India’s political establishment and its shabby treatment of a national hero
By Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (retd)
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw whose mortal remains were laid to rest with military honours on Friday, June 27, 2008 in his beloved Nilgiri Hills will remain a legendary figure for the Indian ‘fauj’ and the manner of his departure in many ways symbolizes what he represented to India and its people.
The astute military leader who led India to its greatest military victory in the 1971 war for Bangladesh (the last such decisive military victory for Bharat was under Chandragupta Maurya in 300 BC!) was given an emotional farewell by millions of Indians across the country—and among the diaspora abroad. The mass media did the departed soldier proud and tributes and accolades continue to pour in to pay homage to one of India’s most accomplished yet humble sons.
But the Indian state was less than generous in its response to the Field Marshal’s demise and it has already attracted adverse comment that the UPA government could only send a Minister of State for the funeral—despite the official announcement that in a “rare” gesture, the government would accord him a state funeral. The fact that none of the three service Chiefs participated in the final ceremony—or for that matter that the Defence Minister chose not to go personally—due to ‘political’ compulsions is difficult to ignore. Furthermore, not a single Member of Parliament was able to join the people of India in paying their final respects to a soldier who almost single-handedly restored the ‘izzat’ of the Indian fauj after the debacle of the 1962 China war—thereby instilling a sense of confidence in a very de-moralized nation.
But these are the ‘petty’ realities of the Indian political culture—and maybe Sam Bahadur’s omission was that he was too much of a ‘bahadur’ and the military as an institution has remained marginal to the Indian ruling elite. The visibly disdainful attitude to the ‘fauji’ was nurtured by Pandit Nehru and bolstered by the civilian bureaucracy who always spoke in whispers about the danger of a military coup—as had happened in Pakistan and Burma—in the event that the higher military leadership was brought into the loop of higher governance and security planning.
Sam Manekshaw’s life reflected this pernicious culture and how he remained above it. During the Nehru years, his Defence Minister Krishna Menon tried to belittle the higher ranks of the Indian Army and encouraged sycophancy. The result was that truly professional and apolitical soldiers like Generals Thimayya and Manekshaw were treated shabbily and their advice spurned. The country paid a heavy price and the 1962 war with China was testimony to this crass political ineptitude. Such was the bitter vendetta carried out by Krishna Menon that he initiated a Court of Inquiry against Sam Manekshaw for ‘anti-national’ activities in early 1962 on totally false charges and sought—unsuccessfully—to penalize the general.
However the debacle of 1962 forced Nehru to acknowledge the folly of this political interference in internal military affairs and he resurrected officers like Sam Manekshaw. And ironically, Sam was sent to take over 4 Corps—which had been mauled by the Chinese Army—in the Eastern Sector from Lt Gen Kaul, the Krishna Menon favourite. From 4 Corps Commander to becoming the Army Commander in Calcutta, and later elevated to Army Chief in 1969, Sam Bahadur by dint of personal example and sound professionalism, re-built the tainted ‘izzat’ of the Indian Army.
The clouds of war with Pakistan were looming in early 1971 over the repression and genocide in East Pakistan—and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted the Indian armed forces to enter the fray so that a popularly elected government could be installed in Dhaka. However Sam Bahadur as the Army Chief refused to be pushed into hasty action and gave her very objective advice—much to her surprise. In his later days Sam recalled how she was initially angry at his dissenting view, but respected his professional appreciation and concurred with his planning and execution of the 1971 war.
But in keeping with his strong commitment to the democratic ethos and the provisions of the Indian Constitution, General Manekshaw who had the highest respect for civilian political supremacy over the military—offered to resign voluntarily in the event that the prime minister did not approve of his dissent. To Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s credit, she took Sam’s advice, reposed confidence in him and entrusted him with full responsibility of the actual conduct of the war with no political interference.
The 1971 war was an outstanding military success and India had managed to do what no country had done since World War II—achieve a decisive military victory over an adversary and dismember that country. Regrettably there was inadequate appreciation of the politico-military harmonisation of ‘victory’ and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seemed to emerge the political equal of Indira Gandhi at Simla despite the military defeat. Few people in the Indian political classes and higher bureaucracy seemed to know about war termination objectives and how a military victory was to be translated into an abiding political advantage.
In retrospect it would appear that the Indian military was neither encouraged nor allowed to contribute to higher politico-military strategic planning and thereby the nation was not able to maximize the victory over the Pakistan Army. Thus we have a paradox in that while the Pakistan Army had subsumed the state and became the central actor in the perennially hostile relationship with India, the Indian armed forces were (and are) kept outside the national decision making framework. To compound the damage, the ruling politico-bureaucratic culture sustained this distancing and denigration of the Indian ‘fauj’ and Sam Manekshaw became the symbol of both public adulation and private (state) anxiety.
Soon after the December 1971 victory and the birth of Bangladesh, Indira became India—a veritable Durga who had slain the wicked demon—an accolade that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a young opposition parliamentarian generously paid to his political opponent. India and Indira who were both going through a period of post-1962/post-Nehru despondency and lack of esteem found their confidence. This achievement of the nation and its prime minister was enabled to a great extent by Sam Manekshaw and his tri-service team—and nobody realised this more keenly than Indira Gandhi herself. In Pakistan the people were baying for the blood of their disgraced generals and in India, their counterparts, Sam Manekshaw and Jagjit Singh Arora were being publicly feted.
In 1973 General Manekshaw was elevated to Field Marshal and his public profile was unparalleled for any Indian fauji. Sam loomed larger than life and public adulation grew. Then occurred one of those historic accidents—triggered by Sam’s spontaneous sense of humour and repartee. Responding to a question about what would have happened if he, as a Parsi had opted to join the Pakistan Army in August 1947, he joked that maybe Pakistan would have won the 1971 war! That was to be a costly quip and the Field Marshal was publicly upbraided by many who were envious of his growing stature. The Indian state had found its opportunity to cut the soldier to size and cast the Indian top military leader in poor light.
Sam stepped down as Army Chief in early 1973 and retired gracefully from the limelight—which he no doubt revelled in—but had never actively sought. The politico-military-bureaucratic synergy arrived at between Indira Gandhi-Jagjivan Ram-Sam Manekshaw-KB Lall became a thing of the past. The evolving Indian ethos progressively relegated the Indian military and ironically in his death, Sam Bahadur, for all his monumental contribution to the making of India was treated in a characteristically shabby manner by the Indian state. But this lack of magnanimity taints the present ‘hukumat’ mired in its own sycophancy, more than the glory of Sam Bahadur which will remain shining and inviolable for the people of a grateful nation.
The author is a former head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses