By: Ram Govardhan
On a cold February morning in 2007, President Abdul Kalam’s motorcade was an hour away from Coonoor, the civilian town near Wellington Cantonment in Ooty. He was on his way to meet Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw to, in the President’s words, “Purge the sins of the previous governments.”
Sipping tea by a wayside stall, gazing the streams gushing through the Nilagiri valleys, the President asked his secretary, “How is the state of his health…he must be ninety plus now…”
“He is ninety-three, sir…. bedridden,” the secretary said. “But he is absolutely in the swim, sir…and sprightly too…”
Legendary for his polish and panache, the doughty, dyed-in-wool cold warrior that he was, Maneckshaw was told about the President’s visit just a week ago. Animated ever since he woke up that morning, he tried tidying himself, asked his Gorkha attendant to spring-clean the room, and tottered around to check if everything was spick-and-span new. Constantly pestered his daughter to get him better clothes, to spray the room again and let the sunlight stream through the high windows. Fussing around the kitchen like a restive detective, he recited the recipe twice and warned his absent-minded butler to carefully prepare his favourite pasta for the President.
He then fidgeted with his file containing copies of fifty letters he wrote to governments over thirty years. The long dammed up fact was that not one of the fifty could elicit a reply.
“Will they pay up before I kick the bucket?” Maneckshaw asked his daughter, striving to sit upright. His patience had worn so thin that he had almost given up for he was made the Field Marshal more than thirty years ago, but the perquisites weren’t released by the then administration, or the successive ones.
As he got off the car, the façade of Maneckshaw’s bungalow reminded the President of Rajput martial architecture. Uniquely named miniature cannons and wrought iron elephants stood erect atop the compound walls shouldering imitation stone parapets. Hanging his coat on the hall-stand, as he entered the living, the classic charm of the huge centre-piece, the Ottoman rug, and the Greek amphora copper vessel in the middle, delighted him. Gently playing in the background, Dean Martin’s enchanting melody “Sway” elevated the ambience, while the sweet wafts reminded him of aromatic fragrance of Omani Frankincense. A whole wall boasted Tanjore paintings, shining wind instruments of brass, Hungarian, Kilmarnock and trencher gold braided caps. The huge panoramic sun-roof not only illuminated the hall but also embellished the otherwise drab ceiling. And umpteen wall-mounted display-cases held Arabic medwakh smoking pipes, gimcracks, trifles, frills, gewgaws and heraldic arms. The ageless Burmese rosewood furniture was immaculately polished, the elaborate floral, geometric patterns of the room-dividers looked Byzantine and the symmetrical balconies, built in Moghul style, were too inviting.
As he walked in, even as Maneckshaw sought to rise and salute, the President waved him to relax. The bedroom was bedecked with bunting, paper chains and exquisite tinted glass lamps bringing home the Mediterranean feel, imbuing soothing hues.
“Good morning Maneckshaw ji…greetings from Government of India,” the President said. “How are you?”
“I am not unwell… just immobilised, Mr President,” Maneckshaw quipped, the unmistakable twinkle in his eyes bringing sparkle to his smile.
“Perhaps age related condition, Maneckshaw ji,” the President said.
“No, sir, I have pneumonia…but I love her for she has lived with me for donkey’s years…yet she couldn’t deal the death blow. I had survived seven bullets of Imperial Japanese Army in ’42…but the clock is running out on me…. time is ruthless, it marches on and on, plucking all of us one by one, reminding us how trivial we are…”
Easing into an ornate sofa by fireside, the President said, “You still have your wits about you, Maneckshaw ji…Yes, yes god is great…You look so graceful…surely have aged well…. okay. I am here to handover a cheque for 1.3 crore as arrears…” the President said, “It’s regretful that you have had to wait for this long… I am sorry on behalf of the government of India….okay?”
“No, No… You are too great a man,” Maneckshaw said, “I would have refused had anyone else had come with it…thank you very much, sir.”
Gazing at the large collection of Tanjore paintings, the President said, “I want to see your collection.”
