The Indian Economy Blog

October 12, 2007

When Manekshaw Confronted Indira’s Cabinet

Filed under: Miscellaneous,Politics — Pragmatic @ 8:21 am

The Field Marshal quoted the Bible and offered to resign…

There are many stories, some true and some apocryphal, about India’s legendary soldier – Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. It is common knowledge that India’s military campaign in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh was delayed on professional military advice, against the wishes of the political class. It is delightful to revisit the anecdote in the words of the lead historion of the dramatis personae. The Field Marshal narrated this incident as a personal example of moral courage, at the inaugural Field Marshal KM Cariappa Memorial Lecture in October 1995 at Delhi.

There is a very thin line between being dismissed and becoming a Field Marshal. In 1971, when Pakistan cracked down in East Pakistan, hundreds and thousands of refugees started pouring into India, into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. The Prime Minister held a Cabinet meeting in her office. The External Affairs Minister Sardar Swaran Singh, the Agriculture Minister, Mr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, the Defence Minister, Babu Jagjivan Ram and the Finance Minister, Yashwant Rao Chavan were present. I was then summoned.

A very angry, grim-faced Prime Minister read out the telegrams from the Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. She then turned around to me and said, “What are you doing about it?”

And I said, “Nothing, it’s got nothing to do with me. You didn’t consult me when you allowed the BSF, the CRP and RAW to encourage the Pakistanis to revolt. Now that you are in trouble, you come to me. I have a long nose. I know what’s happening.”

I then asked her what she wanted me to do.

She said, “I want you to enter Pakistan.”

And I responded, “That means war!”

She said, “I do not mind if it is war.”

“Have you read the Bible?”, I said.

The Foreign Minister, Sardar Swaran Singh asked, “What has Bible got to do with this?”

I explained, that the first book, the first chapter, the first words, the first sentence God said was, “Let there be light” and there was light. Now you say, “Let there be war” and there will be war, but are you prepared? I am certainly not. This is the end of April. The Himalayan passes are opening and there can be an attack from China if China gives us an ultimatum.

The Foreign Minister asked, “Will China give an ultimatum?” And I said, “You are the Foreign Minister, you tell me”. I told them that my armoured division and two of my infantry divisions were away. One in the Jhansi/Babina area, the other in Samba and the third one in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. I mentioned that I will require all the road space, all the railway wagons, the entire railway system to move these formations to the operational areas and that harvesting was in progress in the Punjab and UP and they would not be able to move the harvest which would rot; and I pointed out to the Agriculture Minister that it wouldn’t be my responsibility if there was a famine. Then I said, “My armoured division, which is my big striking force is supposed to have 189 tanks operational. I have got only 11 tanks that are fit to fight.”

The Finance Minister, who is a friend of mine asked, “Sam why only 11?”

So I told him, “Because you are the Finance Minister. I have been asking you for money for over a year and you say you haven’t got it!”

And finally I turned around to the Prime Minister and said that the rains were about to start in East Pakistan and when it rains there, it pours and when it pours, the whole countryside is flooded. The snows are melting, the rivers would become like oceans. If you stand on one bank, you can’t see the other. All my movement would be confined to roads. The Air Force, because of climatic conditions would not be able to support me. Now Prime Minister, give me your orders. The grim Prime Minister with her teeth clenched said, “The Cabinet will meet again at four o’clock”.

The members of the Cabinet started walking out. I being the junior most was the last to go and as I was leaving, she said,”Chief, will you stay back?”

I turned around and said, “Prime Minister, before you open your mouth, may I send you my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?”

She said, “Every thing you told me is true”.

“Yes! It is my job to tell you the truth” I responded, “and it is my job to fight, it is my job to fight to win and I have to tell you the truth.”

She smiled at me and said, “All right Sam, you know what I want?”

I said, “Yes, I know what you want!”

[Field Marshal KM Cariappa Memorial Lectures 1995 - 2000, Lancer Publishers & Distributors, Delhi, 2001]

Three cheers to the old soldier! The only regret – I wish all of us had compulsorily read this at school, among all the mythological and faux historical fables, as a living illustration of moral courage.


