The first time I met Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was at a Cavalry function held on the Army parade grounds in late 2004, a function I reported for the Express. Bent and frail, but still supremely regal, Sam inspected a guard of honour and the formation. His famous humour was intact. When one television journalist asked Sam what he would have liked to be if not an Army officer, he looked her up and down rakishly and said, “Why, my dear, a gynecologist!” That was my first encounter with the Field Marshal.
In early May 2005, after Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora passed away, I got my first one-on-one with the Field Marshal. My boss at the time insisted that I begin Aurora’s obituary piece with a quote from Manekshaw. His daughter Maja was kind enough to allow me to meet them — they were staying with a friend in the Cantonment area. Gracious and still a formidable presence despite how age had enfeebled him, Manekshaw spoke about Aurora and the war. He did not wait for my questions. He said, “Jaggi was a first class officer, a first class soldier and a first class gentleman. He won the war for India, and I sent him to accept the surrender. He did all the work, and they made me a field marshal instead.” My one regret is that I took not photographs of and with the man during this privileged interaction.
Only a month later, I would speak to him again, this time over the phone. Gauhar Ayub Khan had spoken out about the “sold out war plans” by an MO directorate Brigadier. I was asked to scrutinise in great detail the 1965 war official history to see if any allusions had been made to possible treachery of any kind. A few days after Gauhar opened his mouth, journalistic and military circles had pretty much begun to assume that the man meant Sam Manekshaw, and meant more to defile him while he languished almost bed-ridden at Stavka, his house in Wellington.
“My dear boy, I do not even remember when I was part of the Military Operations directorate. You are asking too much, asking me to remember something that happened so long ago. And I do not know the person who is making these claims. I am hearing them from you for the first time. What else did he say?” There was an earnestness to Manekshaw that nobody could miss.
In late 2005, Manekshaw’s health began to slip on regular intervals. By 2006, he was pretty much based out of the Military Hospital in Wellington. I was in touch with one doctor who was part of the team that treated him, and through him, kept a regular bulletin of sorts in the Express, reporting Manekshaw’s health. In early 2006, I spoke to his daughter Maja again over the phone — she was in Wellington, and Sam had been in the hospital for over three weeks, suffering an acute shortness of breath. This developed over the next many months into acute bronchiopneumonia that finally finished him off.
Colleagues who’ve covered Manekshaw’s health with me said he was made of hardy stuff, and this would be just another false alarm. I guess this time, he really did need to go. R.I.P.