Joining the Army
Having completed his early education in the prestigious Sherwood College in Nainital, now in Uttarakhand, Sam wanted to study medicine in England but his father refused to pay for him. Then, as an act of sheer rebellion, Manekshaw wrote the exam to become one of the first batches of Indian officers to be recruited into the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in 1932. After graduating, he became a second lieutenant in the British-Indian Army, starting of a four decade long career in active duty and about eight-decades in association with the Indian Army.
The first war he participated in was World War II in the Eastern Theater, playing a decisive role in the Burma Campaign against the combined forces of Imperial Japan and the Azad Hind Fauj. He was nearly killed in that war and for that campaign, was awarded a Military Cross. He was then sent to the 9th Batallion of 12 Frontier Force Regiment (FFR) in Burma and participated in the Japanese surrender in Indo-China, leading to his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Upon Partition, his Regiment became a part of the Pakistani Army and he was posted to the Punjab Regiment. Through the hardships of Partition, he participated in the First Kashmir War of 1947-48. He was then posted to the 8 Gorkha Rifles and GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command, where he was awarded a Padma Bhushan for tackling the insurgency in Nagaland.
The 1971 Bangladesh War
However, all of Sam Bahadur's achievements are eclipsed by his unmatched victory against the Pakistani Army in then East Pakistan in 1971. Two years earlier, he became Chief of Army Staff, succeeding General Kumaramangalam. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to extend support and training to Mukti Bahini insurgents in East Pakistan, it was felt that India would not really need to openly participate in what was then an internal crisis of a neighboring country. However, the massive refugee influx, which ended up doubling the population of Tripura, made it obvious that India would have to intervene.
India's participation did come with some careful steps, though. In April 1971, General Manekshaw refused to enter the war, defying Indira Gandhi, because he did not think the Army was ready yet or that they should have to compete for railway rolling stock during the harvest season or drown in the flood waters of the monsoon. In an unprecedented turn of events, Indira Gandhi asked her entire cabinet to leave and held a private discussion with the General. There, it is said, he guaranteed her victory if he could declare war on his own terms. Gandhi agreed, a rarity for someone with known and proven dictatorial ambitions, and that changed history.
In December 1971, the Allied Forces of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini in the Eastern Theater invaded East Pakistan, an invasion that was meticulously planned by General Makeshaw. In under a fortnight, 45,000 military and an equal number of civilian POWs were taken and the entire Pakistani Army in the East surrendered. In addition, the Indian Navy successfully held a naval blockade, and the Air Force an air blockade, in the East, preventing the Western Pakistani Army from reinforcing their Eastern forces, and in the process sinking the entire Pakistani fleet.
After the Great War
For his distinguished service to the nation, General Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972. But the man had already risen well beyond such honors - he had proven to be one of the greatest generals in the millenniums-long history of India. In 1973, the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces, the President of India, awarded him the lifetime rank of Field Marshal of the Indian Army, the first Indian with such an honor, and to date only one of two, the other being Field Marshal KM Cariappa. Because he was popular among Gorkha soliders, Field Marshal Makeshaw was also an honorary General of the Nepali Army in 1972.
Known to be politically outspoken and forthright with his views, Manekshaw was unpopular with Indian politicians in Delhi, for whom he used the harshest of words after he retired from active duty and settled down with his wife in Ooty. On 27 June, 2008, he died of health complications in a Military hospital in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, but was not given the honor that a Field Marshal deserved. His funeral was not attended by any politician, leave alone then Defense Minister AK Antony, or any Indian military Chief. While the Chief of Army Staff was abroad at the time, the Navy and Air Force sent just two-star rank officers, certainly an insult to our great War hero.
However, despite politicians' problems with such a fine officer, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw remains a legend among military circles in India and indeed, all of South Asia. So deep was his impact on the Army that even military families hold him as an idol. In his grave lies not just India's first Field Marshal, but an inspiration for generations to come.
"There will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued." - Major General Sam Manekshaw upon assuming command of the retreating 4 Corps in the 1962 Sino-Indian War