  1. Cool…thanks for sharing. Its simply because of men and women like Sam that we go to sleep peacefully at night.

    Comment by Philip — October 12, 2007 @ 5:39 pm

  2. Where did all the heroes go?
    Why do these, not 30 years ago sound like legends of a forgotten Golden era which seems out of reach?

    Comment by Keya Rai — October 12, 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  3. Wow!

    What a man…

    Comment by Hari — October 12, 2007 @ 11:48 pm

  4. Dear Sir,
    Could it be an AFTERTHOUGHT by MANEKSHAW in 1995? Why did he not come out with this story before 1984 when INDRA GANDHI was alive? I know it is correct to assume that SAM MANEKSHAW advised INDRA on the DIFFICULTIES of IMMEDIATE WAR in APRIL 1971 but it is doubtful if he had said this in the same tone and tenor as has been narrated in this story above. It is a known fact that General SAM MANEKSHAW was a very lucky man and he had built his reputation through sheer publicity and public relations. He was fond creating such stories about himself. A PR man he could blow an episode out of proportions.
    As a soldier myself, I know SAM used to weave a web of such stories around his personality. It is because of his these habits that he landed up in troubles with INDRA GANDHI & PARLIAMENT during mid 70′s—when he boasted of a PAK VICTORY if he had migrated to PAKISTAN in 1947. I do not want to take away the credit of victory in 1971 from him–but to be very frank–it was because PAK ARMY wanted TO LOSE THE WAR. Yes, this is the TRUTH. I have seen that war from very close quarters and I do have my impressions of a very ill-planned & ill-conducted war which had all the ingredients of a MILITARY FIASCO but for YAHIYA KHAN–the DRUNKARD and NIAZI–the COWARD—who gave us our much talked about victory. NIAZI had to just convert the war into a stalemate for another one week and the results would have been different. SAM BAHADUR MANEKSHAW WAS LUCKY THAT HE HAD NINCOMPOOPS AT THE HELMS OF AFFAIRS OF PAKISTAN ARMY,then. But victory is a victory–whose architects lie in sound sleep in their graves–while the REAR ECHELON soldiers like MANEKSHAW and his cohorts enjoy its fruits even today. We need to critically examine this VICTORY OF 1971. AS A PASSING REFERENCE, LET ME MENTION HERE THAT MORAL DEGRADATION AND DOWNSLIDE OF THE INDIAN ARMYHAD BEGUN UNDER MANEKSHAW and AFTER THE
    1971 VICTORY. Today, you see the results where BRIGADIERS/MAJOR GENERALS/LT GENERALS are getting courtmartialled for CORRUPTION. I do not want talk about the culture of 3 Ws which started then.

    Comment by Col YAVESH KUSHWAHA(Retd) — October 13, 2007 @ 12:36 pm

  5. Wow! Inspiring!

    I agree with Col Yavesh Kushwaha that there is some amount of exaggeration and modification, compared to what actually took place.Nevertheless the lessons from the interaction are there for the taking.

    Comment by Ramnath Rangaswamy — October 14, 2007 @ 5:51 am

  6. What’s the point of churning the past (the 1970s)?

    Get back to the present and let’s ask ourselves whether there is any ‘general’ in the Indian armed forces who has combat experience with a comparable enemy in the last 10 years.
    How do you become a general without active service? No use including repression inflicted on one’s own people in the Naxalite areas or North East as war experience.

    Our top brass are paper generals. In a real war, say with the Chinese, I shudder to think how they will react.

    Comment by Edsa — October 14, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

  7. It was indeed courageous for a military general to take a such stand before the country,s top decision body , the cabinet. Well , it could be possible that a little exegration of the story that is explained . But think , if such a stand was not taken by the militaty chief that time and war started with Pak under the situaation prevailing at that time , think what would be our position today . It was nice the decision by the cabinet & prime minister was deferred after field marshal gave his open views.
    As regards the story not brought out by Sam Manakshaw when Mrs. Indra Gandhi was alive ,some times it is not thought appropriate for responsible person to defame a degontory , of the rank of prime minister .

    nl chugh

    Comment by N.L. Chugh — October 15, 2007 @ 7:07 am

  8. BTW, What the generel was just his job. It is his job to appraise the cabinet of the situation. If the cabinet and the PM, inspite of all the warnings decide to pursue it, it would meet with the same fate as met by the Nazis in Russia.

    Comment by Ammadio — October 15, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  9. Maneckshaw’s story is correct. He came out with it much before Indira Gandhi’s death. In any case it is well known that he demurred when asked to intervene in East Pakistan in April 1971 since the Armed Forces were not prepared.

    Comment by Mandeep Bajwa — October 15, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  10. How do you become a general without active service?

    Interesting: so, your suggestion, then, is that we should go to war – like it or not – every few years so that we are never faced with the prospect of having a general without active service.

    Now, there’s an interesting justification for why Bush went to war in Iraq :-)

    Comment by sm — October 19, 2007 @ 3:15 pm

  11. It was reported some time back that Maneckshaw claimed casually that Pakistan would have won if he were leading the Pak army.
    This directly indicates that he believed the rest of the individuals in the Indian army were bozos, and it was only HE who made things happen.

    From what I gauge of maneckshaw’s persona – he was a bol-bacchan – impressive personality, angrez kinda-dude, and of course, a flamboyant chap. That may make him really popular with lots of people, and get him good acknowledgement in a elitist hierarchy. (Those were the days when even speaking english meant that you were looked up to, by default.)

    But how exactly does that give him the ability/right to say that the others in the Indian army were duds, and he was the only dude?

    A man who runs down his own team and puts himself above them is always an idiot – no matter how well decorated he is.

    Comment by Pankaj — November 2, 2007 @ 3:58 pm

  12. @Pankaj:

    Let me clarify this one. It was said in half-jest when the press put this question to him while on a visit to US. This was in the late 70s and if you have ever heard him, you would know that he was a flamboyant leader. No question about that; but his physical bravery was amply proved in WW-2, when he was awarded a MC after being badly wounded in the abdomen.

    You have to understand that statement in the correct context. Else, you are not much unlike those politicians who berated and criticised him in the Parliament after that comment.

    If you are keen on English speaking Field Marshals, don’t go beyond Cariappa. Check this out when he speaks in Hindustani-

    Comment by Pragmatic — November 2, 2007 @ 8:10 pm

  13. Pragmatic,

    Fisrtly, things said in jest often point to deeper points of view. Not always, certainly, but you will be surprised how often it happens.

    Secondly, how exactly do you know that he said it in jest?

    Do you believe that a responsible leader of men would (or should) even suggest in jest that he was the sole reason for success? Especially in front of a foreign press? If so, it suggests very bad judgment.

    Thirdly, leave flamboyance aside. Do you disagree that maneckshaw had a powerful ego, and that one rarely sees any aspect of humility in him? If so, then his statement (which you attribute to jest) fits in with his persona like a glove.
    Consider his reporting of his own interaction with mrs. Gandhi – does it not distinctly show how he ticked her off?

    Make no mistake – this is a man tomtomming his OWN glory.

    Consider that you are citing a man’s self-reported bravery as a mark of his greatness. I mean, WHO goes around telling people of his own great feats and moral integrity and bravery? (He does it superlatively, though – that I grant you).

    I am sorry my friend – the image of a powerful and dynamic general (who led his country to victory in spite of every other nincompoop) is very hypnotizing, and it appears to me that this image has you in its grip. Easy mistake to make.
    Single individuals can rarely lead to victory or success – it is always always always the entire team.

    Think of it like this – he might have been a great guy – but much of his legend seems to have only been due to his charm as a great story-teller. I think, he would have been equally successful in the field of advertising – he’d have been better than alyque padamsee.

    Comment by pankaj — November 6, 2007 @ 9:40 am

  14. @Pankaj:
    Your views and I am entitled to mine. He had a flamboyant persona and a great orator. If these can be held against him being a great General, I don’t know. Finally, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and 1971 was a strategic victory, the only one that India has had, despite US pressure – unlike Kargil [not belittling the sacrifices of our yong officers in any way], a localised battle and with international support on your side.

    Comment by Pragmatic — November 7, 2007 @ 11:18 am

  15. Pragmatic,

    Fair enough – I cannot deny in any way that maneckshaw was brave enough to be wounded in a battle, and you cannot deny that maneckshaw always blew his own bugle and tomtommed his own glory in a flamboyant manner, with great oratory skills.

