Play it again, Sam! – A Tribute to Sam Bahadur on his 100th birth anniversary by Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Play it again, Sam! – A Tribute to Sam Bahadur on his 100th birth anniversary
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
It was a magical summer in June 1985. We were young, aspiring, military professionals in the bracket of 30–35 years, selected after qualifying through a tough selection process to enter the IIM A of the Defence Forces – the prestigious Defence Services Staff College – hopefully the beginning of the ladder to a satisfying military career. The course was a residential, year long one in the company of officers from the Defence Forces of India, a small representation from the civil services as well as officers from over 20 friendly foreign countries and would expose us to the heart and soul of the Indian Defence Services in the marvelous setting of the Nilgiri Hills.
The narrow gauge rack and pinion toy train which we had boarded at dusty and hot Mettupalaiyam shuddered to a halt at the mist laden, quaint Wellington Railway Station, having brought us 6500 feet up into the cool, thickly forested Blue Mountains. My wife and I disembarked for the College, dusting the crumbs of an excellent continental lunch provided by the Staff College.
The name Wellington made an immediate connect in my mind. Not above showing off my knowledge to my wife, I remarked, “Old ‘Iron Duke’ Wellington had killed Tipu Sultan in 1799 and later won Waterloo for England from Napoleon in 1815”. “There’s Sam Bahadur, now resident at Coonoor, who won the 1971 war for us. They should rename the station for him”, I grumbled unreasonably. “He, like Wellington is also a Field Marshal; like him, was wounded in battle”. My wife glanced at me with some asperity. “Don’t be parochial. You can’t change the tide of history,” she said. Chastened, I realized she was right.
Indeed you cannot turn the tide of history. Wellington should continue to remain honoured in the Nilgiris. Similarly, great people will continue to come and go in India, but there’ll be no one else ever to lay claim, other than the exceptional Sam – Indira combine; lay claim to creating a brave new nation, capturing 93,000 prisoners of war, returning them back with honour all within the span of a year or so of executing one of the world’s least studied and least applauded strategic level politico – military feats of all time.
As breaking news of the passing away of this great man trickles in, my thoughts wander in time and space on aspects of the Sam we knew, first hand, by word of mouth and by reportage…
I recall, how, in the weekend before the Staff Course began in 1985, we undertook a pilgrimage to “Stavka”, the uber hill-side bungalow he had outside Upper Coonoor. There was no dearth of enthusiastic locals who helped us navigate to his home. Parking some distance away, we walked up to the gates of his stylish, white painted, Spanish looking villa and were inquiring from the Gurkha sentry about his whereabouts, when, suddenly, we were face to face with the great man in his shirt sleeves. He was working on his roses when he saw us, he said, and came down his steep driveway to meet us. He spoke in comfortable Punjabi and faultless English with my wife and me and advised us to have “serious fun” on the Staff College course. Chivalrous to a fault with his uninvited guests, he put us at ease with his disarming smile and charming us with his legendary wit and repartee. He was a born raconteur.
Kukkie recalled to the Field Marshal how, while still a fresher at school in Sanawar, she had been in the company of his daughter, Maja. Both girls had lost contact with their peer groups while hiking from Sanawar to catch the school party train at Kalka. Maja, being the senior, had graciously taken Kukkie under her charge and the girls found their way to Kalka chatting about school and about their Dads. Indulgent to a fault, Sam’s philosophy was to spoil his girls, yet never let them get spoilt. This is how Maja affectionately recalled him as a Father as the girls feasted on tuck bought by Maja. On Sam’s demise, this is how she and her sister Sherry recalled their Fathers qualities as an indulgent yet wise Dad to the media.
That year at Coonoor gave us a rare insight into what made him so special. On the odd occasion when he came to the Staff College for a social function, he was the cynosure of all eyes. Marvelously turned out, alert, witty, observant, gallant and blessed with a rare brand of humour which was devoid of rancour or bitterness, he held centre stage with grace and élan. On the one occasion when he spoke to the students and faculty on professional issues, he made light of his personal contribution and, instead, spoke of the need to think ‘purple’ – the colour arrived at by mixing Olive Green, Dark Blue and Light Blue together which are the uniform colours of the Army, Navy and Air Force. It was a belief he carried forward to successful culmination in the 1971 Indo Pak war.
I recall seeing him in our forward concentration area in the J&K sector in October 1971. He had been moving continuously all along the Western front in the weeks preceding the war, pepping up his troops before it began. He was stressed and obviously tired from constant travel as well as the huge responsibility of waging successful war at his terms. I remember though, there was nothing unclear about the message he gave to all of us. “Remember,” he exhorted; “when you enter Pakistan, keep your hands in your pockets. I will not countenance any misbehavior, moral or material on your part. Simply do your duty and let me look after the rest”. He exited, waving his trademark swagger stick, leaving us with pulsating hearts and clear directions on upright conduct.
