Known for his wicked sense of humour which never deserted him even when adversity and authority stared him in the face, many of these stories, though not true, became popular folklore in his lifetime and continue to be told and retold, regardless of their veracity.
One such apocryphal story has it that when Mrs Indira Gandhi, famously described by her aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit as the “only man in her Cabinet”, imperiously asked Manekshaw whether he was prepared for the looming war in 1971, the dashing General replied, “I am always ready, sweetie.” Later, asked about that comment, all that Manekshaw would say is he could not bring himself to call the Prime Minister ‘Madame’ because “it reminded me of a bawdy-house”.
There is nothing apocryphal about the other version of a pre-war encounter between Mrs Gandhi and her Chief of Army Staff. Manekshaw had been asked to brief the Cabinet about the Army’s preparations for the war which was correctly assumed by April 1971 as inevitable. Mrs Gandhi wanted immediate action, insisting troops should march into what was then East Pakistan without further delay. Manekshaw patiently explained why that was impossible, his reasons ranging from mobilising troops and weapons to negotiating Bengal’s treacherous monsoon.
The Iron Lady was neither convinced nor amused that the Army chief would not let the Prime Minister have her way. She peremptorily dismissed her Ministers and waited till the last of them had left the room, then turned to Manekshaw, consternation writ large on her face. “Look,” the Army chief said, “if you don’t agree with me, you can have my resignation right now.” Mrs Gandhi waved aside his offer and asked him to do it his way. In the winter of that year, India won a stunning victory over Pakistan and Bangladesh was born.
That wasn’t the only occasion when Manekshaw offered to step down from office. Lutyens’ Delhi was once agog with rumours, fuelled by ‘leaks’ that were subsequently traced to officers envious of Manekshaw’s soaring popularity and over-zealous spooks eager to curry favour with the political establishment, that the General was plotting a coup. In due course, Mrs Gandhi was informed about what was being said and she was not pleased.
The Army chief was summoned and Mrs Gandhi impatiently asked him, “What are these rumours I am hearing, that you are plotting a coup?” Manekshaw looked her in the eye and asked whether she would accept his resignation — this time “on grounds of mental instability”. The conversation ended there and then.
Apparently, the rumours began after a sudden movement of troops was noticed and duly reported to North Block by local informers of the IB. Much speculation leading to talk of an imminent coup followed. This time Manekshaw was not pleased. He is believed to have snapped: “Routine movement! Rest is imagination of small minds!” We wouldn’t know whether the “small minds” he referred to were resentful brother officers, sly spooks, crafty bureaucrats or cunning politicians.
What we do know, however, is that Manekshaw did not hold politicians, leave alone bureaucrats, in high esteem. When he mockingly said, “I wonder whether those of our political masters who have been put in charge of the defence of the country can distinguish a mortar from a motor; a gun from a howitzer; a guerrilla from a gorilla, although a great many resemble the latter,” he was reflecting not only his views but also those widely held by officers and men in uniform.
There’s nothing unusual or uncalled for in such healthy disregard for either the country’s civilian authority or its political masters and mistresses, not in the least because neither bureaucrats nor politicians are known for looking beyond their own narrow interests -- personal in the case of babus; partisan in the case of netas. In sharp contrast, the Armed Forces place the nation and national interest above all else. The bluster of a soldier may be annoying, but his intent is never less than noble.
Mrs Gandhi understood that, and believed in it. True, she was not infallible and erred horribly, as she did when General SK Sinha was superceded in 1983 and denied what was rightfully his —the job of Army chief — on her instruction. But she held her ground and General Sinha, who sought premature retirement, bowed out gracefully, saying he would not question the Government’s decision.
It’s another matter that General AS Vaidya, who superceded General Sinha, failed to uphold the twin codes of izzat and iqbal, without which the Army would be no different from the bureaucracy, and accepted his appointment as Army chief without a murmur of protest. He could have followed in the footsteps of General Rajendrasinhji who, on hearing the Government was planning to supercede General KM Cariappa and instal him as Army chief, bluntly told Jawaharlal Nehru that he would rather resign than accept the post. At the end of the day, it really is about izzat and iqbal. The Army, as an institution, stands on these twin pillars. But some officers have it; some don’t. That, in a sense, is the tragedy of our times.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist