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Born leader who spoke his mind

Sam will forever be remembered as the general who stood up to PM Indira Gandhi and confronted her over the planned liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, reports Rahul Singh.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2008 02:13 IST
Rahul Singh

Field marshal Sam Manekshaw’s gone, but his larger-than-life persona is immortal. Sam will forever be remembered as the general who stood up to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and confronted her over the planned liberation of Bangladesh in the summer of 1971.

Lieutenant General Depinder Singh (retd), who served as Sam’s military assistant from 1969-73, told HT, “Sam belonged to that vanishing league of generals courageous enough to defy political bosses. The PM and her cabinet pressed him to mount an offensive in East Pakistan in April 1971, but he held his own.” Sam told the PM he was not prepared for war in April as Himalayan passes were opening and a Chinese aggression could not be ruled out.

He himself narrated this incident at the inaugural Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa Memorial Lecture in 1995 in Delhi. “There is a very thin line between being dismissed and becoming a Field Marshal.” Sam had his way as the Bangladesh war took place seven months later, giving the forces time to prepare. He told the PM after a cabinet meet, “It is my job to tell you the truth… And it is my job to fight and win.”

General Depinder said, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many military leaders like him anymore. He would say leaders are made and not born. Else, a heavily-populated India would have a surfeit of leaders.”

Sam’s wit matched his brilliant leadership. Dr Ranjana Malik, wife of former army chief General V.P. Malik, recalled Sam as a ladies’ man. Here’s an anecdote from her: conferring an award for excellence in leadership to General Malik during the Kargil war, Sam joked, “Malik is not a brave man. He didn’t have the courage to kiss the lady who presented him a bouquet.”

Time could not blunt Sam’s concern for Indian troops. He flew down to Delhi during the Kargil war to keep abreast of the well-being of injured soldiers. Another army folklore that brings out the man and soldier is about a conversation he had with the director of military operations, Major General Inder Gill, in the Operations room in December 1971. Referring to the western front, where the army had suffered some reverses, Sam asked Gill, “What are we going to do about this situation?” Gill replied, “I don’t know what you are going to do about it, but I am going for a pee!” Sam looked at him, smiled and said, “Jolly good. I was also thinking of the same.”

General Malik said the best tribute to Sam would be awarding him the Bharat Ratna. Depinder also wants India’s highest civilian honour for this soldier’s soldier.