As Maneckshaw tried to explain, the President butted in, “I too have such a collection at home…the art is unique to Tanjore…rich in colours, they are simple iconic compositions. Sparkling gold foils are overspread on fine, extensive gesso work and inlay consists of glass beads and pieces of precious and semi-precious stones…”
“Haven’t you embroidered your own story with ballistic and nuclear achievements, Mr President…” asked Maneckshaw.
“Your services to the nation are no less accomplishments, Maneckshaw ji.”
Sipping Ooty green tea, the President said, “I can smell aromas of pasta coming out of kitchen…”
“Yes, sir, I had asked them to prepare some for you,” said Maneckshaw, “The strict vegetarian that you are…”
“Oh! Thank you, can I see…” the President asked. “I am too hungry…had just a few cups of tea since morning…”
“Please….please…” Maneckshaw said and ambled along with him to the kitchen.
“This is Pasta Fagioli…it’s quite soupy now… but will cook down soon,” said Maneckshaw, “a drizzle of olive would render it heavenly.”
“Do you really like it so much?” the President asked.
“If they send me to a death chamber, this would be my last meal,” Maneckshaw said, “I usually wash it down with a glass of Barbera, my favourite wine…but you are a teetotaller…”
“I gather that you have things to say about teetotallers…” the President asked, “What is your famed quote…tell me…”
“Oh no, sir,” Maneckshaw blushed with discomfort, “It wasn’t about people like you; that was sort of jargony way of saying…”
“But…what’s the quote? Please tell me…”
“He who never drinks, nor smokes, nor dances; he who occasionally practices piety, temperance and celibacy, is generally, a saint, or a mahatma or more like a humbug but he certainly won’t make a leader, or for that matter a good soldier…”
“But, after learning so much about you, sir, I am reversing my opinion,” Maneckshaw said.
“No…no, It’s okay…you might be right in most of the cases,” the President said.
“Now coming to the arrears, sir…. there’s a limit to everything. As you know, crossing the Rubicon betokens irrevocability…I dreaded that I might wait forever and aye…for a nation as large as ours, the amount was just a nickel and dime thing…” Maneckshaw said.
The President nodded and asked, “Maneckshaw ji…although I heard a lot about you… but things from the horse’s mouth…”
“What is that you want to know, sir…”
“Why did we lose to the Chinese in 62…” the President asked.
“Done with my court proceedings, even though I was exonerated, since they couldn’t issue a formal ‘no case to answer’, I couldn’t participate in the 62 war. After we lost, both Kaul (Chief of General Staff) and Menon (Defence Minister) were sacked. Then, appreciating my side of the sedition story, Pandit Nehru sympathised and apologised to me. He then appointed me as GOC of IV Corps at Tezpur.”
“Okay…but were we technologically, strategically inferior?” the President asked.
“No, no sir…immediately after taking charge in Dec 62…I figured the debacle out…unlike our time-serving approach, the Chinese one was part of Mao’s Thousand Grains of Sand push. The more I gathered, the more my heart sunk, stomach fell since we had the wherewithal…in fact, we were better equipped. Meat and potatoes of our strategy was okay too…but our execution was incoherent, and, without spadework, to my utter dismay, like average Joes, their idea of victory was a pie in the sky…”
“After Raja Ramanna’s Smiling Buddha in 74 and Pokhran II in Jaisalmer…we are much stronger now…and, of late, DRDO has turned out some world class defence systems,” the President said.
“Yes, sir,” Maneckshaw said, “I am proud of our push towards self-reliance…one can’t be a hegemon without might…”
“Of course, of course…going back to late forties…Is it true that after capturing Domel and Muzaffarabad, Pakistan had almost captured Srinagar?” the President asked.
