Sam Bahadur

Beyond the movie, the essential import of the phenomenon of ‘Sam Bahadur’ is so much more than just that of the hero of the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the dashing leader, colourful personality or even of the symbolism of India’s first Field Marshal.

Sam Bahadur

Sam Bahadur (photo:SNS)

As a large part of the civilian citizenry gets introduced to and mesmerized by ‘Sam Bahadur’ i.e., Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, MC, via a war drama movie of the same name, the timing of the Bollywood film ~ to remind viewers of the essential unity and necessity of the sustaining values of the larger ‘Idea of India’ ~ couldn’t have been more apt.

Beyond the movie, the essential import of the phenomenon of ‘Sam Bahadur’ is so much more than just that of the hero of the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the dashing leader, colourful personality or even of the symbolism of India’s first Field Marshal. It is a story of one of the priceless gifts of destiny afforded to those who don the Indian ‘uniform’ and for whom the ‘uniform’ and its accompanying duty, integrity and above all, the sacred covenant of constitutionality, was its own reward. A Parsi born and brought up in Amritsar, Punjab, joins the distinguished Gorkha Regiment and peaks his illustrious career with the war that created Bangladesh in the East, and was ultimately laid to rest in Ooty, Tamil Nadu.

This is quintessentially a story of wonderful possibilities that could only take place in a diverse, secular, and inclusive India, as it was always envisaged to be by its founding fathers. Manekshaw’s was a generation which understood India as an inviolable trust, one that had hard-won independence and dreams, therefore needed to be defended with a unique admixture of faith, ferocity, and constitutionality.


They, perhaps more than any other generation, grasped that the true purpose and meaning in bearing the nation’s ‘uniform’ was rooted in insisting in its better civilisational tenets, stretching back centuries, carefully chosen to be internalized as the lodestar for the way forward. They cherry-picked the finer insistences from an admittedly complicated past, to defend the future from its worst self. The reason that ‘Sam Bahadur’ is simply revered as a leader is because he was the real thing, not a false claimant, empty posturer or one who sought to succeed by diminishing any other human, not even a ‘enemy’. After all, Manekshaw had demonstrated raw courage in actual battle and was a Military Cross awardee for gallantry, after having taken seven bullets onto himself. Manekshaw, the leader-to-be, got to know what it takes to fight the real fight, endure real pain, and yet triumph with the greatness of spirit, heart, and honour.

All these qualities reflected an intangible human definition that was frankly unrequired, and had no defined code, but only reflected an inner human compulsion that delighted in the welfare of his troops, prided in their differences, and shunned the concept of ‘othering’, especially amongst its own citizens. Manekshaw the leader was also an engaged warrior who fought for his causes with professional brilliance, humility, and an instinctive sense of moral-civilisational-constitutional duty.

Beyond the Bollywoodesque swagger of a battle-rattle persona and delightfully politically incorrect statements, was a sharp mind, a man who always insisted, “Professional knowledge and professional competence are the main attributes of leadership.” The Indian Armed Forces owes its avowed constitutionality, thoroughness beyond rhetoric, and the abiding spirit of Indianness, only because the likes of ‘Sam Bahadur’ wore its ‘uniform’, and not some pretenders or usurpers. Another vital attribute of military leadership that ‘Sam Bahadur’ exemplified was how he was not politically ignorant or even ‘apolitical’ in its naive sense, but still unpartisan to the hilt, as it should be ~ a very vital difference.

Like all educated professionals (military or otherwise), he held a dim view of politicians as a class and therefore while there are countless anecdotes of his acerbic observations on them, he disallowed alternative partisanship, institutional endorsements, and electoral influences, to any side. In conduct, he stuck to the bedrock principles of the singular oath to the Indian Constitution that each combatant swears to defend, amongst which is the key commitment of civilian control over the military, as he was no anarchist.

He spoke his professional mind and agenda fearlessly but within the contours of his militaristic agenda, whilst considering a host of diverse factors that any leader ought to imagine. He engaged with the political leadership and his troops as a powerful bridge that needed to understand each other’s realm and respect the independence of each, without surrender, compromise, or partisan taint. But he didn’t indulge in one-upmanship when he could have. Importantly, Manekshaw did not weigh in or leverage any personal favour with subsequent dispensations of different ideological persuasions, with whom he could have curried favour from a competitive partisan lens.

The honour of wearing the ‘uniform’ was unsurpassable and more than sufficient. For veterans and superheroes like Manekshaw, any allusion to his brilliant military service was not tradeable in the market of electoral and partisan pitches. Even in his ‘finest hour’ of taking the surrender of Pakistani forces in Dhaka, the magnanimous and alpha-leader general declined the limelight by insisting that the GOC-in-C Eastern Command was befitting of that honour. He handled success with immense grace, humility and dignity that was afforded on the ‘enemy’ and disallowed chestthumping brouhaha or vainglorious optics. His patent sense of humour was usually self-deprecatory, unbitter and ended up easing tense situations ~ there was simply no space for manufacturedoutrage, small-spirited malice or even pretenses of any holierthan-thou nativity. He spoke Gujarati (from his Dharam Bhoomi), Punjabi (from his Janam Bhoomi), Pashto (from his Karam Bhoomi) and the clipped Queen’s English, all with matching aplomb, charm and unapologetic flair ~ he was no pretender to something he genuinely wasn’t.

Manekshaw was a leader not because of the five-star heaviness of his epaulettes, but because of his undying concern for the last Indian soldier standing on the loneliest outpost on the border, unseen, unheard but very readily appropriated by those who would never come remotely close to the sacrifices that men and women in the ‘uniform’ offer. If anything, the movie has inadvertently bestowed a moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of the ‘Idea of India’, if only it is allowed to flourish.

The Indian Armed Forces and the nation are indeed smaller for Sam Bahadur’s departure, but yet his moral but inaudible voice in the deep recesses of the conscience of the institution will always guide it to stand tall as fearless constitutionalists, patriots and dignified humans.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)