    And its a truth that lies entirely beyond your view and mine, that a good leader never publicly belittles the contribution of the rest of the team in a victory, nor goes around bragging how he ticked off powerful people.

    Comment by pankaj — November 8, 2007 @ 10:39 am

  16. [...] style. I wonder what that old soldier Sam Manekshaw would have done in a similar situation. [Read this post on how he confronted Indira’s cabinet in 1971.] He turned 95 today. Happy Birthday, [...]

    Pingback by Pragmatic Euphony » Blog Archive » The rotten ketchup — April 3, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

  17. [...] Sam Manekshaw (Field Marshal Cariappa Memorial Lecture – 1995), remembering the first cabinet meeting on 1971 Indo-Pak [...]

    Pingback by Sam Manekhsaw (1914-2008) : It’s Indiatime — June 27, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  18. [...] The Indian Economy Blog » When Manekshaw Confronted Indira’s Cabinet “Yes! It is my job to tell you the truth” I responded, “and it is my job to fight, it is my job to fight to win and I have to tell you the truth.” (tags: SamManekshaw Maneckshaw truth courage) [...]

    Pingback by links for 2008-06-28 « Unjustly — June 28, 2008 @ 5:38 am

  19. For all those doubting on Sam Bahadur’s narration please recall that 1) He spoke this not only after Indira Gandhi’s death but much earlier on many occasions 2) It is a well known fact that on many occsions he used to address Indra gandhi as Sweetie due to his Parsi connection 3) He was all but a brave man having survived LMG bullets and granade splinters through his body. 4)If his statements were wrong they would have been denied by the establishment as all the proceedings of the cabinet are recorded verbatim 5) In 1995 a whole lot of members of Indira’s cabinet were alive and would have denied his statements if not true. 6) How can anyone call him a paper generals with war wounds and active experience if 5 wars. Please remember his first statement in NEFA was ‘There will be no more withdrawls’ when the poorly equipped Army by Nehru and Menon was retreating. His thousand photographs touring the front to motivate his soldiers are a testimony of what he was 7) Surely, there must have been a few arseholes like Col. Kushwaha who must be feeling scratchy in their arse because Sam Bahadur didn’t kick on their stinking butt

    Comment by Rajneesh — June 29, 2008 @ 1:45 am

  20. And not a word about the only woman led the country that fought and won a war since – I don’t f&*^ing know since when. The country was ruled by inept Macaulay educated liberals.

    INDIRA GANDHI – was the only woman who had some testosterone to lead the country to a winning war.

    We are not surrounded by Gandhian administered nations. All our neighbors are vile and corrupt a million times more than your worst politician. What we need is a million Indira Gandhis. But all we have are a billion Manekshaws – good followers and deliverers but not bold decision makers.

    BTW – all armies have been corrupt since time immemorial. The current Indian army is an exception. When I see corrupt and heartless officials, I know that the army is in good hands. The last thing I want is a Gandhi with a gun guarding my borders.

    Comment by goldwinner — July 9, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

  21. I salute the Field Marshals………and all those who have guts to speak out truth.

    Comment by Arvind — July 12, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  22. Field Marhall was a true a true gentle man ,great soldier &a patriot who could speak against the highest auth when need necssiated. True he spoke much but inpired motivation . He was liked ,almost loved by his men.Was speakining not an art? for his men to go in war willingly with heart out .
    I had the preveledge of being offered food filled his own plate when in OCT 71 ,he came to address troops in Amritsar/western front before the operation. I was second lieutenant & accompnied our CO LT COL Pal Fernandes as per the that time tradition. He spoke number of things which can be called braggings but we all laughed &we automatically linked with the MAN for any thing he wanted . Wasthat not true soldiering?

    Col Khuswaha or any other may say anything for resons they know better but ,he was indeed THE BEST seniors in Armed forced I could know in my 27 years of service from1970 to 97May HIS soul rest in peace. He shall always should be known as some of the best soldiers INDIA ever produced.

    Comment by PEEKAY — August 4, 2008 @ 9:26 am

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