“Yes sir…in October 47…I was the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of Frontier Force (Gorkha Rifles) …the Pakistanis had captured Domel and Muzaffarabad… the very next day, fearing the Pakistanis; Maharaja Hari Singh appealed for help from India. I and V. P. Menon flew to Srinagar…while he was with the Maharaja discussing the accession; as I conducted as aerial survey of Kashmir, the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession. I flew back to Delhi and briefed Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru. When I suggested immediate deployment of troops to prevent Srinagar from being captured…Pandit Nehru stonewalled it. A few days later, it was the Sardar who had prevailed and our troops landed just before Pakistani Army reached the outskirts…that’s how we saved Srinagar by a whisker…”
“Okay…Of all the places you served in India, why did you choose to settle in Tamil Nadu” the President asked.
“Oh, well, that was not my decision, sir…after I retired in 73, my wife Silloo had insisted that we spend rest of our lives in these pristine surroundings…ultimately she chose to die here too…she lies buried in the Parsi cemetery in Ooty and… Whenever I give up the ghost, my tomb will be next to hers,” Maneckshaw said.
“You are such a highly decorated military legend, okay, I still remember how well you crushed the insurgency in Nagaland in the mid-sixties,” the President said, “But tell me as to why Mrs Gandhi decided to get involved in the Bangladesh Liberation War.”
“Oh! One of my fondest memories, sir…but before I say anything about Mrs Gandhi’s resolve, I must tell you some things about the crucial role RAW and its founder R. N. Kao played before I knuckled up with all our might and main….”
“I don’t know anything about Kao’s role…” the President said.
“Not your fault, sir… as a nation, we suffer from mental myopia…RAW officers and Kao are the unsung heroes…there’s a huge cache of documents to substantiate this…short of their contribution, we couldn’t have liberated East Pakistan…” Maneckshaw said.
“Oh…they must be honoured then, okay, nothing is too late…okay,” the President said.
“Of course, sir, of course…. In fact, RAW under Kao had started the guerrilla operations inside East Pakistan much before our army entered…Kao had his spies entrenched within Pakistani army, political and diplomatic circles too,” Maneckshaw said.
“Much before Mrs Gandhi nod for the final assault, Kao and his men had several guerrilla outfits at all vantage points of East Pakistan. He opened many monitoring stations all the along the border and ensured that the Bangladesh-government-in-exile operated from Calcutta, naming Mujib Nagar as their capital. He established Bangla radio station called Free Bengal Betal Kendra to spread timely information to guerrilla outfits operating out of stormy, dangerous hinterlands of rivers and creeks. Apart from Mukti Bahini, Kao directly supervised another wing called Mujib Bahini around Chittagong.”
“And there was a third guerrilla outfit called Kader Bahini under Tiger Siddique of RAW. Kao’s blue-eyed boy, a sparkling chap that he was, Siddique’s witticisms always had all of us in stitches but he was a tough nut to crack. In fact, Kao was the one who had knelled the funeral bells of Pak army by disrupting Pakistani communication systems around Dhaka. He even enlisted one-time pirates and desperados to blow up Pakistani supply routes, ammunition depots and hundreds of bridges to hamper movement of troops. Kao equipped more than 75,000 Mukti Bahini guerrillas and many other motley secessionist groups to harass Pakistani forces until I launched a full-scale thing,” Maneckshaw said
“How was your equation with Kao during the war?” the President asked.
“Never the one to grin and bear fools, as a man of scruples, his honesty was absolute. A fighter, a gutsy pugilist at heart, he always thought like a missionary and toiled like a mercenary. A pathological optimist, he was deaf to surround sound negatives of Delhi bureaucrats. We had excellent rapport…his office was next to mine in South Block near the PMO. He dashed in unannounced to discuss strategy even at odd hours…he even harassed the Pakistani cronies like Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams for eight months before I entered with my forces. The government of India overlooked Kao’s contribution and never acknowledged the gallantry of this unseen intelligence community,” Maneckshaw said.
“When did we choose to enter the war?” the President asked.
“As Bangla refugees, millions in months, started flooding West Bengal, Mrs Gandhi asked me and Kao to attend a special cabinet meeting in Delhi in April 71,” Maneckshaw said. “Everyone in the cabinet agreed that India must help Mukti Bahini.”
