By Major General (Retd) Sheru Thapliyal
Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob – or Jake as he is popularly known – is a delightful person. Intelligent, witty and eccentric, one has to be fully alert to keep in step with him. Of late, however, whenever one meets him, usually in the library of the United Services Institute, one is dismayed to note that he is so full of himself and obsessed with his role in the liberation of Bangladesh.
The other day in his interview with Karan Thapar, it came out loud and clear that the general seems to have lost touch with reality. He wants everyone to believe that the Indian Army's campaign in erstwhile East Pakistan was a one-man show – that is was Jake's show all the way and credit has been wrongly apportioned to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and the late Lt. Gen. Jaggi Aurora.
In order to be objective about Jacob's role in the 1971 operations, it may be necessary to go back in history to know how the institution of the Chief of Staff came about.
It was Field Marshal Montogomery who evolved the Chief of Staff system when he was commanding the Eight Army in the North African desert (in World War II). He realised that he was spending far too much time on issues of little consequence and too little on operational matters.
Consequently, he appointed Francis de Guingand as his chief of staff. His brief was to coordinate the functioning of all senior staff officers and deal with matters of detail so that the army commander was left free to concentrate on operational matters. Most armies adopted this system, India included.
The chief of staff at a command HQ coordinates the functioning of Nav Ratnas as the nine major generals, who are senior staff officers, are known. The operations branch dealing directly with the army commander handles operational matters. No army commander worth his salt will allow his chief of staff to corner the operational market, which is his command function.
That is why it is difficult to believe that Jacob carried out all of Eastern Command's operational planning for the liberation of Bangladesh and excluded Jaggi Aurora from the process – as he would have us believe. Even when relations between Aurora and Manekshaw were not the most cordial, Aurora is unlikely to have abdicated his command functions. That Jacob carried out superbly the coordination within HQ Eastern Command and with lower formations is undeniable.
Where Jacob is factually correct is his assertion that to begin with, the Army HQ Operation Instruction did not lay down Dacca as the terminal objective. The initial aim was to capture some territory that could be called Bangladesh where their government in exile could be established and seek recognition by friendly countries.
As the offensive progressed, it became apparent to senior Indian commanders that a dash for Dacca was necessary and it was implemented. Jacob may well have suggested it to Lt. Gen. Inder Gill, the DGMO (director general military operations) and Manekshaw but he could not have ordered it on his own as he claims. A chief of staff does not give operational directions to lower formations. Besides, no corps commander would have accepted such operational directions from a chief of staff.
Similarly, Jake's claim that between him and Gill, they moved three divisions from the Chinese border into Bangladesh without Manekshaw's permission is too far fetched an assertion. No forces can be moved without express approval of the army chief. So the question of keeping him in dark simply does not arise. During the planning stage, a decision must have been taken on the formations that needed to be moved after detailed war-gaming. Moving divisions is not like moving sections and platoons.
Jacob's assertion that Sam wanted the army to move into Bangladesh in April 1971 itself is not borne out by facts as the sequence of events is well documented. Sam may well have sought his advice, but what is puzzling is as to why would he bypass Aurora in operational matters completely and deal only with Jacob. The Indian Army does not function this way either then or now.
Manekshaw's handling of joint services planning for operations against erstwhile East Pakistan has come in for criticism by Jacob, whereas credit has rightly been given to Sam, as chairman chief of staff for rare synergy among the respective service chiefs. The planning process entails services evolving their own plans which are then dovetailed into a synergised whole by the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Jacob's shining moment in the Bangladesh war was arranging the surrender ceremony in Dacca that was essentially a staff function carried out flawlessly. Whatever axe he may have to grind with Sam Manekshaw, credit must be given where due. Aurora cannot be dismissed as a nonentity or Sam as a dimwit as Jake is subtly trying to project.
It is painful to dim the halo of a general whom many of us have admired and continue to do so. However one must give facts their due. Come on Jake, like a good soldier, you need to fade away. Let history decide on the roles played by the principal actors in a glorious chapter of Indian military campaigning that ended up creating a nation.
(Major General Sheru Thapliyal is a retired officer of the Indian Army. He can be contacted at [email protected])