Lt Gen JFR Jacob: A Personal Remembrance

1971 War hero, principal planner of the Indian army’s race to Dhaka, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, Governor of Goa and Punjab, Lt Gen JFR Jacob passed away in early January 2016. Many richly deserved tributes followed his death and a grateful nation gave the General a befitting farewell.

While General Jacob’s brilliance was widely acknowledged, he also had an endearing personality. He cared deeply for the officers and the soldiers who served with him  .. 
My personal association with him began in 1977 when he was the Eastern Army Commander. Capt HS Gill (later Brigadier), his ADC, had completed his tenure and was scheduled to proceed for the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) at the School of Artillery, Devlali. Over a year long, it is a prestigious professional training course after which an officer becomes a gunnery pundit – formally known as an Instructor-in-Gunnery. Those days there were few of them and they were much in demand.

Gen Jacob was keen that I should take over from Capt Gill as his ADC. I was reluctant to do so as I had applied for the same LGSC as Capt Gill. The GOC-in-C came and camped in Lekhapani, near the famous World War II air strip at Ledo and not too far from the Myanmar border. His objective was to convince me to join him in Kolkata. I was then serving in 80 Mountain Regiment and had five years of service. 

He told me that if I could give him ten good reasons why I did not want to be his ADC, he would let me go. I told him that I hoped to be selected for LGSC and he agreed that it was a good reason. He asked for nine more reasons and I couldn’t give him any. He gave me time to think it over and occupied himself with official duties and recreational activities. 

My Brigade Commander and my Commanding Officer reminded me that one doesn’t say no to an Army Commander. They also told me that I was too young to go for LGSC any way and that the General would retire in a year’s time and I could attend the next course. I suppose they were embarrassed that a young officer under their command was holding out and the Army Commander was camping in the station to convince him.

I had noticed that Capt Gill had an excellent rapport with General Jacob and they were more like friends rather than boss and subordinate, particularly when off duty. Hence, I was surprised one evening when just before dinner at the Artillery Brigade Officers Mess, Capt Gill told me to escort the General for dinner as the General was not talking to him. “What happened?” I asked. Capt Gill and I are both from the same school – Punjab Public School, Nabha – and he knew he could share a confidence  .. 

He said the two of them had gone fishing that morning and the General had asked him to find a good spot for him. When Capt Gill took him to the spot, with a mischievous grin the General told Capt Gill to go at least 500 metres away. When they finished fishing, Capt Gill – an accomplished angler – had hooked four fish and the General had caught none. He was upset with Capt Gill and said he had deliberately taken the General to the worst spot and selected the best one for himself. And, so, he wasn .. 

It was quite a day! It was the day President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had passed away. I was sitting with Capt Gill when the General walked in. “See what they’ve given me,” he said, visibly annoyed. It was a condolence message to the First Lady. Capt Gill read it and passed it on to me. It was badly drafted. I turned over the sheet and wrote a fresh draft. Capt Gill liked it and took it to the General. He asked who had written the message and when he was told that I had done so, said, “Your friend s .. 

We reached the Flag Staff House and were greeted by Pal Singh, the General’s Sahayak (orderly) from the General’s 3 Field Regiment. The General said he would first show me his garden. As we sauntered across, Capt Gill walked into the kitchen garden, plucked a nice looking carrot, washed it under the tap and began eating. When General Jacob noticed, he asked him what he was eating and on being told, said, “Get me also one.” And, Capt Gill replied, “Please get one for yourself.” To say the least,  .. 

Despite being a bachelor, the General’s house was very artisticallydecorated. In fact, with the numerous the artefacts displayed all over, to me it seemed like Salar Jung Museum number 2.He patiently explained to me the origin of many of theartefacts and how they were linked to history. And, he had a superb collection of books, including many cloth-bound classics. Clearly, General Jacob was a man of culture and refined taste. 

While I was on leave at Shimla, I received a telegram from my regiment: Selected for LGSC; congratulations. The next day I read in the paper that an Army Commanders’ conference was to be held at Army HQ, beginning that morning. I got on the first bus to Delhi. I had no idea where Army HQ was and landed up at the PMO, but that is another story. I made it to the conference room just before the tea break and Capt Gill said he would make sure I meet General Jacob as soon as he came out. 

