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Gentleman, soldier & hero: A real legend in his lifetime

Published : Jan 15, 2016, 6:34 am IST
Updated : Jan 15, 2016, 6:34 am IST

Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi (centre) signs the documents that enabled the surrender of the Pakistan armed forces in the Bangladesh Liberation War in Dhaka in 1971 with Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora seated on his left. Standing behind are Vice-Admiral Krishnan (from left), Air Marshal Dewan, Lt. Gen Sagat Singh, Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob and others. The scion of an old Calcutta Jewish clan, Gen. Jacob joined the Indian Army in 1941 to fight Hitler’s Germany and he ultimately became one of the best known officers in Independent India’s Army for his pivotal role in the 1971 War that led to liberation of Bangladesh

Pact signning.jpg
 Pact signning.jpg

Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi (centre) signs the documents that enabled the surrender of the Pakistan armed forces in the Bangladesh Liberation War in Dhaka in 1971 with Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora seated on his left. Standing behind are Vice-Admiral Krishnan (from left), Air Marshal Dewan, Lt. Gen Sagat Singh, Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob and others.

The scion of an old Calcutta Jewish clan, Gen. Jacob joined the Indian Army in 1941 to fight Hitler’s Germany and he ultimately became one of the best known officers in Independent India’s Army for his pivotal role in the 1971 War that led to liberation of Bangladesh Lt. Gen. Jacob-Farj-Rafael “JFR” Jacob of the Indian Army, who passed away on January 13 at the age of 92, was one of those rare men who become a legend in their lifetimes.

The scion of an old Jewish family of Calcutta, Gen. Jacob joined the British Indian Army in 1941 and ultimately became one of the best known officers in Independent India’s Army for his pivotal role in the 1971 India-Pakistan War.

After his retirement from the Army where he served for 37 long years, Gen. Jacob settled down in New Delhi to become a familiar figure in its political and social circles. Outspoken, opinionated and temperamental, Gen. Jacob had a fair share of detractors and a large body of admirers.

He had his quirks and predilections. He was perhaps the only Indian officer who was critical of the role of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora in the Bangladesh War.

Gen. Jacob had joined the BJP in the 1990s and served as a security adviser to the party for a while. He also did stints as the governors of Goa and Punjab.

He will of course be remembered primarily as an officer and a gentleman. He was drawn to the Army during the tumultuous early years of World War II. News of the barbaric treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany prompted him to enlist for an emergency commission with the British Indian Army. He saw some action in North Africa and later on the Burma front.

After Independence he opted for India and never thought of emigrating to the newly-formed state of Israel.

“I’ve never experienced any anti-Semitism in India, none whatsoever. When everyone asked me why I did not go to Israel I told them that I was born in India, India gave me everything, I will die in India,” Lt. Gen. Jacob had said in an interview.

Gen. Jacob will essentially be remembered as a war hero and to appreciate his legacy we have to turn to the role he played in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Many years ago, during the infancy of the Internet in India, I had put up a website to commemorate the 1971 War for which I had interviewed a cross-section of people who had taken part in it. Among them was Gen. Jacob. After talking to him and others I got a fair idea of his real contribution to the war.

In 1971, the brief given by the Indian Army chief, Gen. S.H.F.J. Manekshaw, to the Eastern Command was very limited. The aim was to occupy only two areas of then East Pakistan — Chittagong and Khulna — so that an interim Bangladeshi government could be established. The capture of the whole of East Pakistan was not even conceived.

The Eastern Army, headquartered in Calcutta’s Fort William, was commanded by Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, whose brilliant chief of staff was then Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob. Together these two men planned and executed the lightning operations of December 1971.

Maj. Gen. Jacob did not entirely agree with the Indian Army top brass. “I think the aim of the government was to take as much territory as possible in East Pakistan so as to establish a Bangladeshi government in their own territory,” he had told me. “Army Headquarters issued an operations instruction according to which our main objectives were to take Chittagong and Khulna ports, which were termed the entry ports. But we at Eastern Command felt differently. We felt that Dhaka was the geopolitical centre of Bangladesh and therefore any campaign to be successful had to capture Dhaka.”

“We realised that any campaign to be successful had to be swift. The United Nations was putting great pressure on us and also the Russians had indicated that they did not want to exercise their veto any more,” Gen. Jacob had explained.

“We realised that Niazi (the Pakistani Army commander in East Pakistan) was going to fortify the towns and defend them in strength. We therefore decided not attack any towns but bypass them using subsidiary tracks to get to our objective: Dhaka.”

Within six days of the war, Indian troops were deep inside East Pakistani territory and moving fast. Gen. Tikka Khan, after killing a few million East Pakistanis, had fled to Rawalpindi, leaving a professional soldier Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, in charge in Dhaka.

Early on December 14, the IAF got a message that an important meeting was scheduled at the Governor’s House that morning. Four MiG-21s attacked the Governor’s House just as the puppet governor of then East Pakistan, along with his Cabinet and high officials, were in session. The MiGs came screaming down and accurately fired salvos of rockets into the Darbar Hall. The governor was so traumatised that he resigned then and there, and rushed to Hotel Intercontinental to seek shelter under the UN flag.

On the morning of December 16, 1971, Maj. Gen. Jacob flew into Dhaka to persuade Gen. Niazi to accept an unconditional surrender. The Pakistanis still had about 24,000 troops to defend Dhaka and could have held on. Gen. Jacob reminded him that defeat was inevitable and that the vengeful Mukti Bahini, left on its own, would slaughter the last standing Pakistani soldier. Surrendering to the Indian Army, on the other hand, would ensure the safety of more than 93,000 Pakistan Army soldiers, paramilitary personnel and civilians.

This was an offer Gen. Niazi could not refuse. He accepted Gen. Jacob’s terms, and later signed the unconditional surrender document at a public ceremony at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.

The iconic photograph of the surrender has Gen. Arora and Gen. Niazi signing the document with Gen. Jacob standing behind them. This is a moment embossed on the nation’s collective consciousness, and Gen. Jacob will always be a part of it.

The general has left no legacy other than that of his role in shaping a decisive phase in India’s history. He never married, has no successors and willed all his possessions to charity.

India has lost a great son and warrior. Jewish custom requires that a tombstone be prepared, so that the deceased will not be forgotten and the grave will not be desecrated. One only hopes the government will prepare one worthy of preserving a legend that was Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob.