Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi called for an emergency cabinet meeting on the afternoon of April 19, 1971. Army chief General Sam Manekshaw was also called to the meeting. It was a scorching hot afternoon in New Delhi, and even inside the meeting hall, the atmosphere was suffocatingly tense.
Nearly one crore East Pakistani refugees had entered India to save their lives from the atrocities of the Pakistani Army and had crossed the border into Assam, West Bengal and Tripura. They were accommodated in well over 800 refugee camps. Mass genocide was taking place across the eastern borders. The Indian Prime Minister was livid. The angry political leaders were raising war cries.
"General, you will have to immediately enter East Pakistan with your army."
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's anger was echoed by the members of the hall,
General Manekshaw very coolly said
"That means it is war..of course, and the Army is not yet ready for it...So we will not enter East Pakistan...Not as of now."
The stunned audience looked at the PM for her reaction; how dare a General to disobey the orders of a Prime minister. Mrs Gandhi's face was red with anger; she announced,
'OK..the meeting is adjourned, will reassemble at 4 pm.'
Slowly the ministers departed the meeting hall with disbelief writ large on their faces. General Manekshaw kept sitting and slowly addressed the Prime Minister,
"What should I write the reason for my resignation, sickness or personal cause?"
Now that baffled Mrs Indira Gandhi, and slowly she said there was no need for that. Once the atmosphere in the hall cooled down a bit, General Manekshaw described the need for the Army's preparations for the start of the war. He convinced her of the coming rainy season, how badly the rivers and the flooding would hamper the operations, and also warned of China and West Pakistan's reaction.
'I'll let you know when my army is ready for the war',..and he walked out.
While returning to his office, a blueprint for the mission was already getting ready in his mind. He was aware of how political interference in the Armed forces was causing degeneration in the operations. Past experience, especially during the 1962 debacle with China, haunted him. How ill-prepared I'll be equipped soldiers mean a sure defeat was a well-established fact.
A few months later, Mrs Gandhi telephoned the General.
'Are you now ready, General?
He noticed the slight sarcasm in her voice.
I'm always ready..sweetie !!
Now that was a little unconventional to address your Prime minister, but then Sam Bahadur was never a conventional soldier.
The war, officially launched on December 3 1971, ended in 13 days, with 93,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers surrendering to Indian Armed forces. The world was stunned. In the post-World War era never, such a huge army surrendered so meekly in such a short period of time. East Pakistan was liberated from the atrocities of Punjabi Muslims, and Bangladesh was born.
In 1947, the then Major Sam Manekshaw was GSO-1, a staff officer in the Army Headquarters. Major Yahya Khan was GSO-2. Sam had a red motorcycle which Yahya Khan always envied. Yahya kept pestering Sam to sell his bike to him. Very reluctantly, Sam sold it for 1400 rupees. Then by August 1947 Indo Pak partition happened, and Yahya Khan went to Pakistan...and he still hadn't paid Sam for the bike. Fast forward to 1971, General Yahya Khan was the President of Pakistan, and Sam was the Chief of Army Staff in India. Sam never forgot the unpaid dues from Yahya Khan, so it was a good bargain and poetic justice in the end that Yahya had to pay with half the Pakistan!
Post-partition in 1947, Jinnah told Sam to come to Pakistan, and Sam declined the offer and stayed with the Gorkha Regiment. Once, he asked a Gurkha sentry, 'Tere naam ke cho?' (What is your name?) 'Harka Bahadur Guru!' the sentry replied. Bahadur is a very common surname amongst the Gorkhas.
Sam mischievously asked ‘Mere naam ke cho?’ (What is my name?) The sentry was taken aback and said, 'Sam Bahadur…saab.'
And he loved that name, and he kept it for life!
Post the Liberation of Bangladesh, Sam's popularity rose sky-high. There were rumours making rounds in the political and bureaucratic circles that Field Marshal Manekshaw may topple the government and take over the reins! This gossip reached the PM too. An alarmed Indira Gandhi asked Sam to meet her in private. When she broached the subject of what she heard, Sam got up from his seat, brought his nose very close to the nose of Indira Gandhi and said;
"You see, you have a long nose, even I have a long nose but that doesn't mean I poke my nose in your business of running the country and you don't poke your long nose in my Army."
And he walked away.
Post his retirement from the Army in 1973, and Sam settled down in Coonoor near Udhagamandalam with his wife, Siloo.
In 2007, the then President, Dr Abdul Kalam, visited Sam in the hospital. President asked him if he needed anything, to which Sam replied...
'I deeply regret that I am unable to stand up and salute the most loved and respected President of my country' The great man Kalam had also handed over a cheque of 1.3 crores to Sam. This was the accumulated arrears that the then government had not paid his Field Marshal grade salary! Well, that was the award for bravery and popularity. That money was promptly donated to the Army Welfare Fund.
On 27 June 2008, at the age of 94, Sam breathed his last.
Even just before his last breath, he said... "I am OK", like he said during the Burmese Campaign in WW-2 with seven bullets in his lungs, stomach and liver!
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