Sam retired in 1973, being appointed a Field Marshal before he did so. Life moved on for me. Post command of a tank regiment, I found myself back in the Staff College in 1993, this time as an Instructor. There were rather more opportunities now, to interact with the Field Marshal than as a student 10 years earlier. There was time too, to see how extraordinarily he had won a place in the hearts and minds of the people of Coonoor. Shopkeepers would feel honoured if the Field Marshal bought any thing from their shops – and he often did, pottering all over Coonoor in his little car. Never once did they offer a bill to him. In any case he did not carry money on his person. Yet, never once was there any question of delayed payment, as the Field Marshals Gurkha major domo in charge of his household unfailingly settled his dues, sent by him the very next day with more than the required money. I am sure that in saying his final farewell to him, the common man in Coonoor must have cried the most; almost as much as the soldiers he so loved.
The last I was involved with Sam’s work was when posted from 2001 – 2003 as a Brigadier, to his old Directorate in Army Headquarters, the elite Military Operations Directorate. Whenever there was a lull in the otherwise frenetic activity at the Directorate, I would steal a moment or two to look up his work on file as a junior staff officer, as Director Military Operations and as the Chief during the 1971 War. His clarity of thought was an education.
A ‘soldiers’ general, a ‘regular’ guy, is how posterity will see Sam. Yet, his obituaries, the extensive media coverage on his death have brought out the distaff side too. There was this well publicized problem with small minds in 1962, when he was made the target of a witch hunt in the form of a military inquiry. Then, post the stunning success of his East Pakistan blitzkrieg, there were claims from some amongst the military fraternity that he had not fully thought through the East Pakistan operations to their logical conclusion – the capture of Dhaka . Others felt that the war fighting on the Western front in 1971 had resulted in a military stalemate because it was unimaginatively conducted at senior levels. Some detractors would make an issue out of his flamboyant life style. Some one else, this time, from a neighbouring country, questioned his professional integrity without providing substance or logic for his slander and malice.
It is good to remember, though, that the final test of how good a soldier is rests with the men he commanded. For them, Sam Bahadur had no peer. He was in a class by himself. He was correct in his military conduct, forthright, communicated marvelously, planned meticulously, could get a inter Services team to bond, to work, had the courage of his convictions, could say “No” to the highest in the land. He brought glamour, dignity, humour and self respect back into the Army after the 1962 debacle and honour to it after the 1971 war. He cared. He heard the sound of the drums differently…
In sum, he was a truly inspirational leader of the kind militaries the world over crave for. He was in the class of Wellington, the Iron Duke, “Hurrying Heinz”, Gen Heinz Guderian, the brilliant German tank general who had helped plan and then run over France and Belgium as a daring Panzer commander in the lightning campaign of May 1940, Gen “Timmy” Thimayya, who helped save Kashmir in 1947- 48; was charismatic and brilliant till he fell out with his political masters. The list could go on and on.
It is good to remember too that the exceptional, planned collapse of East Pakistan against time and against the most formidable obstacles; the creation of a new nation after a brief war, the public display of chivalry towards 93000 legitimate prisoners and their speedy return after strict application of the Geneva Conventions is a feat of arms that must challenge serious military analysts the world over for study, analysis and future application if needed. Some would believe that the Air-Land battle concept whose application won America and its allies the Gulf War a decade later was born out of the East Pakistan template as planned and executed by Manekshaw. Close analysis proves its stark truth.
At a time today when the Armed Forces visibly suffer from low morale, a feeling of angst for not getting recognition for their stellar contribution towards nation building, not getting adequate financial compensation at a time when the poor gains from the 6th Pay Commission sit uneasily in the minds of the Army, Navy and Air Force who have given their men’s lives to the nation on implicit trust, it is good to remember a towering personality like Sam Manekshaw.
Humphrey Bogart, the suave, dapper, iconic Hollywood actor who starred in the 1942 romantic classic, “Casablanca”, which became an all time hit, is wrongly credited with the memorable dialogue, “Play it again, Sam! Play ‘As Time Goes By’.” It doesn’t really matter though; whether these words were spoken by Bogart or not. They still retain their magic and remain attributed to an actor who never spoke them. What obviously matters is public perception, not the fine print of reality.
Setting reality aside, we as a community of soldiers of all hues and colours, serving and retired, should beseech the indomitable spirit of Sam Bahadur: “Play it again, Sam! As time goes by. Spread your magic, your charisma all over this fair land and your beloved soldiers again. Let the magic of your times come back. Let today’s soldier rededicate himself to serve his country with pride, honour, selflessness. Let his country, as a consequence, finally recognize his worth and treat him with the honour, respect and the financial stability he richly deserves…
Play it again, Sam!”
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a defense analyst and retired General from Indian Army. An astute military leader, Gen Mehta often speaks and writes on topics of national interest. His articles have appeared in leading national dailies and other strategic military journals. A firm believer of Naam, Namak, Nishan – Gen Mehta continues to inspire a generation both in and out of Army.