“Sam, the chief ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura are calling me…they are dreading further influx…already ten million in six months…what are you doing about it?” Mrs Gandhi asked.
Maneckshaw was quiet.
“But Sam… isn’t helping Mukti Bahini is virtually going to war with Pakistan? Are we battle-ready…?” Mrs Gandhi asked.
“No, not at all, PM… we are woefully ill-prepared for a kinetic thing…our defeat is guaranteed,” Maneckshaw said. “With dwindling ammunition, even our forces are variously deployed, just about ten of two hundred tanks are in condition, rail carriages have to carry grains and pretty soon Himalayan melt water will turn the East Pakistani Rivers into oceans…those rivers govern the life, commerce and, of course, war. Even our radars, repair hangars and sea vessels aren’t in Bristol fashion…. our vanguards need time to rally countervailing push…”
“Instead of taking millions of refugees in, Sam, won’t it be economical to go to war with Pakistan?” Mrs Gandhi asked.
“Absolutely, PM, but we need time to keep our powder dry…perhaps months. Foolhardy, shoestring battles are stairways to glorious doom,” Maneckshaw said.
Every minister was aghast and, within moments, saying Maneckshaw is exhibiting unworthy fear in the face of manageable danger, murmurs turned into howls of rejections.
As Mrs Gandhi asked her cabinet colleagues to leave the room, Maneckshaw said, “PM, before you say something, would you like me to resign on health grounds…mental or physical…?”
“No, no… you are one of our best…and the only one who can turn our forces combat-ready….” Mrs Gandhi said and looked into his eyes.
“Yes, PM, but the cold shoulders of your bureaucrats and ignorance of your moronic politicians piss me off…they are oblivious of the complexities of conflicts. Ask them to mind their business, I’ll mind mine. They kiss their own sweethearts, I’ll kiss mine. I don’t interfere politically as long as no one interferes with me in the army,” Maneckshaw said leaning back into his chair.
Seated across the desk, Mrs Gandhi smiled and nodded, recalling the tales of his grit and wit.
“A free hand is what I want…everything must happen on my terms. I don’t believe in messy affairs…protracted, irregular conflicts are too tricky to manage…speed must be the object. We will win it pretty quickly or I will leave with my feet first,” Maneckshaw said.
“You have my backing and my command, Sam, go ahead, I give you six months for a full-scale thing to show the Pakis their place,” Mrs Gandhi said.
“Yes, PM, thank you. Of course, political will is essential… and, in nation building, squandering wisdom of hindsight is unpatriotic…repeating the blunders of 62 and 65 is a sure-fire technique to a greater disaster,” Maneckshaw said.
On the eve of war, just after PAF struck several Indian air force bases in North India, Mrs Gandhi asked him whether he was battle-ready.
Maneckshaw said, in his breezy manner, “Yes, I am always ready, sweetie…”
The expression ‘sweetie’ didn’t baffle Mrs Gandhi for everyone knew that Maneckshaw was flirtatious in a nonsexual way, both with men and women.
“Can I count upon you, Sam?” Mrs Gandhi asked. “I am hazarding my political career…”
“My words are promises, PM, not mirages…when I play black jack, I know its double or quits,” Maneckshaw said.
Born to Parsi parents in Amritsar, Maneckshaw was a mischievous child. He wanted to be a doctor like his father and, after his schooling in Nainital, when his father refused to send him to London to pursue medicine, Maneckshaw rebelled, appeared and qualified in the entrance examination for enrolment into the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.
Maneckshaw was fluent in Punjabi, English, Urdu, English and his mother tongue Gujarati. He was also a qualified Higher Standard army interpreter in Pashto.
At a function in 1969 on the centenary of Sherwood College, Dehradun, the indefatigable Maneckshaw admitted that it was the college that had prepared him for World War II as he had learnt to live alone, to fight without conceding, to endure hunger for long periods and to only hate the enemy when in a battle.
