It was on New Year’s Day of 1973 that the nation got to know that the architect of India ’s greatest military victory in centuries had been elevated to the rank of field marshal. This came as a surprise to most of us. Only a couple of months earlier, the then defence minister had told the press at Chennai that India would not have a field marshal or a five-star general. I remember a friend of mine telling me at that time that if Pakistan had won the 1971 war, Yahya would have been made a field marshal the very next day. I disagreed with him, saying he would not have been made field marshal, but would have made himself one, like Ayub Khan.
My thoughts went back to 1946, when for the first time three Indian officers were posted to the Military Operations Directorate at Delhi , hitherto the exclusive preserve of British officers and British clerks. They were Lt. Col. Sam Hormusji Faramji Manekshaw, Major Yahya Khan and I in the rank of captain. Who could then have predicted the path the careers of Manekshaw and Yahya would take? Inscrutable are the ways of providence.
I had the privilege of serving under Sam Manekshaw in all the ranks that he held from Lt. Col. to Army Chief. He had a tremendous capacity for work and was a brilliant professional, contributing immensely in every appointment. He combined all this with a great sense of humour and ready wit. As a senior staff officer at Army Headquarters in 1971, I saw how meticulously he planned for the coming war during the nine months preparatory time he had managed to obtain. The resounding victory in that war was the crowning achievement of the foremost military leader of our Army.
Field Marshal never retires. He would therefore be entitled to full pay for the rest of his life.
I was functioning as adjutant-general, the Army’s chief of personnel, in January 1973 and had to work out his entitlements in his new rank. I went to his office to congratulate him and found him examining the badges of rank in cloth that had been prepared by Bastani Brothers, the tailor in South Block. Apparently Sam had been informed of his promotion a day or two earlier. To maintain secrecy, his personal staff told the tailor that a Nepalese field marshal was to come and his badge of rank had to be stitched. Sam told me that an investiture was to be held two days later at Rashtrapati Bhavan and I had to work out all the details with the government. I replied that it would be both an honour and a pleasure.
However, I told him that the cloth badges of rank would be of no use, he would have to be in his ceremonial uniform for which he would need metal badges of rank. Moreover, the badges of rank made by the tailor were not correct. The Ashoka Lion at the top of the wreath had to be in miniature and touching the top of the two loops in one badge of rank. He asked me how I knew this. I replied that when Field Marshal Auchinleck used to visit the Operations Room in 1946, I used to closely watch his badges of rank and ribbons. He said he saw more of Auchinleck than me but was not sure what I said was correct. He wanted something authentic. I went back to my office and tried to find some written authority, but nothing was available. I rang up our military attaché in London . He told me that the War Office was closed for the Christmas holidays and he would not be able to send me anything for a week. I then thought of looking up the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I was happy to find a colour picture of a field marshal’s badges of rank. That satisfied Sam. I said I would get them fabricated at the Army workshop in Delhi Cantonment. Working round the clock, our electrical engineers made a good job of it and completed the task within 24 hours.
We worked out the privileges Sam was now entitled to. A field marshal never retires. He would therefore be entitled to full pay for the rest of his life. He had to have a ceremonial baton which would now be part of his uniform. Besides, he would have to be given a small secretariat and personal staff. We also had to work out the procedure to be followed for the investiture at Rashtrapati Bhavan. A meeting was held, attended by home ministry officials, the additional secretary, ministry of defence, and me, with the home secretary in the chair. Having been an old hand in Army Headquarters, I was fully aware of the hostility of the civilian bureaucracy towards the Army.
I saw that in full force at this meeting. I found the bureaucrats opposing all our suggestions. They wanted the Cabinet Secretary, who was higher in protocol status to Service Chiefs, to have a higher place than Sam in the seating plan. I maintained that a field marshal should rank with Bharat Ratna awardees. The latter enjoyed much higher protocol status than the Cabinet Secretary.
Frederick the Great had introduced the rank of field marshal as part of reforms in the Prussian Army in the 18th century. A conquering general was from then not allowed to keep any part of war booty. This was now to go to the state. Generals who had done exceptionally well in war would be promoted field marshal, which would entitle them to full salary for the rest of their lives. That is how the tradition of a field marshal never retiring originated. The field marshal was also to be given a ceremonial baton, somewhat like a monarch’s orb. His protocol status was to be next only to the monarch. Thus originated the tradition of regimental flags dipping in salute only for a monarch or head of state and field marshal. They do not do so even for Prime Ministers. Gradually, all armies in Europe introduced this rank.
The Duke of Wellington captured a French marshal’s baton in Spain and sent it to his sovereign. He was made the first field marshal of the British Army.
Thirty-two years later, I learnt from press reports that the government had at long last taken a decision on the salary of a field marshal, consequent to the visit of President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to Staff College Wellington when he met Sam, then terminally ill in hospital.
A fortnight later, when Sam was demitting office, we had a ceremonial farewell parade for him on Army Day. For the first time we brought regimental flags on parade for the Army Day. I had kept it as a surprise for Sam. When he arrived for the parade, I mentioned this to him. He asked me in his usual manner, “Tell me, sweety, how do I respond to the salute?” He took me by surprise. I did not know how a field marshal returns a salute. I later learnt that while doing so a British field marshal holds the baton in his left hand at an angle of 45 degrees to the middle of their left thigh. However, I had seen movies in which Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering used to raise his baton in his right hand. I promptly replied, “Sir, by raising the baton in your right hand.” Sam accepted this. We started a new tradition of our own.
Thirty-two years later, I learnt from press reports that the government had at long last taken a decision on the salary of a field marshal, consequent to the visit of President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to Staff College Wellington when he met Sam, then terminally ill in hospital. The defence secretary flew to Wellington to personally hand over a cheque of Rs 1.3 crores to Sam as his arrears of pay for over 30 years. A couple of weeks later, I went to the Staff College for a lecture. I met Sam in hospital and congratulated him for the arrears he had received. He replied, “Sweety, a babu from Delhi came and gave me a cheque. I have sent it to the bank. I do not know if it will be honoured.” That was the last time I met Sam. Soon after, Sam died. It was a national shame that we did not give him an appropriate funeral.
As per our protocol, a field marshal ranks with the Service Chiefs and below the Cabinet Secretary. Bureaucracy had its way. The government was represented by a mere minister of state at the funeral. The funeral should have taken place in Delhi with the President, the Prime Minister and the high commissioner of Bangladesh, or a high dignitary from that country, attending. When the Duke of Wellington died, several monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers attended his funeral and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
This article was first published in IDR 02 May 2012.