When General Jacob walked out, I had barely wished him when he shook my hand warmly and said, “Son, congratulations. Go for your course.” And, then he added somewhat wistfully, “I’ll find another ADC.”I thanked him and packed my bags for Devlali. LGSC was a great course and we learnt a great deal. We also had good fun. 

For the record, I was selected to stay back in the School of Artilleryas an Instructor-in-Gunnery.Soon thereafter, General OP Malhotra, the new COAS, visited the School and asked me to join him as his ADC. Once again, I was reluctant to do so and courtesy the Commandant and the Commander, Field Wing, I completed my tenure in the School.

Soon General Jacob arrived to participate in the annual Artillery Conference and I was appointed his Liaison Officer. He was happy to meet me again. Our first stop was at the Field Wing gun park. The General was to be shown the 105 mm Indian Field Gun. He saw the gun and blew his top. He said it did not deserve to be called the “Indian” Field Gun as it did not meet the qualitative requirements. I said, “Sir, shouldn’t we be proud of the fact that it is an indigenously designed and developed gun? He replied angrily, “Gurmeet, fools like you are letting down this country. How can we be proud of a sub-standard weapon?” 

We then walked across to the main building and I  escorted him to  Basantar Hall to show him a training model. He was livid. He snapped, “I refuse to enter a room named ‘Basantar’.” I said, “Sir, the artillery regiments did very well in the battle of Basantar and were given Honour Titles.” (Unlike armoured regiments and infantry battalions, artillery regiments are not given Battle Honours in recognition of excellence in battle. They are given Honour Titles because the ultimate Battle Honour “Sarvatra” (Everywhere) has been accorded in perpetuity to the Regiment of Artillery.) General Jacob replied, “So what? Our progress was slow and we did not achieve our military aims.” 

That evening when I went to the MES Inspection Bungalow (IB) to escort General Jacob for dinner, he said emphatically that he wasn’t going for dinner and refused to say why. I went to the ‘B’ Mess and told the Commandant. Soon General OP Malhotra, the COAS and the Senior Colonel Commandant, Regiment of Artillery, arrived and they went into a huddle. The refrain was, “Now what?” Very hesitatingly, I stepped forward and ventured to say that perhaps I could hazard a guess. 

General Malhotra and the Commandant went to the MES IB and convinced General Jacob that he must join everyone else for dinner. When we reached the Mess and he was asked what he would like to have to drink, he replied, “A glass of cold milk.” In which Officers Mess can one find coldmilk at 8.00 PM on a party night? People scurried all over to look for cold milk. After a while the General said with an impish smile, “Have I put them in a spin?” I replied, “You certainly have, Sir.” And, with a grin, he said, “Tell them to give me a glass of beer.” 

He retired soon thereafter and devoted himself to writing about his experience in the various wars in which he had served since he began his military career during World War II. He wrote a few op-ed articles as well – each one sharp and effective. He was a much sought after speaker at various training institutions and military academies. 

He served as the Governor, first in Goa and then in Punjab. He endeared himself to the people in both the states because of his easy approachability and care and concern. A strict disciplinarian, he was an outstanding administrator and succeeded in launching many development oriented schemes. He was instrumental in constructing a War Memorial at Chandigarh in conjunction with the Indian Express, but with funds collected through donations only. Of course, he refused to suffer fools. 

We met many times in recent years. He admired my writing and always encouraged me. He often pointed out different facets of some issue I had written about and told me to think it over. He was a trifle disappointed that I did not review his book Surrender at Dhaka,a book about the 1971 War. Once when he was the keynote speaker at IDSA, he made me stand up twice and praised my work. But, he also told the audience, “He did not want to be my ADC.” 

Farewell, General. Your sage guidance, warm smile and care and concern will be deeply missed, not only by the Gunner fraternity, but also by the larger army family and, I daresay, the nation you served so well. Rest in peace.