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First Stirrings : I joined the army to fight the Nazis

Lt Gen JFR Jacob, the only Jew to have risen to the highest echelons of the Indian Army, speaks of a bygone era


HE hails from a family that migrated to India some 200 years ago and he proved himself a great warrior. One of the heroes of the 1971 war, he led India to a decisive victory and retired as the Army Commander of the Eastern Command. He later went on to serve as the Governor of Goa and Punjab.

But behind all this there is the story of an officer who was on the verge of putting in his papers. But General PP Kumaramangalam, the last of the Sandhurst-trained King’s Commissioned Indian Officers in the Indian Army who later went on to be the seventh Chief of the Indian Army, proved to be an ideal senior officer and became his guiding angle. “If it wasn’t for him (Kumaramangalam), I would have left the Army. He protected me all the time,” says Lt Gen Jacob-Farj-Rafael “JFR” Jacob.

“There is a lot of professional jealousy in the army. Everyone wants to succeed sometimes at the expense of others,” says Gen Jacob.

Today, at 94 years of age, Gen Jacob is a frail man, but with a sharp mind. He did not marry and has no one to call family, but for the four private staffers who assist him. “Each time I decided to marry, some obstacle came my way. I nearly got married a couple of times,” he says casually.

His was a Jewish family that came from Baghdad to Delhi via Afghanistan about 200 years ago. “Jews have lived in India for 2,000 years in Cochin. They had been traders since King Solomon’s time. India is a hospitable country. There has never been anti-Semitism in India. It’s a wonderful country, we got shelter here,” he says.

Jacob was born in Calcutta, in British India, in 1923. His father, Elias Emanuel, was an affluent businessman who lost his money because of illness. At the age of nine, Jacob was sent to a boarding school in Darjeeling. Even while in school, he always wanted to join the army. Of course, then the purpose was different. Motivated by the plight of European Jews, he enlisted in the British Indian Army. “I joined the army to fight the Nazis and Germans because of the atrocities they were committing. The refugees from Germany were coming to India.”

The urgent requirement for manpower during World War II meant that the men were sent to the war front with rudimentary training. After graduating from the Officers’ Training School, Mhow, in 1941, Jacob’s regiment took part in action in the Middle East, Burma and Sumatra for five years in World War II.

“Those days, because there were so many people to be trained and hardly enough infrastructure, there was very little training. I learnt my soldiering in the battlefield and was wounded in Burma,” he says. Jacob almost got a chance to fight the Germans, but his regiment was cut to pieces before they arrived there.

One of the important lessons that he learnt as a 2nd lieutenant in the Middle East was that respect is earned, not commanded. In those days, there used to be Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs), now called Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs). One day, Jacob scolded one of them in front of the men. He went and complained to the Battery Commander, who called Jacob. “I was a 2nd lieutenant, he was a major. He said, Jacko (that is my nickname), how old are you. I said, 19. He said, You know how much service he has got. I said, 24. He said, That will be all.”

One of the important lessons that he learnt as a 2nd lieutenant in the Middle East–during World War II—was that respect is earned, not commanded

Jacob, who saw soldiering in both the British Indian Army as well as the Indian Army, is full of praise for the British. Before Independence, the officers were mainly British and the troops were Indian.“It is wrong to say the British ill-treated Indian officers. If Indian officers knew their job, they were looked after. But if they didn’t do their job, they got a boot like anyone else. The British were thorough professionals who knew how to respect professional Indian officers,” he says.

Jacob never got a chance to participate in the 1947-48 Kashmir war as he was teaching in the school of artillery and it wouldn’t let him go. In 1962, too, he missed the war as both “Sam” Manekshaw and he were instructors at the Staff College, Wellington. Sam Manekshaw was a major-general while Jacob was a lieutenant colonel. In the 1965 war he saw some action while commanding an infantry division, which later became the 12th Infantry Division, in Rajasthan and also composed the Army manual on desert warfare. But, in a way, the first main war he saw after World War II was the 1971 war, where, as the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, he planned the war, and conducted and controlled the operations.

IN the course of his 36-year career in the army, he raised a regiment (3 medium regiment), commanded a brigade, a division and raised a corps (16 corps) and was the Eastern Army Commander. But he has one regret. While others like Manekshaw were publicly hailed as the heroes of the 1971 war, he, who did most of the strategic planning and execution including flying to Dhaka to convince Gen Niazi to surrender, wasn’t even recommended for a war medal. All he has got in return for his efforts in 1971 is a PVSM, which today any general routinely gets at least once before retirement. Some even get two.

On the positive side, the people of Bangladesh rate him highly as the general who got them their freedom from the tyranny of Pakistan. Even Pakistan’s official history of the 1971 war, compiled by Pakistan’s National Defence College, gives him credit—“the credit really goes to General Jacob’s meticulous preparations in the Indian Eastern Command and to the implementation by his Corps commanders”.

– Neeraj Mahajan

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