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Remembering JFR Jacob, India’s Jewish General

The first time I saw Lt. Gen. JFR Jacob, at Delhi’s Judah Hyam synagogue, I had no idea who he was. But his importance was obvious by the way everyone stood tall and switched to tones of reverence at his appearance.

“He is a hero, our topmost Jew!” someone whispered to me. A woman in a sari asked, “Isn’t he splendid?” The Israeli ambassador, who was at his side, told me, “General Jacob is legend, truly larger than life.”

As an Israeli journalist based in India, my curiosity was piqued. And after some quick research I realized that I had, indeed, just met India’s “top-most Jew” and indeed a living legend.

Jacob, who passed away on January 13 at age 92, was known far and wide for his role in bringing the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 to an early end; this, in turn, resulted in the emergence of the independent nation of Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan. The story is remarkable, and it is still studied in military academies around the world.

At the invitation of the commander of Pakistani troops in what was then Pakistan’s rebellious eastern half, Jacob traveled alone and unarmed behind enemy lines to discuss follow-up proposals for a cease-fire sponsored by the United Nations that had just recently taken effect. At the time, Jacob knew that he had just 3,000 troops surrounding Dhaka, the capital city, where his meeting was taking place. His Pakistani counterpart, Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi, had some 25,000 troops at his command. Taking the city would have meant weeks or months of bloody battle. But courageously, and with unsurpassed chutzpah, Jacob delivered an ultimatum based on a compete bluff. This led Niazi to accept a full public surrender by Pakistan, with a complete withdrawal of troops. Countless soldiers and civilians on all sides were saved in this way. And as a result, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh came to be.

JFR Jacob, in his home in New Delhi. Image by Getty Images

In 2012, sometime after my first glimpse of him in synagogue, Jacob, then 89 years old, granted me an interview in his modest apartment in Delhi, with stacks of military books on the coffee table, and fine oil paintings he painted himself hanging on the walls. “As I paced back and forth on the veranda, waiting to hear the decision of the Pakistani general,” he confided then, “I was inwardly saying the Shema.”

Meeting Jacob was a unique experience. When his autobiography, “An Odyssey in War and Peace,” became a best-seller, I emailed him, requesting a series of interviews. His answer came to my inbox within nine minutes.

“I am approaching 90,” he wrote. “I think I have earned a rest. I intend to now slowly fade away. If you want to write about me, you better be quick.”

When we met, he did not so much give me an interview as spar with me. He expected my questions to come rapidly and perfectly put, and he shot back his answers almost instantaneously. Colleagues often pointed out his unwillingness to suffer fools, their rank be damned. He once threw out a much higher-ranking officer from his mess hall. “I didn’t like the way he was behaving,” he told me.

Jacob was highly admired by his contemporaries among Israeli leaders. He formed close personal relationships with Shimon Peres and former Israeli military chief of staff Motta Gur, among others. He visited Israel several times, and worked behind the scenes to nurture and develop the Israel-India relationship.

His uniform hangs in an Israeli military museum in Latrun.

But my real interest in meeting the general came when I found that in 1998, following his military success, Jacob served as governor of the state of Goa, an unbelievably beautiful coastal enclave on the Indian Ocean, and my own home away from home. When he was governor, Jacob used legal emergency measures to impose Governor’s Rule, temporarily taking power from the (outrageously inept) state parliament.

Under his emergency rule, Jacob whipped the state into (better) shape in no time flat. His greatest achievement in those years was protecting, for posterity, vast tracts of forest from powerful mining interests. As a journalist, I was particularly interested in the constant devastation of India’s unprotected countryside by these same mining companies. As a mother, I delighted in spending time with my children in the nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries Jacob created and maintained.

Jacob never married and had no children. He loved nature and poetry, passions kindled while growing up in his traditional Jewish family in Calcutta (now called Kolkata). His brothers and sisters learned Hebrew, but he was “just not interested, as much as I regret that now.” He decided to join the British army (India was a British colony at the time) after his family adopted refugees from Nazi Europe. “I wanted to fight the Nazis and crush them,” he told me. His father at first refused to give his permission to this very non-Jewish plan, but out of respect for his son’s motivation he eventually agreed.

“My first taste of anti-Semitism was in the British army,” he told me; he also spoke of his nostalgia for the food and warmth of the Jewish community of Kolkata, which is now almost extinct.

“I am proud to be a Jew, but I am Indian through and through,” he said when I asked if he had ever wanted to move to Israel, maybe join the army. “I love this country, which has treated the Jews better than any other in history. This is my home; this is where I want to die.”

Jacob was buried in the Jewish cemetery in New Delhi amid public declarations of gratitude from India’s prime minister, chief of staff, and other dignitaries and leaders.

Contact Aimee Ginsburg Bikel at feedback@forward.com

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