16 December is celebrated as ‘Vijay Divas’ to mark India’s greatest military victory in modern times. This article is a tribute to the architect of that great victory, India’s greatest soldier of modern times, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
In a few months from now, on 3rd April 2014, the country will commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, popularly referred to the world over as Sam Manekshaw. His image is one that of larger than life – a charismatic countenance, bravado, inspirational, heroic, humorous, rebellious and defiant towards authority, but surely for the soldiers whom he commanded – just brave, inspiring and one that of immediate connect- a true leader. The image is iconic and of a person the likes of whom rarely walk the earth. There are military leaders and there is Sam Manekshaw.
His achievements - a Military Cross for an act of personal bravery in World War II; actively involved in the planning process of operations in J&K during the 1947 Indo-Pak War while posted in the Military Operations Directorate in Army HQ; in 1962, at the height of the Sino-Indian conflict, he was rushed to take over 4 Corps to stem the advancing Chinese -his famous quote - “There will be no withdrawal without orders – and these orders shall never be issued”; during his tenure as Army Commander Eastern Command, the Naga Insurgency was put down; he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, for distinguished service in the field of civil service in 1968; in June 1969, he took over as the Chief of Army Staff and remained so till January 1973. His role and contribution to the nation in ensuring a decisive victory for the Indian Army during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, leading to the creation of Bangladesh is stuff of legend. In 1972, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan and on 1st January 1973 the honorary rank of Field Marshal was conferred upon him, a first in the history of Indian military. There remains little doubt that Sam Manekshaw was India’s greatest soldier in modern times and arguably, one of the greatest in the history of modern warfare.
Maybe it is time to recall the significance of the Indian victory in the 1971 War to understand what role this great military leader of the country had to play. The 1971 Indo-Pak war was an instance when India took the military initiative, a rare occurrence. With the Indian military offensive on the anvil, the 1971 campaign was actually triggered by Pakistani pre-emptive air strikes on 3 December 1971. The war concluded two weeks later with the signing of the Instrument of Surrender, in Dhaka on 16 December, making it one of the shortest and most decisive campaigns in the history of warfare.
The 1971 War was the culmination of a long-drawn struggle in erstwhile East Pakistan. A brutal crackdown by the Pakistani military on the night of 25-26th March 1971 saw the persecution of the local people rise to extremely dangerous levels. Soldiers of the East Pakistan Rifles and Regiment, both of which had revolted, students, intellectual, any number of civilians who were considered to be ‘Bengali Resistance, were hunted, hounded and massacred, triggering the migration of an estimated 10 million refugees into Indian territory, in what was coined as ‘demographic aggression’. Under these circumstances, India was forced to intervene, both due to her inability to be a bystander in this human cleansing going on in East Pakistan, and growing security concerns of her own given the massive influx of refugees. On the diplomatic front, there did not appear to be much coming out against the atrocities being committed by the Pakistan military in Bangladesh. Therefore, India decided to play an active role and extended support to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters despite opposition from the United States and China. On 3rd December, the Indian Army entered Bangladesh, and in less than a fortnight, ended the war, leading to creation of Bangladesh and India’s greatest military victory.
Apart from reducing Pakistan by half and creating a new nation from the ceded portion, the 1971 War can be seen to be the most significant war India has fought in its modern history. For the first time, India displayed its sovereignty in action, by opposing US, China and world opinion in entering the war. The Indian military comprehensively defeated Pakistan in the East and also significantly in the West. The war also led to a lot of changes in dynamics in the region; it formalised Indo-Soviet ties, cemented the ill-will of Pakistan towards India which continues to this day and served as the start point for the nuclear race in between the two countries. While the Indian policy and all machinations of diplomatic strategy were focused towards its goal of ameliorating the suffering of her East Pakistani neighbour, the strategy would depend mainly on the success of its military campaign, for an early and successful closure of war. When the conflict started in East Pakistan in March 1971, there was pressure from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on Sam Manekshaw to immediately join the conflict. However, Sam was firm in refusing to enter into war immediately, choosing rather to wait, prepare and fight a war on his own terms in winter, one amongst other important strategic reasons being to preclude or render difficult Chinese intervention with mountain passes remaining closed during that time. He was reputed to be an absolute livewire in ensuring preparations for the war – from ensuring the training and employment of the MuktiBahini, exhorting his own army, egging the MoD on various issues related to the war, ensuring the war-fighting wherewithal was in place. But most importantly, when war was joined, Sam would ensure the lightening movement of forces, exploitation of battlefield conditions and seizure of opportunities leading to capitulation of Dhaka. The Indian Army under Sam Manekshaw was set to write history and deliver what the country asked of it.
On and off there has been talk and reportage about whether the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, should be conferred upon the late Field Marshal. With the passing away of the Field Marshal in June 2008, there was renewed and vigorous clamour that, if Sam could not be honoured with the award in his lifetime, here was another opportunity to bring the befitting tribute to the great leader. Sadly, we failed to do so then. As the years pass by, we may lose the opportunity to officially recognise the contributions of Field Marshal Manekshaw.
How does a nation honour its greatest military hero? A glimpse into another large democracy into this aspect may help. The highest civilian awards given by the United States of America are the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They are considered to be of the same level, the main difference being that the Presidential Medal of Freedom Medal is awarded by the President of the United States and Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by an Act of Congress. Both these awards could be given for a singular achievement or lifetime contribution. The Congressional Medal was initially awarded to military leaders; however, with military medals instituted later, this medal was introduced also to recognise achievements in other fields. The Presidential Medal, too, is used to recognise achievements in various fields. Both these medals recognise military contribution. To show a spread of fields of both the medals: some awardees of the Congressional Gold Medal are - Dr Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul, Jesse Owens, Sir Winston Churchill, Joe Lewis, General Norman Schwarzkopf, General Colin Powell and General Douglas MacArthur. Some recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom are Sir Sidney Poitier, Harper Lee, Mohammed Ali, Arthur Rubinstein, Muhammad Yunus, Nelson Mandela, General Peter Pace and General Colin Powell. Mother Teresa has been awarded both these and the Bharat Ratna as well!
The Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the country. Instituted in 1954, it can be awarded to any person without distinction of race, occupation, position or sex in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour. The awards eligibility criteria was delimited in November 2011, from ‘the fields of art, literature, science and public services’ to ‘exceptional service/performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavor’. The recommendations for Bharat Ratna are made by the Prime Minister to the President. No formal recommendations for this are necessary and the number of annual awards is restricted to a maximum of three in a particular year. Till today there are 42 awardees of the Bharat Ratna which include, amongst others, Amartya Sen, Lata Mangeshkar, Sachin Tendulkar, MG Ramachandran, Satyajit Ray, JRD Tata and Rajiv Gandhi. So, when drawn in parallel with the USA’s awards, (both large democracies) the lists run basically similar, but for the glaring omission recognising military contribution in the Indian award, at least so far. It is clear that the USA honours its military far better than India does. Similar comparisons could be drawn with awards of other countries, but surely this is not an argument to include military contribution as a field of eligibility. The current provisions already cater for it.
Undoubtedly, the Indian Army itself qualifies to be a worthy recipient of this supreme award, the organisation having contributed seminally to preserving the integrity of the nation, both within and outside. Called to meet threats and distresses, the Indian Army has always risen to the occasion. To honour Sam Manekshaw with the award, would be the recognition of the services rendered by the Army. There indeed could be no better way to honour the army than by honouring its greatest icon.
While this is also not an exercise to critique, compare or comment upon the various awardees of the Bharat Ratna with the late Field Marshal, it is doubtless that the stature and aura of Field Marshal Manekshaw will only enhance the quality of this list- a leader who every Indian knows, a leader which the nation requires to continually inspire future generations, a role model. What better tribute can be given than conferring the Bharat Ratna on his 100th Birth Anniversary on Sam Manekshaw, the leader who brought India its greatest military victory of modern times.
*The author is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS.
Views expressed are personal