Jacob Farj Rafael “J. F. R.” Jacob (1923 – 13 January 2016) as a Major General with Indian army, served as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command during the war. During his 36-year career in the army, he also fought in World War II and the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. He later served as the Governor of the Indian states of Goa and Punjab.
In the annals of modern warfare, the 1971 war between India and Pakistan is regarded as a template of brilliance. Within 13 days, the Indian army routed Pakistan in one of the swiftest campaigns of the 20th century.
Occasionally compared to Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, and studied at military academies as a textbook example of efficient planning, the Indo-Pakistan war gave rise to a new state, Bangladesh, and established India as a regional superpower.
The major general who masterminded and spearheaded India’s offensive, and who accepted Pakistan’s surrender, was Jack Frederick Ralph Jacob, the scion of an old Jewish family from Calcutta. A spry bachelor of 81 who retired in 1978 as the commander of India’s eastern army, he considers that war the highlight of a long and distinguished career as a soldier. Having written a book about it, Surrender at Dacca, published in 2001 by Manohar, he claims that the war was “surely the greatest military feat in our history.”
Although historians are acquainted with his resumé, Jacob is not exactly a household name outside India. As I prepared for my trip to India late last year, I ran across his name in my research. Intrigued by the possibility of interviewing a Jewish warrior from an exotic country whose Jewish community is rooted in antiquity, I asked to meet him.
When I arrived in New Delhi on my last day in India, following relatively brief flights from Cochin and Mumbai, B.B. Mukherjee, a helpful contact from the ministry of tourism, was at the terminal to greet me with the news that Jacob had consented to an interview. I was pleased, but the timing was hardly fortuitous. I was tired, coming down with a cold and a hoarse voice, and my flight back to Toronto was just hours away. Nevertheless, I told Mukherjee I would be ready to talk to Jacob at his home in New Delhi at around five o’clock.
After a shower and change of clothes, I met Mukherjee in my hotel lobby, and off we drove to Jacob’s flat in a non-descript gray apartment building in the centre of this sprawling city and capital of India. When we arrived, one of his Nepalese houseboys opened the door and ushered us into a dimly lit room filled with French furniture and crowded with original Mogul art on the walls.
Jacob, a surprisingly small man with a café au lait complexion and a formal manner, was smartly decked out in a blue blazer, creased pants, shirt and tie. He motioned me to sit down next to him on a narrow couch.
I began by asking him about his role in the war – the 33rd anniversary of which was marked shortly before my trip to India – and his decision to become a soldier. Jacob, whose Baghdadi family settled in Calcutta more than 200 years ago and whose father – Elias Emanuel – was a businessman, was quite effusive, enunciating his words in a posh upper-class Indian accent.
A brigadier-general by 1963 and a major-general by 1967, he was appointed chief of the Eastern Command in 1969 by Gen. Sam Maneckshaw, the Parsi chief of staff. Jacob’s immediate superior was Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora, a Sikh.
Jacob joined the British army in the summer of 1941 while at university and when India was still a British colony. He did so, he said, “to fight the Nazis.” After graduating from officers training school in 1942, he was posted to northern Iraq in anticipation of a possible German thrust to seize the Kirkuk oil fields. He trained with Glubb Pasha’s Arab Legion, which would be the backbone of Jordan’s army. In the wake of Japan’s defeat, he was assigned to Sumatra. Returning to an independent India after taking a gunnery course in Britain, Jacob commanded a mountain battery and served in an armoured division. Then, in short order, he took artillery and missile courses in the United States and was a general staff officer at Western Command headquarters.
“I didn’t plan to be a career officer,” he said. “I liked the army and stayed on. I did everything I was supposed to do.”
