Remembering Sam Bahadur: A Legend In Uniform And Off It Too

·6-min read

A tribute to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw whose life is a lesson and inspiration for all soldiers and civilians alike.

“ If someone tells you he is not afraid of dying, he is either a liar or a Gurkha”. Eighteen years ago, when I joined the Indian Army and was commissioned into the Gurkha regiment, I heard these words echoing in my consciousness and they were defining my journey as a 21 year old.

For these words about my regiment were of a man whose legacy we were to carry forward being part of the same regiment and more importantly who was the country finest war-time chief.

A chief who’s life and legacy are beyond compare - Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw, the man whose leadership won us among others the war of 1971- whose 50th anniversary we are celebrating this year as the Swarnim Vijay Varsh. And this piece on his death anniversary is a tribute on behalf of every Indian who has every donned the olive green and will ever wish to serve the indian defence forces.

The journey that began in 1914 in Amritsar ended quietly at the age of 94 on 27 June 2008 in Wellington where he spent his final years. As he finally went back into the lap of this soil he served all his life, Sam left behind a legacy that will stay unmatched forever.

Sam Hormusji Framji Manekshaw, popoularly known as Sam Bahadur was in one word just that - ‘Bahadur’ - a name that a rifleman on guard duty gave him when he was visiting the 6/8 regiment. ‘Do you recognise me’ Sam had asked to which the guard replied saying ‘Sam Bahadur’ - since then the name stuck. In his more than four decades of serving the army, Sam redefined the word Bahadur - as his fearlessness both on the field and off it was such that it made history and one that changed the fate of three nations - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - whose creation was largely engineered through the battle of 1971 that had Sam at the helm of the Indian Army.

His convictions fuelled his clarity, his loyalty flamed his strength such that he never minced his words. He feared no one - whether it was the Pakistani Army or the Indian Prime Minister - He feared none when he knew he was right.

Who else would have the courage to look into the eyes of the Prime Minister of the day and dare defy the orders and ask the PM to delay going to war until his boys were prepared to ‘win’the war for the country.

From World War II in 1942 which was Sam’s first major military campaign when he served as a Captain with the 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment in Burma, to masterminding the 1971 Indo Pak War for the liberation of Bangladesh, which we are celebrating this year as the Swarnim Vijay Varsh - Sam’s life in uniform is filled with anecdotes that fuel every soldier’s grit and determination.

His ‘kicked by a donkey tale’ is famous and also one of the first tales that show he was made of something different.

To begin with, in Burma in the 1942 campaign on the Sittang River - Sam was a captain but owing to shortage of men - he had to don the hat of a major and lead two companies against the invading Japanese army - He charged full steam and did manage to capture the key position - but in the process was severely wounded as a light machine gun fire hit him.

He took 9 bullets in the lung liver and kidney; it was almost the end. But the end was not to be; India had to get her first Field Marshal. A legend was waiting to be made, and this was just the beginning.

He didnt want casualties to be evacuated fearing that would hamper the speed of his batallion and hence ordered they fight on; which they did and eventually also managed to capture the strategically important Sitang bridge.

But then Sam, thought everyone, wouldnt make it - even Major General David Cowan, who was the the then Division Commander of the 17th Infantry, is said to have rushed and pinned his own ‘Military Cross Ribbon’ - a highly valued bravery medal of the British Army. Cowan had witnessed Sam’s handling of the strike and feared him not surviving the injury, pinned the ribbon since only the living could be awarded the medal. If this was the awe and appreciation he earned from his seniors, he inspired his men too beyond measure.

He ordered that casualties be left behind, but his men wouldnt leave him to die. His buddy Sher Singh literally carried him to the medical aid post and since doctors were busy treating the war casualties, Sher Singh threatened to shoot the Doctor if they didnt attend to Sam. He was then moved to Pegu where the Australian surgeon didnt think Sam would make it so he refused to operate.

Meanwhile Sam regained consciousness and when the Doctor asked him what happened, even with those bullet injuries he in his typical jovial style said “A bloody mule kicked me.” The surgeon laughed, and said: “You have a sense of humour. I think you are worth saving.”.

And thats how India’s greatest military legend made his way back from the clutches of death to lead India to her greatest victory and also the shortest one in her military history - it is also one of the shortest ones in the world.

But it was not just what he did when we went to war, but also what he didn't or rather chose not to do even at the cost of upsetting the then Prime minister that today we celebrate this year.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was asking him to go to war in April 1971. When the PM replied to his “what do you want me to do ?” With a ‘we dont mind a war”, he snubbed her in front of the entire entourage of ministers and bureaucrats.

“Have you read the Bible?” asked Sam, to which the then Minister for External Affairs, Sardar Swaran Singh asked, “What has the Bible to do with this?”

“In the Bible, it is written that God said let there be light, and there was light. You think that by saying let there be war, there can be a war? Are you ready for a war? I am not,"replied Sam, silencing all of them who had gathered there.

Only someone like Sam could dare do that. Although he went on to explain in detail the logistical shortcomings, his conclusion was even stronger -

“If your father had me as the Army Chief in 1962 instead of General Thapar, and he had told me to throw the Chinese out, I would have said the same thing and he would not have been shamed the way he was. If you still want me to go ahead, I will. But I guarantee you a one hundred percent defeat… I have given my professional assessment. It is now for the Government to take a decision… Now tell me what you want me to do. We eventually did go to war but much later - only once he had ‘prepared his men to ‘win the war’.

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