Joining the Indian army in 1941 to put down one genocide, Lieutenant General JFR Jacob went on to wage war against another three decades later.
His role in the planning and execution of the siege of Dhaka in 1971, lost the Pakistani army its war in the east and helped liberate Bangladesh.
In 1969, Jacob was appointed chief of staff of the Eastern Command by another legend of the 1971 war, then Indian army chief of staff Sam Manekshaw.
“I devoted my time to the liberation of Bangladesh,” Jacob said of his work during the war, in a 2012 interview by Shekhar Gupta for NDTV.
He explained in a 2006 interview with Rediff’s Ramananda Sengupta: “As for the war plans, I had worked out a strategy when I was a brigade commander and also as GOC [General Officer Commanding] 12th division.”
His tactics, admired even by his adversaries, have been described as a “war of movement.”
“The Mukti Bahini, and later the East Bengal batallions, had a major role to play in the liberation of Bangladesh. They created the environment in which the Pakistani army was completely demoralised and they couldn’t move from one place to another without being attacked. Their contribution was enormous.”
As the Liberation War neared its climax in late 1971, the commander of the East Pakistan armed forces General AAK Niazi invited Jacob to discuss a ceasefire.
OPEN magazine’s Aimee Ginsburg describes what happened next: “... Jacob penned an instrument of surrender and flew with it to Dacca [now Dhaka], unarmed. For efficiency’s sake, he did not fully inform his superiors in Delhi of his plan. At enemy headquarters, he told the Pakistani Commander that he could surrender, publicly, and receive the protection of the Indian Army for all minorities and retreating troops; or face the results of an Indian onslaught. Niazi accepted, and 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, the only public surrender in modern history. Jacob had only 3,000 Indian troops behind him at the time.”
In 2012, the Bangladesh government honoured Jacob with a certificate of appreciation and an invitation to attend the Independence and National Day programmes on March 26.
His account of the war, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, was published in 1997. In 2011, Jacob published his autobiography, An Odyssey in War and Peace.
Descended from a Jewish family from Iraq that had settled in Kolkata a century and a half ago, Jacob-Farj-Rafael Jacob was born in 1923 in the Bengal Presidency. His primary schooling took place in Kolkata and Darjeeling.
“I was a Calcutta boy. I went to St Xavier’s. I love Bengal,” he told Gupta in 2012, beaming.
It was in Kolkata during the 1940s, that his family had adopted Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s war in Europe. “I was appalled by their stories, by the atrocities,” he told Ginsburg in a 2012 interview, explaining his decision to enlist.
“My father was against my enlistment but after I found out about the atrocities of the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews, I decided that I would be a military man,” Jacob told Haaretz’s Amnon Barzilai in 2004.
“I learnt my soldiering in World War II … it stood me in good stead later,” he recalled to Gupta.
His artillery brigade was deployed to take on Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but missed much of the action in that theatre. His unit was then despatched to Burma, where he was wounded, and then to Sumatra.
“I wanted to fight Germans,” said Jacob in the Haaretz interview, “but in the end I fought for three years against the Japanese.”
A Bangali at heart, Jacob possessed a schoolboyish sense of justice and a sensitivity to wrongdoing.
The work of the modern poets – WE Henley, GM Hopkins, WB Yeats, Padraic Colum and especially the war poets, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Julian Grenfell – were an early inspiration.
During the second world war, a rice-paper edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse was a constant companion.
“I’m very sympathetic to the suffering imposed by the Pak army on the population of Bangladesh. They murdered, they raped … they were terrible,” he told Gupta.
After five years serving under British officers in World War II, Jacob returned to India, and to partition, where one of his duties was to divide up the assets of the artillery school.
In the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Jacob commanded an infantry division.
After retiring from the armed forces in 1978, and a short stint in business, Jacob joined the Bharatiya Janata Party as adviser on military affairs. In the late 1990s he served as governor of Goa and then of Punjab.
Though not an especially religious man, Jacob was instrumental in India’s quiet diplomacy with Israel.
He never married. “I did not remain single by choice,” he told Ginsburg. “I tried twice, but failed.”
During the 93 years of his eventful life, the aficionado of Western classical music and the Beatles displayed a sort of good-humoured equanimity that is the stuff of great soldiers, and indeed, great men.
Recalling a ditty that his World War II comrades used to sing seven decades before, Jacob recited for the NDTV camera crew, mockney and all: “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, it’s the poor that takes the blame, it’s the same the whole world over, isn’t it a bleeding shame?”