India’s Greatest Military Victory: The Role played by Lt Gen JFR Jacob in the Liberation of Bangladesh

At 93, one of India’s great military icons, Lt Gen JFR Jacob passed away in Delhi on Wednesday. Jakes to friends and colleagues, Lt Gen Jacob was a regular visitor to Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). One of the important protagonists in India's greatest military victory, long be remembered for his qualities of head and heart, the quintessential General Officer difficult to find today. Here's our heartfelt tribute to him.

On December 16, 1971, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers led by Lt Gen A A K Niazi, surrendered to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Commander-in-Chief of India’s Eastern Command, at the Dhaka race course and the new nation of Bangladesh was born. Standing behind Gen Aurora in the iconic photograph of the surrender ceremony was (then) Maj Gen JFR Jacob, the Chief of Staff (COS), Eastern Command, who had played a huge role in India’s greatest victory.

The story had begun about a year earlier. In elections held in 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, had won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan and a simple majority in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament. Though he had lawfully earned the right to form the government, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, refused to accept defeat. As the deadlock lingered on, there were widespread protests in East Pakistan and General Yahya Khan gave orders to the army to crush dissent. On the night of March 25, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the army began a large-scale, brutal crackdown.

Under Lt Gen Tikka Khan, known as the ‘Butcher of Bengal’, the Pakistan Army unleashed horrific atrocities on the innocent Bengalis. Thousands of them were killed in cold blood. Many more were tortured over several months; many hapless women were raped and molested. Intellectuals and minority Hindus were particularly singled out. The genocide led to a mass exodus and about 10 million refugees straggled across the border into neighbouring Indian states. Despite India’s own difficulties, they were accommodated in refugee camps and were provided with food and shelter.

Earlier in November 1970, the worst cyclone in living memory had struck East Pakistan. The government’s handling of the rescue and relief efforts was not only inefficient and lackadaisical, it was also callous and uncaring. Over 125,000 people had perished and many more were rendered homeless. This created a sense of deep resentment and, combined with the failure to allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form a government, completely alienated the Bengali population.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi condemned the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the atrocities in East Pakistan. She asked the armed forces to prepare for war as India’s security was being undermined by the massive influx of refugees. General SHFJ Manekshaw (later Field Marshal) told the Prime Minister that the army needed some time to prepare for what would be a war on both the eastern and the western front. The monsoon was but a few months away, the Himalayan passes on India’s border with Tibet would remain open till mid-November and the Chinese could intervene. It was sound military advice as the troops needed for offensive operations in East Pakistan could be pulled out from the Chinese border only after the passes closed. The Prime Minister accepted the advice given to her. This was the high point of civil-military synergy in independent India’s history.

Bengali troops in East Pakistan soon revolted and deserted in large numbers to join the Mukti Bahini, a guerrilla force that began to conduct covert operations against Pakistani forces. India provided political, diplomatic and moral support to the Mukti Bahini. Under the guidance of Gen JS Aurora, the planning and preparation for the liberation of Bangladesh was spearheaded in Eastern Command by Gen Jacob, the COS.

While the armed forces began their preparations for war, Indira Gandhi launched a diplomatic campaign to create awareness about the situation in East Pakistan. She toured major world capitals to appeal to the international community to intercede with the government of Pakistan to put an end to the continuing atrocities and to provide humanitarian assistance to India to look after the refugees, but did not receive anything other than sympathy.

On December 3, 1971, Yahya Khan launched pre-emptive air strikes against 11 forward Indian air bases and India and Pakistan were once again at war. India responded with multi-pronged offensive operations into East Pakistan. On December 6, 1971, India accorded formal recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Parliament, “The people of Bangladesh battling for their very existence and the people of India fighting to defeat aggression now find themselves partisans in the same cause.”

The grand strategy in the war was to fight a holding action on the western front and to liberate Dhaka from Pakistan’s tyrannical rule. The Indian Army, with support from the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force and hand-in-hand with the Mukti Bahini, made rapid progress. At the operational level, the army followed the concept of the expanding torrent. Pakistani strong points based on towns and other built up areas were bypassed by the leading columns and left for follow-on troops to clear while the spearheads advanced rapidly towards Dhaka.

Military operations in Bangladesh’s riverine terrain were a logistics nightmare as hundreds of water channels had to be bridged to open lines of maintenance because the main bridges were all well defended. Operations required careful and systematic planning and bold as well as methodical execution. Gen Jacob led the efforts and ironed out problems as they occurred. Initially, the aim was limited to capturing a wide swathe of territory and establishing the government of Bangladesh. However, within a week, it became clear to all perceptive observers that Dhaka would soon fall. The aim was changed to the capture of Dhaka and the surrender of all Pakistani troops in Bangladesh.

Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, Military Adviser to the Governor of East Pakistan, saw the writing on the wall and expressed the administration’s willingness to surrender. Showing great personal courage, on December 16, 1971, Maj Gen JFR Jacob, COS, Eastern Command, flew into Dhaka in an unarmed aircraft and landed on an un-secured airfield and drove to the Governor’s house through areas that were still under Pakistani occupation. He carried with him the draft instrument of surrender and briskly negotiated the terms of surrender.

Later that day, Lt Gen Aurora accepted one of military history’s greatest surrenders. Announcing the surrender in Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said, “Dhaka is now a free capital of a free country… We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man's quest for liberty.”

The victory in Bangladesh was the result of a systematically planned, methodically stage-managed and brilliantly executed politico-military campaign. Indira Gandhi proved herself to be a resolute leader who refused to buckle under the pressure of the US fleet led by the USS Enterprise that sailed into the Bay of Bengal during the war to intimidate India. By signing a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union before the war, she ensured that the Chinese were kept at bay. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw emerged as a charismatic military leader who succeeded in forging rare unity among the three Services so that the full potential of Indian combat power was exploited in an optimal and synergised manner.

It was undoubtedly India’s finest hour. Four decades later, it can be truthfully said that it was a just war and the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen were not in vain. However, some of the hard-fought gains were frittered away in the Shimla Agreement signed on July 2, 1972. In its zeal to appear magnanimous in victory, the Government of India failed to either get the Pakistan Army to vacate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, or to get Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to accept the Cease-fire Line as the international boundary in exchange for over 90,000 prisoners of war.

Along with Field Marshal Manekshaw and Gen JS Aurora, Gen Jacob was one of the principal architects of the victory in Bangladesh. On promotion to the rank of Lt Gen, he was GOC, 16 Corps and was then appointed GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, a role in which he excelled in operational planning as well as administration.

A distinguished Gunner officer, after retirement Gen Jacob served as the Governor of Goa and then Punjab. In both the states he won the hearts of the people through his dedication and sincerity and the warmth with which he interacted with the people. Gen Jacob will be long remembered for his stellar contribution to furthering the highest traditions of the Indian Army in the pursuit of professional excellence.

Gen Jacob was the author of Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation and An Odyssey in War and Peace: An Autobiography. Gen Jacob passed away on January 13, 2016 and was accorded a ceremonial send-off befitting a war hero.