The Plain Speaking General Who Took Dhaka in 1971

Major Gen JFR Jacob (standing right behind Gen Niazi) witnessing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka in December 1971. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Major Gen JFR Jacob (standing right behind Gen Niazi) witnessing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka in December 1971. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The passing of former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Command, Lt General JFR “Jake”  Jacob marks the end of the life of an unusual Indian and of a life lived to its fullest.

That image of Pakistani General A A Khan Niazi signing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka on December 17, 1971 has been etched into the memory of the nation. It was quite extraordinary in that day and age for an army to do so formally, but surrender the 90,000 strong Pakistan army did, virtually without a fight. For the cognoscenti, two images who were not the central focus of the photo have always stood out – the man standing behind Niazi’s left shoulder, with what could be a smirk on his face, Major-General Jacob, then chief of staff of the Eastern Command which did the battle. And the man behind him, Lt General Sagat Singh, whose tactical ingenuity made the victory happen.

It was Jacob, as the Chief of Staff to the Eastern Army Command, who formulated the plan for the swift multi-directional attack in which the Indian army would bypass the towns and head straight for Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. In the process, the plan had to cater for a possible Chinese intervention, containment of the north-eastern insurgency and the defence of Bhutan. In this, Jacob did not have the support of his superiors – Eastern Army commander J.S. Aurora and Army Chief Sam Manekshaw. But in the end, the momentum of events ensured that things went as Jacob had planned. He played a key role in bluffing Niazi into surrendering, even though significant Indian forces were still some distance from Dhaka. In the context of the US intervention at the time, this was a significant success.  Jacob stirred a lot of controversy by criticising his superiors like Manekshaw and Aurora. Sagat Singh’s role was to seize the opportunity of crossing the Meghna river using all the helicopters he had in his corps, and presenting the Army HQ in Delhi with a fait accompli.

No one has yet penned any significant memoir to challenge Jacob’s account. The official history of the war, which was put up by this writer on the internet, backs Jacob’s view and points out that the Army Headquarters’ Operational Instruction No 53 of August 1971, saw its tasks as defending Sikkim and NEFA (Arunachal) against the Chinese, containing the Naga and Mizo insurgencies and “destroy[ing] the bulk of the Pakistani forces in Eastern Theatre and occupy[ing] the major portion of East Bengal….” The capture of Dacca, which would involve the total defeat of the Pakistan army was not envisaged. The liberation of all of Bangladesh, as such, was only ordered on November 30, 1971.

Authored two books

In his retirement, Jacob, a bachelor who lived in a servicemen’s enclave in south Delhi, became a well-known figure in the capital circuit, known for his wit and bonhomie. He was a natural raconteur and his two books, Surrender at Dacca, and his autobiography, An Odyssey in War and Peace were well received but had a touch of controversy arising from his criticism of Manekshaw and Aurora. 

His autobiography was engaging, if only for the fact that it was written by a person who professed the Jewish faith. What he presented was something that has been lost irretrievably – a vignette of Jewish life in India, though, as Jacob himself acknowledged, this community identified itself more with the British than the natives.  His family were Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Kolkata in the 18th century. Jacob’s father was a well-off businessman and he studied in a boarding school at Kurseong. While his parents were deeply religious, he confessed that he was not particularly inclined towards religion. However, as a prominent Indian Jew, he was an important element in promoting India-Israel ties, gifting his uniform to an Israeli military museum.

Accounts of Jacob’s life in the army during the Second World War and the years just before and after Independence, including service in Indonesia against the nationalists, too, are useful because there aren’t too many good descriptions of that period. He was candid, too, about the factionalism and bullying culture that has prevailed in the Army. But he himself was quite opinionated and never hesitating to speak his mind. This was resented by some of his superiors, but his personal qualities, especially his razor sharp brain carried him through. Through his autobiography, we learnt of the little known fact that the Indian Army played a somewhat dubious role in countering the Naxalbari movement in 1969-1971. Though he says he was opposed to the deployment of the army, Jacob, the then chief of staff of the Eastern Command fell in with the request of Army chief General Manekshaw and the Home Secretary Govind Narain to deploy three divisions across West Bengal. 

In the 1990s, he drew close to the Bharatiya Janata Party and became its celebrity security expert. The party repaid him by appointing him governor of Goa in 1998 and then Punjab from where he retired in 2003. His autobiography contained some  penetrating observations on many of the characters he interacted with –Khushbhau Thakre, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Jaitley.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation