Moral Courage


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 historian 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. Fakruddin 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

     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.  

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