Before motivating his troops for the final assault, Maneckshaw thoroughly studied the miscalculations of the West Pakistanis.
Maneckshaw found that their very first blunder was on the very day of the independence in 1947; when Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, resolved that Urdu would be the only federal language both in West and East Pakistan. Addressing a gathering in Dhaka in 1948, he declared, “Urdu…and only Urdu would be the sole official language of all of Pakistan.”
Frontal assault on Bengali language was deemed as grave as one on one’s faith. Urdu was spoken only by Muhajirs in West Pakistan and Biharis in East Pakistan, not Bengalis. When they demanded federal status for Bengali along with Urdu and English, the Pakistani government rebuffed the call and removed Bengali script from currency and postal stamps.
As part of Basha Andolan, the Language Movement, the students of University of Dhaka and other political activists, began protesting the new law. They then organised a mass protest on 21st February in 1952; scores of students were killed by police on that day, yet the movement continued until Bengali was reinstated as an official language in 1956. But, by issuing irrational ordinances, Pakistan tried to undermine Bengali by insisting that it be written in roman letters and to ban songs of Rabindranath Tagore.
(In memory of the movement and the victims, 21st February was declared as International Mother Tongue Day by UNESCO is 1999.)
Despite demanding separate currencies for West and East Pakistan, also known as “two economy thesis”, Mujib had indeed predicted the breakup blaming the Punjabi bureaucracy for their inflexibility and greed by saying, “Punjabis are Pakistan’s Jhopar Kural (an axe used for felling a clump of bamboos)”.
What he meant was that Punjabis would sever the roots of the new nation. In fact, though largely overlooked by Bengali intelligentsia, Mujib had highlighted that the Lahore Resolution had essentially demanded multiple “states”, rather than a single country, for the Muslims of India.
The next major blunder, Maneckshaw reckoned, was committed by the cunning old fox of contradictions Yahya Khan in March 1971 when he, addressing his top brass, just before launching Operation Searchlight, cried, “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
Given his arrogance of intellect, Yahya, who preferred Scottish tweed suits, considered everyone stupid and beneath him. Obeying his orders, his forces attempted to crush Bengali resistance by disarming and killing intellectuals, activists and students. Hundreds of able-bodied men were randomly picked-up and gunned down at point blank. They, along with Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams, also massacred three million people and raped more than a million women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.
Ever since partition, the Pakistani commanders, who had their axes to grind, never hesitated to unleash their sadistic impulses in their war effort. And, on the cusp of capitulation, their unashamed, uncanny knack of offering truce is unmatched.
The fatal blunder, Maneckshaw thought, was neglecting the demands for autonomy. In early 1971, to eliminate the secessionists, the Pakistani army entered the Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University, in which most boarders were Hindu, and brutally killed students, journalists and intellectuals. In the next few months, they prowled like beasts and the brunt of their savagery was inflicted on millions of Bengali Hindus.
In December 1971, Pakistanis bombed Air Force bases in North India. When Maneckshaw gave orders to set off the war officially, many Naval and Air Force commanders were reluctant.
“India is organised chaos…so, once you have a decision, you must bludgeon your subordinates into agreement. After getting an earful from me, LG Raina to entered East Pakistan from the west, LG Saqat Singh from east, Mohan Thapan from north. The very next day, we initiated full-scale operations both on eastern and western fronts…” Maneckshaw said. “Attacked and besieged by our forces, within a week, the stunned Pak troops began raising white flags.”
As Indian Tanks rolled in, Mukti Bahini and millions of Bengalis began celebrations.
In a radio message, Maneckshaw addressed the Pakistani troops, “Indian forces have surrounded you. Your air force is destroyed; you have no hope of help from them. Chittagong, Chalna and Mangla ports are blocked…nobody can reach you from the sea too. Your fate is sealed. The Mukti Bahini and the people are baying for your blood as retribution for the atrocities and cruelties committed by you…Why waste lives…don’t you want to go home and be with your children? Do not lose time: there is no disgrace in laying down arms to a soldier. We will give you the treatment befitting soldiers”.
