harboured Bonapartist ambitions – unlike the army generals of Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia or countries of Africa and South America.
Soldiers and leaders
It will be impossible to get someone such as Sam to lead any one of the forces in the region in future. Born of Parsi parents in Punjab, educated and trained at Nainital and Dehradun, he served with the Royal Scots and Frontier Force before coming to lead the Gorkhas. These days, be they in Pakistan or India, officers have less varied exposure, and spend their lives within a single regiment. This may have its advantages in terms of team spirit and camaraderie, but wars of the future will require even higher levels of coordination than in the past. Officers will have to be known by the forces they lead. The risks of such a necessity, however, cannot be overemphasised. Even as Napoleon makes way for Sun Tzu – “all war is deception” – the fear that Bonapartism may get a new life is very real.
Unconventional warfare has this nasty habit of bringing brutalities of combat onto the doorsteps of common citizens. A population gripped by fear is easy prey for ambitious generals and scheming politicians. As if dirty wars in India’s Northeast and Kashmir were not enough, there are reports that New Delhi wants to raise a new paramilitary force, patterned after the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh, to fight the Maoist menace in at least 21 states of the Indian Union. The ‘military solution’ seems to have caught the fancy of the Indian establishment, as well. Courting politicos for post-retirement jobs – governors, envoys, chairpersons and advisors, possibilities are endless in booming economies and floundering polities – service chiefs seem to have lost the will to stand up for principles.
The intentional slight to the memory of Manekshaw by the politicians of India is not the issue. Rather, what is alarming is the apprehension that, in the future, the top brass of the Indian defence forces may be lured by the prospects of colluding with the political classes rather than cooperating with them. The role that the defence forces may have played a part in helping along the Indo-US nuclear deal has hardly received any mention in the Indian or larger Southasian media. The supremacy of the civilian authority over the military is an inalienable part of every democracy, but it works best only when military officers are aware of the thin line that separates primacy from predominance. That is why the life and times of Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw should be made mandatory reading for all young military officers Southasia.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.