During the mid-1960s, when India fought a war with Pakistan, he was the commandant of the School of Artillery. Subsequently, he was in charge of an infantry division in Rajasthan, where he wrote a much-praised manual on desert warfare. Promoted to chief of staff of the Eastern Command, based in Calcutta, Jacob was soon grappling with insurgencies in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
The Eastern Command was a sensitive one. The partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 had led to the emergence of India and Pakistan, which was made up of two distinct and geographically disconnected areas. Although East Pakistan was more populous than West Pakistan, political power rested with the western elite, causing resentment, unrest and calls for autonomy in the other half.
By 1971, East Pakistan was in revolt, and Pakistan’s ruler, Yahya Khan, cracked down. As the violence escalated, with a massive loss of life and an exodus of millions of Hindu refugees into Indian territory, Indo-Pakistani tensions rose.
When India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, extended assistance to Bengali rebels who sought to break away from Pakistan and form their own country, Pakistan responded first by attacking rebel camps in India and then, on Dec. 3, by bombing nine northern Indian airfields. In a dramatic broadcast to the nation, Gandhi declared war on Pakistan.
Having watched these developments with mounting concern, Jacob realized that conflict was imminent. “We knew we would have to intervene, but we hardly had any infrastructure and had to build it up,” he recalled.
In consultation with his superiors, he refined his plan to engage Pakistan in a “war of movement” in difficult terrain with few bridges and roads, crisscrossed by rivers and broken up by swamps, mangroves and paddy fields. Jacob’s strategy was clear. Dacca – the heart of East Pakistan – would be captured and Pakistani forces bypassed. Pakistan’s communication centres would be secured and its command and control capabilities destroyed, while its forces would be drawn to the border. Some Indian commanders raised objections to the unorthodox plan, but it was finally approved.
“I planned for a three-week campaign, but it went faster than I expected,” said Jacob, who instinctively understood that speed was essential and that a protracted war would not be in India’s interests: The United Nations would apply pressure on India to halt its offensive, and the Soviet Union – India’s ally – might not be able to fend off calls for a ceasefire.
As fighting raged, Jacob flew to Dacca and wrested unconditional surrender terms from his opposite number, Gen. Amir Niazi, who would later accuse Jacob of having blackmailed him into submission.
“It was a total victory over a formidable, well-trained army,” he observed. “Had Pakistan fought on, it would have been difficult for us.” Indian casualties were 1,421 killed and 4,058 wounded. “We expected higher casualties,” he admitted. The Pakistani figures were much higher, in India’s estimation: 6,761 killed and 8,000 wounded.
Jacob, who calls Surrender at Dacca the most authoritative and objective account of the war to date, ascribed his victory to a few factors – imaginative planning, flexibility of approach, the capacity to react to shifting and perhaps unforeseen events and, of course, luck. But for Jacob, a keen student of warfare, historical context was always of crucial importance. As he put it, “I’ve learned from every campaign since Alexander the Great and Napoleon.”
Looking back, he described his 37-year career in the army as “the happiest and most enjoyable period of my life.” Never once did he feel the sting of anti-Semitism in the Indian army. “But I had some problems with the British,” he said, declining to elaborate. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
Interestingly enough, Jacob – whose Hebrew name is Yaacov Rafael and who serves as president of New Delhi’s one and only synagogue – was not the only high-ranking Jewish officer in the armed forces. “There was another Jewish general, a chap named Samson, and he was in research and development and ordnance. And there was also a Jewish vice-admiral.”
Upon leaving the army, Jacob went into business. But in 1998, he was called out of retirement to be governor of Goa, a former Portuguese colony popular with Israeli tourists. He remained there until 1999, when he assumed the governorship of Punjab, a job he held until 2003.
A three-time visitor to Israel who was once invited there by Yitzhak Rabin when he was the prime minister, Jacob was also on friendly terms with Mordechai Gur, a former Israeli chief of staff. Jacob played an indirect role in India’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, but he refused to talk about his role in that diplomatic rapprochement.
Referring to himself as “a very private person,” he was likewise reluctant to speak about his family, apart from saying that his brothers and sisters are deceased.
Today, in his twilight years, Jacob is a writer and lecturer on military and political affairs. But he wryly described his current status as “unemployed.”