My encounters with two Indian Marshals, Manekshaw and Arjan Singh

Manekshaw and Arjan Singh, lessons in leadership and life,

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Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd), besides being a combat military veteran is perhaps the only freelance consultant in Industrial Security. He has audited large numbers of core strategic industries in both private and public sectors such as Aeronautics, Airports, Banks, Defence, DRDOs, Mints, Nuclear Energy, Oil, Power, Ports, Prasar Bharti (AIR & Doordarshan Kendras) Railways, Refineries, Space, Ship Building, Telecom & various vital Research Centres & Laboratories and conducted numerous Industrial Security & Disaster Management Training Programs, Seminars, Workshops & Exhibitions & interacted with numerous Ministries, Departments & NGOs and undertaken Industrial Security Audits, Reviews, Training & Advice in Disaster Management & handling of IEDs & Explosives. He has vast experience in the management of the Human Resources, Training & Development, Liaison, Fire Fighting, Logistics, Equipment & Material Management, Strategic Decision-Making Process, clearance of Maps & Aerial Photography (GIS), Explosives handling, Industrial Security & Disaster Management. He is physically, mentally and attitudinally sound having good communication skills to undertake Industrial Security Consultancy, IED handling, Coordination & Liaison Assignments to add to the productivity of the Organisation. He can also organise discreet customised intelligence gathering & surveillance operations on a turnkey basis for his clients. He is a prolific writer written numerous articles on industrial security, national and geostrategic security issues and 5 books- KUMAONI Nostalgia, Industrial and Infrastructure Security in 2 volumes, Soldier Mountaineer (biography of international mountaineer Col Narender Kumar 'Bull' and Reminiscing Battle of Rezang La. *Views are personal.

We have had three five-star Marshals- the late Field Marshal KM Cariappa, known as an Officer and a Gentleman; late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, famous for soldiering with dignity; and Arjan Singh, the first and the only officer to have been elevated to Marshal of the Indian Air Force who died on Saturday, 16 September 2017.

I have had no interaction with the first iconic Field Marshal, but with the other two, I had a limited but very memorable experience narrated below.

Padma Vibhushan Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, MC

During 1966-1969, at the peak of the insurgency in Mizoram, having marched from Agartala to Aizawl, our Battalion 13 Kumaon was located in Aizawl as a reserve Battalion of the Brigade. In those days, there was no Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS), and units being inducted had to learn counter-insurgency operations by hit and trial operations against Mizo National Front (MNF) insurgents. Therefore, during encounters with hostiles, their own casualty rate was high, and weapons captured from the hostiles were meagre. Under the CO of 5 Para Lt Col Matthew Thomas (later Lt Gen (Retd) Mathew Thomas, PVSM, AVSM, VSM), the Battalion we replaced, an ad hoc CIJWS was established that later transformed into a premier counter-insurgency and jungle warfare institution in the Asia. 

Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw (later Field Marshal) was then the General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) Eastern Command. During one of his visits to Aizawl, he landed at the local helipad constructed in the Assam Rifles post. I had accompanied my CO, Lt Col Mukut Singh, loaded with maps, binoculars, a compass, a thermos full of hot tea, my weapon, a 9 mm sten carbine, a few ammunition magazines and whatnot. The Brigade Commander Brigadier Jaswant Singh (later Lieutenant General) and Colonel MD Commissariat of the Assam Rifles were also present. Incidentally, Colonel MD commissariat was not only the look-alike of the Sam Bahadur but a Parsee too. I had great interaction with him during my Assam Rifles tenure two decades later. Perhaps I was the junior officer standing away from the Army Commander’s briefing based on the ‘need to know’ principle. After the briefing, to my utter amazement and surprise, I saw the Army Commander walking towards me. My heart lost a couple of beats and sank as he stood in front of me, smiling with gleaming eyes. I smartly saluted him, and he shook hands with me and, with a mischievous smile, asked me, ‘Young man, whose moustaches are better- yours or mine?’ Without thinking, I hurriedly replied and felt guilty for my careless reply as my CO expected me to say ‘Yours, Sir’.He grinned, complimented me and boarded the chopper that flew off to Kumbhirgram (Silchar).

My second encounter occurred with him a few months later, on 27 February 1967, at Kumbhirgram airport. Four regular commissioned young officers (YOs) of the Battalion- Major Misra, I, Capt Subba and Lieutenant Chiddi Singh were required to reach Happy Valley Shillong to appear in the mandatory Part ‘A’ Promotion Examination to pass to become substantive captain. Having left Aizawl on the 25th, we managed to foot many miles of traffic jams of military convoys coming from both ends struck due to torrential rains and mudslides, covering a distance of 8 hours in two and a half days dead, tired, starved and worried. On reaching Silchar, we were shocked to learn that train services to Lamding /Guwahati were suspended due to land and mudslides on the tracks at various places around Halflong, and our miseries compounded as there was no direct road link between Silchar- Guwahati- Shillong. Being the senior most, Major Misra suggested we try the only Silchar- Guwahati flight that left in the evening. We took our rickety 106 mm recoilless (RCL) jeep from the rear and landed at Khumbigram airfield some 40 Km away around 2 pm. To our horror, we were told that all the flights were cancelled due to bad weather. We pleaded with the airport ground and Air Traffic Control (ATC) staff that it was our promotion examination and that the heavens would fall if we missed it, but to no avail. We were dejected and cursing our bad luck. While brooding on our ill- luck, suddenly, around 4 pm, we heard the faint noise of distant aircraft flying that started getting closer and closer. We ran to ATC in utter confusion, as did the meagre ground staff, as they learnt that the Army Commander’s aircraft was doing an emergency landing due to bad weather. Neither there was anyone to receive the VIP nor any suitable transport to ferry him anywhere! Soon, an IAF twin-engine aircraft taxied very close to us, and we, all in our muddy, shabby dresses, walked up to the machine. The Army commander, General Sam Bahadur, alighted, and we saluted him. He enquired why we were there when the weather was too bad to fly. We told him our story. He said not to worry and joyously, with gratitude, sat in our rickety RCL jeep to go to Masimpur (Silchar), where the Brigade was located. In those days, there were strict orders that officers would not drive military vehicles to prevent accidents. He pointed towards Major Misra to drive, who said, ‘But Sir, CO’s strict orders are NOT to drive military vehicles’. He grinned and said,’ I will tell your CO I permitted you to drive. Later, he directed his regimental officer, Lt Col (later Lieutenant General) Depinder Singh CO 4/ 8 GR, who was the Presiding Officer of our Part ‘A’ examination, located in Happy Valley Shillong, to conduct our test even if we arrived late for the examination. That shows his humane side of personality and care for his subordinates.

