As the first cadet of independent India to become Army chief and Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw famously declared – “Gentlemen, I have arrived and there will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued.” This quote encapsulates the fierce determination and fearless leadership that would define his illustrious military career.
Who was Sam Bahadur?
Sam Manekshaw was born on April 3, 1914, in Amritsar to Parsi parents – Hormusji Manekshaw, a doctor, and his wife Hilla. Drawn to a career in the armed forces from a young age, Manekshaw gained entry into the inaugural batch of the Indian Military Academy in 1932, embarking on a journey that would see him rise to the highest echelons of military leadership in independent India.
As part of the first intake of cadets trained at IMA Dehradun, designated the ‘Pioneers’, Manekshaw honed the qualities of discipline, honour and dedication alongside future military stalwarts like K.M. Cariappa and Smith Dun. Commissioned into the 12th Frontier Force Regiment in 1934, Manekshaw’s formative years involved postings in Lahore and Burma, where he gained experience in counterinsurgency operations.
Baptism by Fire: World War II
The crucible of World War II provided Manekshaw with his first real test under fire. As a Captain with the 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment, he participated in the 1942 Burma campaign where he displayed tremendous valour in battle. During fierce fighting for Pagoda Hill on the Sittang bridgehead, Manekshaw led his company in a daring counterattack against Japanese forces, pressing on despite suffering grievous injuries from enemy fire.
His refusal to abandon his troops under heavy fire drew praise from British commanders, and Manekshaw was awarded the Military Cross – a rare honour for an Indian officer. Though severely wounded by multiple bullet hits, he was evacuated and recovered to rejoin the war effort, serving with distinction under General Slim’s 14th Army. Manekshaw’s heroism under fire and ability to inspire his men won him great respect. His fearless leadership in Burma was an early indicator of the mettle of this intrepid officer.
Post-Independence: Integrating the Indian Army
With the dawn of independence in 1947, Manekshaw skillfully managed the division of personnel and material as the British Indian Army split between India and Pakistan. He was instrumental in integrating the various regimental traditions and INA members into the new Indian Army. After serving as the first Indian Director of Military Operations, Manekshaw commanded a brigade, and division and eventually became General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command in 1964.
By demonstrating strategic acumen and administrative brilliance, he vindicated the trust placed in his abilities, earning rapid promotion in the post-independence years. Manekshaw’s organisational skills and sharp mind enabled him to further professionalise the Indian Army and prepare it for the challenges ahead.
The 1971 War and the Liberation of Bangladesh
The finest hour in Manekshaw’s illustrious career came in 1971 when he masterminded Indian victory in the war against Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. As Chief of Army Staff, he had meticulously planned and prepared for the conflict under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
During the 1971 war, Manekshaw famously motivated an injured soldier with the words – “You received three at this age; when I was of your age, I received nine bullets and look- today, I am the Commander in Chief of the Indian Army.” This exemplified his hands-on leadership style and ability to inspire troops on the battlefield.
Manekshaw leveraged the monsoon weather and the India-East Pakistan geographical divide to divide Pakistani forces and prevent them from colluding. When hostilities commenced in December 1971, the Indian Army under his stewardship executed bold manoeuvres across multiple fronts. With sharp tactical acumen, Manekshaw orchestrated stunning battlefield victories against Pakistani forces on both sides, forcing their complete capitulation in just 13 days.
Over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, dealing a mortal blow to Pakistan and birthing the new nation of Bangladesh. This remains one of the largest surrenders in modern military history and a testament to Manekshaw’s brilliant generalship. His finest hour will be etched forever in the annals of Indian military strategy.
Leadership, Personality and Relationships
Field Marshal Manekshaw was a charismatic leader who led by example. Forthright and outspoken, he formed lifelong bonds with his soldiers. Anecdotes abound of the personal warmth and concern he extended to the troops under his command, whom he referred to as his ‘family’. Manekshaw’s distinguished military career was enabled by his unique personality.
Witty and humorous even under pressure, Manekshaw was unfailingly polite but blunt when required. He was fiercely protective of the Indian Army’s interests, unafraid to speak truth to power. As COAS, he blocked political interference in army promotions in the interests of professionalism and meritocracy.
Manekshaw believed that leaders were made, not born, stating – “Give me a man or a woman with common sense and who is not an idiot, and I assure you I can make a leader out of him or her.” He valued professional competence more than anything else, noting that “Professional knowledge and professional competence are the main attributes of leadership.”
Manekshaw shared an excellent rapport with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi based on mutual respect, and leveraged it to shape the army into an effective fighting force. However, he politely declined to enter politics after retiring, preferring a quiet life in Tamil Nadu. His strength of character, personal integrity and professionalism make Manekshaw one of India’s most renowned military heroes.
Honours and Legacy
In recognition of his lifetime of service to the nation, Field Marshal Manekshaw was conferred the Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan, India’s second and third-highest civilian honours. The ‘Sam Bahadur’ sword of honour at IMA Dehradun commemorates its first alumnus to rise to army chief. He was also awarded Nepal’s honorary General rank in 1972.
Apart from these formal recognitions, Manekshaw’s name continues to be synonymous with valour, leadership and military genius. The 1971 victory that midwifed Bangladesh remains the gold standard of generalship in Indian military history. Streets, parades, institutions and bridges across India today stand testament to the legacy of Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Manekshaw. His towering presence continues to inspire future generations of military leaders.
Final Salute to the Heroic Sam Bahadur
The First Field Marshal of the Indian Army, Sam Manekshaw passed away on June 27, 2008, at the age of 94, after a lifetime of service to the nation. His funeral with full military honours was attended by senior politicians and service chiefs. But as a mark of the respect in which Sam Bahadur was held, over 10,000 ordinary soldiers and citizens attended his last rites – a rare spontaneous outpouring for a military hero.
With the passing of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, India lost a giant from the golden age of the Indian Army. His name will live on as a shining light for military officers. Sam Bahadur’s allegiance to duty, spirited leadership and love for his soldiers make him an exemplar of the finest traditions of the Indian Armed Forces. His life story will continue to motivate and inspire future generations of the Indian military.
The upcoming movie “Sam Bahadur” directed by Meghna Gulzar and produced by RSVP Movies, will bring Manekshaw’s legendary life to the big screen. Starring Vicky Kaushal in the title role, along with Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Neeraj Kabi, Edward Sonnenblick, and Zeeshan Ayyub, the film is set to release on December 1, 2023. “Sam Bahadur” provides a cinematic portrayal of this charismatic leader’s journey as the Chief of Army Staff during the 1971 Indo-Pak war and his rise to the rank of Field Marshal. The film promises to showcase the dynamic personality and achievements of Sam Manekshaw to a new generation.
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