Monday, May 20, 2024

‘Manekshaw never wanted to take Dhaka”

Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, who died on Wednesday, is worth a recount. He has left behind a saga which has evoked an endless debate like the one on Subhas Chandra Bose’ “disappearance” though admittedly not on a similar mass scale.

On April 30, 2007, General Jacob spoke to anchor Karan Thapar on CNBC where he made the startling claim that the thrust towards Dhaka during the 1971  Pakistan War was entirely his initiative, as Chief of Staff of India’s Eastern Command, and he almost led the much-feted Army Chief Gen. Sam “Bahadur” Manekshaw, later India’s first Field Marshal, by the ear; like he did with his immediate superior General Jagjit Singh Aurora, who later became a folklore hero through that famous image of General Amir Abdullah Niazi signing his country’s instrument of surrender.

A verbatim though abridged transcript of the sensational interview is in order

Karan Thapar: As chief of Eastern Command, what was the strategic plan you sent to Delhi?

Gen. Jacob: We assessed that to win a war we had to take Dhaka.

KT: When Manekshaw visited Calcutta in August…how different was (his plan) to yours?

Gen. Jacob:  It was very different…he said you will take Khulna and Chittagong…

KT:  (And) you forcefully pointed out that not taking Dhaka was a serious mistake?

Gen Jacob: He (Manekshaw) was very upset.

KT: At that time he (Manekshaw) turned to Gen. Aurora who was your boss and army commander. What did he say to Gen. Aurora?

Gen. Jacob: “Don’t you agree? Yes, sir, I entirely agree, said General Aurora.”

KT:  So when India went to war in December, it went with a war plan which completely ignored Dhaka?

Gen Jacob: That’s correct. That was the recommendation given to the government by Manekshaw.

KT: So Dhaka was not a part of the war plan. You (still) moved three brigades from the Chinese border for this purpose. What did he say when he found out?

Gen. Jacob: He was furious. And you see… I told… Gill who was the DMO… it was done between us… and [he] agreed with me to take Dhaka. Manekshaw was not informed of the move of these brigades and he was absolutely furious with Gill. He told him that he would… and that the brigades would move back at once.

KT: But the brigades didn’t move back?

Gen Jacob: I spoke to Gill and we had a long chat and I said I cannot move these brigades back… I expected that I would be given permission once the war started… but permission was denied for five days… I requested every day for their deployment but they were not cleared to move in by Manekshaw until December 8.

KT: So you therefore ignored his orders?

Gen Jacob: Well there is an example in history. Horatio Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye.

Gen Jacob thus made a startling claim to India’s biggest military triumph—a war that lasted a mere 13 days, a record in terms of warfare. It liberated East Pakistan and Bangladesh was born. The timing of this claim also raised eyebrows. Gen Manekshaw was at an advanced age of 93. He died next year.  Gen. Aurora had died two years before in 2005. Gen. Jacob by this stage had begun to have a flourishing political career with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), ending up as Governor of Goa and Punjab. 

To be fair though Gen. Jacob had made a similar claim in his book: “Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation,” in 1999 albeit not in such a plain language.

Sure enough, some pertinent points were raised by military experts following the interview:

  • How could Gen. Jacob carry out his plan excluding his immediate superior Gen. Aurora?
  • That he could move three divisions from the Chinese border without Manekshaw’s permission is too far-fetched.

So what’s the truth?

The only light on this could be shed by the official history of the 1971 War with the government records which is still classified. This “official history” though of some 5000 government documents and dozens of interviews is available to scholars and war correspondents for study.

The “official history” does note “some baffling features” of the operations. Dhaka was captured by Major-General Gandharv Nagra’s 101 Communication Zone Area (CZA) forces, who provided the “all-important thrust from the north.”

Strangely, it was the “weakest in terms of manpower, artillery and armoury. And no written order is to be found on the subject.” 


While Gen. Aurora expected Lieutenant General Sagat Singh’s 4 Corps to make a dash for Dhaka, Gen. Jacob backed CZA for the booty of Dhaka. Maj. Gen. Nagra though made it clear that he had received no order from Eastern Command either.

Who then decided to take Dhaka?

The “official history” offers no clue on the matter. The only thing it mentions that “Aurora and Jacob did not realize that the two bright field commanders (Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh and Maj. Gen Nagra) would take the bit in their teeth and gallop for Dhaka even before receiving any order.”

Both Army headquarters and Eastern Command, the History concluded, “had thought of and made some provision for the capture of Dhaka but had played safe and issued no formal order to any of the formations in the field.

“To that extent, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh and Major Gen. Nagra had used their own initiative, drive and professional acumen to achieve a dazzling victory. It reflects the greatest credit on the Indian army that it produced field commanders of such calibre, capable of strategic initiative and state management of major maneuvers in the course of the campaign without any clear order from above.”

To the extent that all credit of 1971 War should not have gone to Gen Sam Manekshaw, Gen. Jacob apparently was right. But whether he himself should have taken credit for it is another story.

It is not to deny Gen. Jacob’s sterling career and the service he did for the nation. Even though born a Jew, the general who was a bachelor is hero to all Indians. 

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