My wife’s next venture with him was in 1970 – just before our formation moved to Durgapur for impending Bangladesh operations. I was then posted as Staff Captain in HQ 62 Mountain Brigade in Kanpur. Sam Bahadur was the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) visiting Kanpur for a pep talk about impending operations and assessing the combat effectiveness of the formations that were likely to move towards East Pakistan’s borders. These visits also raised the morale of the troops during his Sainik Sammelans. He had a magnetic personality and aura to raise morale and motivate troops. It so happened that I was then away to Jhansi appearing for the Part’ C’ promotion examination, which is essential to becoming a substantive Major and practical test, like the earlier Part ‘A’ examination. After the operational briefing, there was lunch in the Brigade Officers’ Mess. Sam Bahadur habitually talked with all the officers, their wives and kids- especially the junior ones! Seeing my wife alone, he enquired from her where her husband was! She promptly & gracefully replied he was away to Jhansi for the Part’ C’ Promotion Examination. He told her smilingly, ‘Oh, don’t you worry; he will pass.’ He told her to cheer up and enjoy the party. When I returned after the exam the next day, Rajni greeted me smilingly and asked me, ‘You must have passed’. I inquisitively enquired how she knew I had passed, as there was neither internet nor mobile phones in those days. She laughingly told me that General Manekshaw told her that I would pass. That shows the magnanimity of the great military genius.

Padma Vibhushan Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC

Padma Vibhushan Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC

 98-year-old, smart, handsome, elegant Sikh flier, Marshal of Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC, hero of the 1965 War, will always be remembered for his glittering career in and out of uniform. His sudden death in the R&R Hospital after cardiac arrest left the country shell-shocked. Sam Bahadur and Marshal of the Air Arjan Singh were professionally excellent military men with infinite head and heart qualities.

Frankly speaking, I had no interaction with him during my active service. Every year, on 18 November, in Rewari Rezang La Day is celebrated with great gusto. In one of the Rezang La Day celebrations organised by Rezang La Shaurya Samiti under the dynamic leadership of late Subedar Major Balwant Singh of my Battalion 13 Kumaon, Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, DFC was invited as the Chief Guest, and Balwant Singh Sahib requested me to come with my wife. I went to Rewari with my wife and introduced myself to the Marshal of the Air, telling him, ‘Sir, I am the nephew of the late Group Captain KL Bhatia, VrC’. His eyes gleamed like two diamonds, and he uttered you mean ‘Karori Lal’ and kept holding and shaking my hand tightly for a long time. He made us both sit alongside him and my most memorable interaction with the living legend, sharing anecdotes about my late uncle Group Capt KL Bhatia, VrC of Uri, Leh, and Badgam fame in 1948, started as he was serving under the Marshal of the Air when he was the Station Commander IAF Agra Station before the war commenced. He told us how ‘Karori’, as he loved to call him, operated a flight of two Blenheims from Bassein over the Gulf of Martaban, escorting troopships and supply vessels into Rangoon. The other two Blenheims were operated from Zayat Kwin. The flight withdrew to Dum Dum in early March 42. Then he told us about my uncle’s first taste of action over Northern Waziristan on Dec 43. He, with great details despite his 95 years of age, told us how the damaged tail fin of the Dakota due to Pakistani artillery firing was landed by Wing Commander KL Bhatia and was awarded Vir Chakra for his bravery and leadership under enemy fire. The aircraft’s hull could be seen on the Poonch airstrip for decades before it was finally scrapped.

The Incident at Poonch 21 March 1948

He then recalled the incident of Baba Mehar Singh landing the first ever Dakota in Leh in 1948 where my uncle also flew later . He, in between, mixed up about my uncle’s death, our aunt Mrs Padmanjali Bhatia and her remarkable resilience in upbringing her two sons. There was a bit of humour, too, as Marshal was requested by the Naster of Ceremony (MC) to speak a few words to a large gathering of the Veer Naris, ex-servicemen and schoolchildren. On the onset, to great applause by the huge crowd, he said in broken, anglicised accented Hindi, ‘Royal Indian Air Force aur Indian Air Force ne mujh ko fighter aircraft chalana sikhlaya, dushman ko barbad karna sikhlaya par Hindi mein lecture dena nahin sikhlaya’ leaving all of us with a hearty laugh. Soon, there were other events and a quick lunch, and we parted, but the Marshal of the Indian Air Force, like Sam Bahadur, left an unforgettable mark in my mind and memory.

 While I compliment Vicky Kaushal for his excellent portrayal of Sam Bahadur biopic, enacted with GREAT enthusiasm, those who saw the real SAM would find a distinct lack of that par excellence touch of Great Military commander and human being as an officer and a gentleman spinning my mind with these famous lines of Longfellow ever since I learnt about his passing away:- ‘Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.’


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