“What happened then?” the President asked.
“I told Niazi that getting out from under is impossible; once in an enemy terrain, you are anybody’s meat…. that was the moment Niazi began thinking of capitulation…” Maneckshaw said.
In one of the easiest and quickest victories in military history, all it took for Maneckshaw to achieve his goal was thirteen days.
“When in a deep hole, stop digging,” Gen Arora told the Pak Lt. Gen. Niazi, who was still harbouring ideas of fighting back if further assistance arrived from West Pakistan.
Within hours, Niazi conveyed to Maneckshaw, through the United States Consul General in Dhaka, that the Pakistani forces would surrender. Maneckshaw told them that they must lay down arms by 9 am on 16th Dec. The deadline was extended to 3 pm on the same day at Niazi’s request; Maneckshaw took his word despite knowing damn well that he was quite a malicious mirth maker. Like a professional jester, Niazi’s gestures of head and limbs created some sort of pantomime and he was quite capable of stooping from laughter to tears in moments.
They formally surrendered on 16th Dec 1971.
“When Mrs Gandhi asked me to go to Dhaka to receive the surrender document, I declined. I said the honour should go to LG Arora. I asked Arora to wash Niazi up and rush him to the venue before the international press arrived,” Maneckshaw said.
With no hopes of supplies arriving from Pakistan, utterly fed up with terrifying memories of ploughman’s lunches on warfront, Niazi, on whose face Arora could see deep reluctance and dread, signed on the dotted line after saying, “Surrounded by the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army, living out in the sticks, we used the primitive technique of turning friction into fire …even to cook a pot 0f porridge…”
“When Niazi signed the surrender papers, there wasn’t a squeak of protest from any of the superpowers,” Maneckshaw said.
The war saw more than 45,000 Pakistani soldiers and 45,000 civilian personnel being taken as POWs. With Pakistan’s absolute surrender of its eastern half, Bangladesh was born as a new nation. Pakistan suffered 6,000 casualties against India’s 2,000.
Since the immediate aftermath of any war is widespread hysteria, mayhem, plunder and rape, Maneckshaw warned his forces, “Don’t assume anarchy is absence of hierarchy…. If you run into a Begum (Muslim woman), keep your hands in your pockets, and think of Sam.”
Maneckshaw treated POWs very well. He would talk to the Pakistani prisoners personally, even privately, and shared cups of tea. He saw to it that they were supplied with copies of Quran and allowed them to celebrate festivals and receive letters and parcels from their loved ones in Pakistan.
When asked about it, he quipped, “Why not? Even seasoned gangsters have morals.”
Talking about the Urdu speaking Biharis from East Pakistan who chose to live in different parts of India, mostly confined to slums and ghettos, he said, “There will always be communities in nation states which are not ‘French enough’ because they don’t give up hijab or other cherished customs.”
“What was the one takeaway for you from the Bangla War?” the President asked.
“That human freedom, dignity, peace, and prosperity don’t come about naturally…one has to fight and, at times, one has to imperil oneself for the sake of posterity,” Maneckshaw said.
“Despite such great achievements, you managed to stay pretty humble, Maneckshaw ji…” the President said.
“Laurel is the worst place to rest on, sir…hubris must be deflated at once…” Maneckshaw said.
“Well said…Thank you very much Maneckshaw ji for sharing so much of time with me…thank you very much. Can I take leave?” the President asked.
“Thank you, sir. Please convey my kindest regards to the PM,” Maneckshaw said.
“Okay…goodbye,” the President said, “May God bless you with long life and greater health.”
“I am too old, sir…I could be dead by dawn…” Maneckshaw said.
“Oh no… God is great, you will be alright,” said the President and waved goodbye.
Maneckshaw passed away a year later, in June 2008, in Wellington and remains buried adjacent to his wife’s grave, in the Parsi cemetery in Ooty.
Just before his last breath, Maneckshaw’s last words were, “I am okay.”
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, Literary Yard, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai.