The Jewish war hero who brought Pak to its knees
Long before the world took note, in 2004, of a Muslim President swearing in a Sikh, nominated by his Roman Catholic party chief, as Prime Minister of...
The man who planned the 1971 Dakha military campaign was a Jew – “proud of being an Indian Jew,” he would say. Lt Gen (Retd) Jack Farj Raphel ‘JFR’ Jacob’s passing away on January 13 took away a remarkable man who was perhaps the last of the key players of that war and those times. It is the only war that India as a geographic entity has won in a millennium and the only one as a political entity since the Independence
Long before the world took note, in 2004, of a Muslim President swearing in a Sikh, nominated by his Roman Catholic party chief, as Prime Minister of India, it had hailed India’s winning a war under a woman, a Brahmin married to a Parsi, her Defence Minister being a Dalit, Foreign Minister a Sikh, a Parsi Army Chief, a Brahmo Air Force Chief and a Sikh Army Commander in the war’s eastern theatre.
That was when the Liberation of Bangladesh took place in 1971. No further evidence was needed of India’s inclusive culture, be it political or military. The man who planned that military campaign was a Jew – “proud of being an Indian Jew,” he would say. Lt Gen (Retd) Jack Farj Raphel ‘JFR’ Jacob’s passing away on January 13 took away a remarkable man who was perhaps the last of the key players of that war and those times.
It is the only war that India as a geographic entity has won in a millennium and the only one as a political entity since the Independence. It was a decisive one stamped by the history’s only public surrender of an army of 93,000 soldiers. Jacob secured it, almost single-handedly, on an instrument that was but a hurriedly written draft, with no official sanction.
With that document in his pocket, he entered the headquarters of the East Pakistan Command headed by Lt Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, when Indian Army columns that had entered Dhaka were still outnumbered by a force ready to fight to finish and avoid the ultimate humiliation. This called for extreme courage and confidence.
He placed the document before Niazi, demanding surrender. Niazi was silent and wanted to discuss cease-fire. He gave him 30 minutes, or “face the wrath of my boys,” or words to that effect. Niazi was in tears and wanted to discuss cease-fire. “I take it as accepted,” Jacob snapped and took back the paper. He was sure Niazi had no choice.
Niazi handed his epaulettes carrying his rank and his personal revolver to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora. That spectacle is permanently etched in public memory. Jacob stood among the other military commanders, a little smile on his rotund face.
There was goof-up, not big, but symbolic. Jacob did not notice when Niazi had snatched a revolver from one of the Pakistani soldiers in time for the surrender ceremony. Jacob admitted this in his book later. It was an abject surrender, anyway. Niazi later told the Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission that probed Pakistan’s military debacle that Jacob had “bullied” him into surrender.
There is no other instance in the annals of military history of a victorious army withdrawing within exactly three months. At the instance of her Bangladesh counterpart, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Indira Gandhi secured that. Only a small force was left, not to govern or fight, but to oversee return of the refugees back home and food distribution, as the civil administration had all but broken down during the strife.
Indira Gandhi and all her advisors and the civil and military brass of the day have long passed into history. Jacob was perhaps the sole survivor. He led the Indian delegation to Dhaka to celebrate the “Bijoy Diwas,” the victory Day on December 16 on two occasions when he was honoured. He was seen and heard with respect at various conferences, not necessarily related to Bangladesh.
On retirement, he was made Governor or Goa and, later, Punjab. He later joined BJP. Many other soldiers and diplomats have done this, moved by patriotism. Why the Congress does not attract them, not in the same measure at least, remains inexplicable. One reason Jacob did was, perhaps, he felt that his role had not been fully recognised.
He felt that Gen Aurora and above him, the Army Chief, Gen S H F J Manekshaw, cornered all the glory. He blamed it on the “Sikh lobby” and “Parsi lobby” respectively, while he, belonging to a microscopic minority, had none.
But in any war, any game, it is the captain who takes the credit or the blame. There was no way anybody can take away the key role he had played in the campaign. He wanted India to go for an offensive earlier, but Manekshaw did not want it and sought time to prepare.
The government, too, utilised this time with Indira Gandhi first sending Jayaprakash Narayan and then herself visited world capitals to explain India’s stand. As a result, while many governments remained hostile, the media and the intelligentsia of the democratic world fully sympathised with India.
As disclosed in his book 'An Odessy in War and Peace,' Jacob had prepared a draft outline plan in May 1971 if a war were to be fought with Pakistan. The main objective of the war was to capture Dacca (now Dhaka) 'the geo-strategic heart of East Pakistan' by bypassing fortified positions in East Pakistan and selecting subsidiary objectives which would force the Pakistan Army to leave Dacca and other key areas lightly defended.
As the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, Jacob liaised with the Indian Air Force and the Navy, and planned the construction of bridges across the rivers in East Pakistan to bypass the main road routes. It was a tremendous task.
When the war broke out on December 3, 1971, it was Jacob’s plan put into action. Troops of the Eastern Command were able to bypass towns and cross rivers while heading towards Dacca. The para-dropping of troops at Tangail on December 11 and their march towards Dacca demoralised the Pakistan Army which was already under attack from the Mukti Bahini and a hostile population.
Pressure was mounting on India to get the Pakistan Army to surrender, even as resolutions were brought up in the United Nations Security Council, but vetoed by the then Soviet Union. There was no time to lose.
There were also reports of the United States moving its aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise with accompanying assault ships and destroyers. In a letter she wrote to President Richard Nixon, a letter drafted by her chief aide P N Haksar, Indira Gandhi warned the US in very clear terms.
The contents of that letter are unknown. The US may someday de-classify it. Perceived injustices do rankle. Under Jacob, there was another remarkable officer. Brigadier Shubegh Singh trained the Mukti Bahini of the Bangladesh freedom fighters.
A Sikh, Shubegh would pose as a faqir, his beard flowing, and direct operations. Years later, he had to leave the Army under a cloud. He joined forces with Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale to fortify the Golden Temple in Amritsar, against the very army he had served. He died there in the Operation Blue Star.
His name mis-spelt as “Shah Beg,” angry Pakistanis took him to be a Muslim (although many Indian Muslims fought in that war). Similarly, they hated having to surrender to a Jew. Jacob’s criticism was at the intellectual level. He wrote books to make claims and lament errors and lack of coordination among the top brass – military, civil and political. These things do happen in such situations.
All the same, the military victory in just 13 days, the diplomatic effort in the face of trenchant opposition from the USA, Britain and the West and much of the Muslim world, with the threat from China on the border looming, remains a remarkable event and a landmark in world history. It is only we Indians who are either gung-ho or squeamish about it, unable to take a measured view of what happened.