Lt. Gen. J.F.R Jacob was a clean writer, had a great memory, and was widely respected and trusted.
India had named the 1971 campaign Operation Cactus Lily. I am not sure if the obvious logic would explain it: tough offensive in the east, and delicate holding posture in the western sector meanwhile. But there is insufficient writing on both sectors.
It is one of those paradoxes of Indian military history that campaigns in which we did poorly, as in 1962 against the Chinese, or were stalled, as in 1965 against Pakistan, are much better documented than the one that led to a clear victory in 1971.
Possibly, it is because the pain of military disappointment inspires deeper introspection, as the rich literature on 1962 shows. Or possibly, the officers brought up in the old British system also inherited its tradition of writing.
Our biggest lack on 1971 is a Sam Manekshaw memoir. Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, who led the Bangladesh campaign as GOC-in-C Eastern Command, too chose not to write. Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal wrote a brilliantly honest account of the air campaign. But on the land campaign, the senior-most military leader to weigh in was Lt. Gen. J.F.R Jacob. In 1971, when the war began on 3 December, he served in the rank of Major-General as Chief of Staff, Eastern Command. He was the deputy to Lt. Gen. Aurora, his GOC.
As usually happens in such cases, these works –
Surrender at Dacca and An Odyssey in War and Peace – suffer from an imperfection: they represent one man’s view of the story with nothing of equal, or greater, weight to challenge it.
Jacob’s – or Jake’s, as he insisted his friends, even I, 35 years younger, call him – has been widely read and admired by friends. But it was also panned by many others, including respected columnist on military affairs, Ajai Shukla. Even as a Jake fan, I have to concede that his account makes Manekshaw seem like an absentee landlord and Aurora as soft and passive, if not a wimp. But if none of them challenged him, he wasn’t to be denied the last word. He was a clean writer, had a great memory, and was widely respected and trusted.
As I got to know him better through the years – there was rarely a conversation that lasted less than a couple of hours, whether in his tiny flat in New Delhi’s Som Vihar, Punjab Raj Bhavan, or at our home – he regaled us with stories from Arakan in WW-II to Tejgaon, as Dhaka Cantonment was called.
He did pour scorn on all seniors. But he also complained that the Government of India never gave him any honour – “no ‘blooddy’ honour, no ‘blooddy’ chakra, no ‘blooddy’ Padma,” he would often say. Maybe that regret spoke out in his writings. That’s why it was also such a special moment for him when Bangladesh gave him a national honour, at 90, in 2012 and we recorded a ‘Walk the Talk’ in Som Vihar, his last full-length interview.
But he had only gratitude and affection for the Army. He had no family in India – Jake never married – and it was a handful of Army soldiers who were seconded to look after him.
We first met sometime in 1991 after I visited Israel (under Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks then) while covering the 1991 Gulf War. He was a great supporter of India-Israel relations. We met more often once he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the late academic-politician Manohar Lal Sondhi’s advice, and became a favourite of L.K. Advani.
In one of those conversations, I once asked him why he had joined the BJP and not any other party.
“Hey, boy, they were the only ones who asked me,” he said, and we were in splits.
He loved Israel too. He supported Israel on most of its policies but never said one rude thing about Muslims, expressing great affection for Indian Muslims. Israelis hailed him in their national museum as one of the greatest Jewish warriors in history. Jake let that sit lightly on his shoulders and often reminded his friends that nobody in India was conscious of his Jewish identity until Radio Pakistan, in its war propaganda phase in 1971, insinuated India had deliberately picked a Jew to negotiate the surrender to humiliate the Islamic world.
The most remarkable feature of Jake’s life is how he resisted migrating to the Promised Land – as most of India’s native Jewish population did, leaving India with just over 6,000 at last count, its most microscopic minority. His Promised Land was India and he was its finest, most loved permanent “envoy” to Israel.
As I travel to Chandigarh often, we met frequently when he was in the Raj Bhavan there – garrulous as ever, and proactive as titular governors usually aren’t. But he was too sincere and loveable a figure for the then-Badal government to resent. He had us in splits with hilarious stories about “Cloud Senior” and “Cloud Junior” (Parkash Singh Badal and son Sukhbir Badal, if you haven’t guessed already). It was at one of these meetings that he fretted over the absence of a war memorial in India.
I told him, find us a spot and we will raise the resources to build a fine war memorial here. He was game. “OK, boy,” he said, “We will build one more shandaar yadgaar (majestic memorial).” The rest of the story is brief: The Indian Express appealed to its readers and raised the funds, Jake gave a great spot in the city’s green lung, Leisure Valley, and India’s finest war memorial was built there. It was also Jake’s insight that he said don’t let the PWD design it. We conspired to announce a competition for architecture students to design it and it was won by two young women students at the local school of architecture. Do check out their brilliant creation on your next visit to Chandigarh. It was inaugurated by then-President A.P.J Abdul Kalam.
In my last meeting with him, in 2012, he presented me a copy of his second book. I gratefully handed him my pen to sign it, which he did, and then gave an admiring look to the pen.
“Hey, boy, you use a Montblanc fountain pen,” he said. “I used to have one, my brother borrowed it, but the silly fellow lost it.”
I said no worries, Jake, I will bring you one from my next visit overseas. I didn’t travel for some time and, sure enough, got a reminder from him on email, in his characteristic large-sized capital letters.
I did finally buy one at the tiny Harrods outlet at Heathrow Duty Free and sent it to his home, shopping bag and all, with a little note.
He was thrilled as a baby would be with a new rattle, wrote me an excited mail, and then called, “Boy, you shop at Harrods! I did that also when I was younger”.
The truth, however, is that Jake never aged, never grew up, and never faded either. He remains among the greatest Indians I am blessed to have known as a journalist.
This article was originally published on 16 December 2017
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