In the wake of the recent Bharat Ratna awards being bestowed upon distinguished personalities, the decision has triggered a lively debate within military circles regarding whether Field Marshal S H F J ‘Sam’ Manekshaw should also be honored with India’s highest civilian award.
The discussion gained momentum following the announcement of the Bharat Ratna for the late Dr. M S Swaminathan, an acclaimed agricultural expert. General V P Malik, the former Chief of Army Staff, took to the social media platform X to express his approval of the award for Dr. Swaminathan and raised a pertinent question: “What about FM Manekshaw? Another deserving individual in his specialized field with impactful contributions to the nation,” queried Gen Malik.
The post elicited varied reactions from retired Indian Army officers. Some welcomed the suggestion, arguing that a deserving soldier should not be excluded from receiving the Bharat Ratna. Others contended that the rank of Field Marshal itself was a unique and exclusive recognition, pointing out that there are only two Field Marshals—Sam Manekshaw and K M Cariappa—and one Marshal of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Arjan Singh, since Independence.
While the debate continues, historical records show that military officers have not been overlooked for high civilian honors in the past. Many have been recipients of the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Shri. However, it is noteworthy that the practice of decorating military officers with Padma awards has dwindled in recent decades.
This week, we delve into the achievements of military personalities who have received the highest civilian honors since Independence. Notably, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had previously been honored with both the Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan.
Air Chief Marshal P C Lal, who served as the Chief of Air Staff during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972, the same year as Gen Manekshaw. Lal had previously received the Padma Bhushan in 1965 as Air Vice Marshal, while Manekshaw had been honored with the same in 1968 as a Lieutenant General. The then Naval Chief Admiral S M Nanda was also a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan.
In 1977, Air Chief Marshal O P Mehra, who retired as Chief of Air Staff in 1976, was bestowed with the Padma Vibhushan. General A S Vaidya, former Chief of Army Staff, holds the distinction of being one of the only two military officers posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan. This recognition was conferred upon him after his assassination by terrorists in Pune in 1986, following his retirement from the Army.
The list also includes Group Captain Suranjan Das, a renowned test pilot of the IAF, who was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1970. His accolade came after he tragically lost his life in an air crash while test-flying the HAL HF-24 aircraft. As the debate over honoring Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw with the Bharat Ratna continues, these historical instances underscore the significant contributions of military personnel to the nation.