By Lt Col Rohit Agarwal
Even in the process of fading away, as old soldiers are expected to do, some notables among them manage to retain their spark for a long time. Lt Gen JFR Jacob was one such soldier. Having first donned a uniform at the tender age of 14 as part of the cadet wing of the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles in 1937, he grew to love it so much that volunteering for the army was the next logical step. His exceptional military career started with service in an Anti-Tank Battalion in Iraq and the Arakan during the Second World War, and reached its pinnacle during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, in which he is considered one of the major architects of the Indian victory.
Irrepressible throughout his service, the general was known always to have spoken his mind and stood up for what he thought was right. As a Major in the Artillery Directorate shortly after independence, he was ordered by the Master General of Ordnance to change the motto of artillery, ‘Izzat O Iqbal’, as it was in Urdu. Not convinced about the propriety of doing so, he stood his ground and convinced the general that there was no befitting Hindi equivalent that conveyed the same sentiment. Gunners continue to proudly wear the motto to date. Once, while attending the Staff College at Wellington, he was put up to the commandant by his instructor for a presumably uncomplimentary remark that Jacob, a war veteran, had made about the instructor, who had no operational experience. Instead of the severe dressing down that he was expecting from the commandant, he received sombre advice to ‘learn to suffer fools’ instead. Not that he could learn to do so right up to his retirement or thereafter.
It is only professional competence of the highest level that can ensure that someone with such a proclivity for speaking his mind and aversion to suffering fools – especially those senior in rank than himself - rises to the top, especially in an organisation like the army. And this he had truckloads of. Major Mayank Bhardwaj, who had a brief interaction with the general as his liaison officer during the former’s visit to the National Defence Academy in 1997 recalls, “He was then the governor of Punjab and as his liaison officer I spent two evenings with him. I was fascinated by his recollections of the World War. In fact, it was he who explained to me that the load tables of mules was the rationale behind the peculiar scaling of mortar ammunition in an infantry battalion – a query of mine that had remained unanswered even by the instructors during the mortar course.”
Brig KP Singh Deo, former Union minister and a veteran gunner himself, remembers General Jacob as “having his facts on his fingertips, besides being one of the finest human beings I have known. I had the occasion to interact with him as an officer many years his junior, and subsequently, when as a minister, I outranked him. He was equally courteous and kind. Someone who can treat his juniors with as much courtesy as he would a minister is truly remarkable.” Brig Deo recalls how Gen Jacob was instrumental in ensuring the 1971 war ended with a surrender by the Pakistani army rather than in a UN backed ceasefire as in the case of 1965. “We were poised to enter Dhaka, and the capital would have eventually fallen, but the Pakistanis were still capable of giving us a fight before that. It was Gen Jacob, who met with Gen Niazi and psyched him into surrendering.” If the war had ended in a ceasefire instead of a surrender, 1971 would also have probably gone down as another stalemate with both sides claiming victory, as in the case of 1965.
After his retirement, he served as the Governor of Goa and Punjab. Being a Jew, he had close personal and spiritual ties with Israel, which led him to play an active role in promoting Indo-Israeli relations.
The feisty general retained his spark, and his zest for life, right up to his last days. “He was a wonderful host, and it was always a pleasure to visit his tastefully decorated house.” Says Priya Kapoor of Roli Books, who published his memoirs. “While we were working on the book, I was pleasantly surprised at how open he was to changes and edits suggested by us.”
In him, the country and the army has lost one of its finest generals, an able administrator and an exceptional human being.