JFR Jacob’s memoir: How India won the 1971 war against Pakistan

Rest in peace.
Rest in peace.
Image: AP Photo/Bikas Das
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One of India’s most celebrated military officers passed away on Jan. 13. Lieutenant General (retired) Jacob Farj Rafael Jacob, or simply JFR Jacob, was head of the Indian Army’s eastern command during the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. A Major General then, Jacob negotiated the terms of the Pakistan army’s surrender. After his 36-year career, he also served as governor of some Indian states. Jacob authored books that surveyed his personal life as well as crucial aspects of his time in the Indian Army.

Strategy, per se, was not studied in the Indian Army. No military institution in India taught the subject, nor was there any strategic planning at army HQ. However, tactics up to brigade and, to some extent at the divisional level, were taught. Tactics may win battles, but it is strategy that wins wars. The Americans won every battle in Vietnam, but they lost that war. The Indian Army’s tactics had not changed to any degree from those employed during the Second World War. The army was used to operating astride a road axis with its logistic support following. I had, as a brigade and divisional commander, trained my troops to move along subsidiary dirt tracks, as axes of advance. The objectives that needed to be captured were communication and command and control centres. Towns and fortified areas were to be bypassed and road axes for logistic support were to be opened later. These concepts were forced down on to commanders, who most reluctantly accepted them. There were many occasions later during operations when commanders tried to revert back to metalled roads from their subsidiary axes.

By the end of May 1971 I had prepared a draft outline plan based on the following strategic parameters:

(a) The final objective was to be Dacca, the centre of gravity and the geopolitical and geostrategic heart of East Pakistan.

(b) Pakistani fortified positions and towns were to be bypassed, and thrust lines selected accordingly.

(c) Subsidiary objectives were to be selected in order to secure communication centres as also to destroy command and control centres. Enemy forces bypassed were to be dealt with later.

(d) In order to achieve the above it was essential to draw the Pakistani forces into the towns and border areas leaving Dacca and key areas lightly defended. In planning any operation for the liberation of Bangladesh, we in eastern command had also to cater for defence against any possible Chinese intervention, contain insurgency in the NE, and in addition ensure the defence of Bhutan.

The terrain in East Pakistan is divided by the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river systems into four sectors. We selected subsidiary objectives for each sector. In the north-western sector north of the Ganges and west of the Brahmaputra river we selected the communication centre of Bogra as the principal subsidiary objective. The western sector lies south and west of the Ganges. Critical objectives were Jessore, Magura, and Faridpur (Goalundo Ghat). Faridpur was to be the final subsidiary objective as it lay opposite the city of Dacca. We asked army HQ for two additional infantry divisions. 9 Infantry and 4 Mountain Divisions were already temporarily located here for anti-Naxalite operations. These we proposed to allot for this sector. The south-eastern sector lay east of the river Meghna. The key objectives were to be Daudkhandi and Chandpur on the river Meghna, an important river port in the proximity to Dacca. We had 57 and 8 Mountain Divisions with no artillery operating in a counter-insurgency role in Mizoram and Nagaland. We could use them in this sector. We would require an additional infantry division. 23 Mountain Division was the reserve for 4 Corps in Assam and could allot this division. For command and control of the sector we could use HQ 4 Corps, whose primary role was to defend against the Chinese in Tibet, which could move to this area leaving behind a small HQ at Tezpur. I had no doubt that Dacca, the geopolitical and geostrategic heart of East Pakistan, was the primary and final objective. No campaign could be complete without its capture. We needed one infantry division plus to move from the north as well as a para-dropped force to capture Dacca.

I sent an outline plan based on the above to army HQ in May which was delivered to the then director, military operations Maj. Gen. KK Singh by Brig Adi Sethna, the BGS at our HQ Eastern Command. Maj. Gen. KK Singh was later relieved by Maj. Gen. Inder Gill as DMO. The monsoon was about to commence in the east. Therefore we had very little time to build up the infrastructure and get the logistics in place. I ordered the brigadier in charge of administration of the HQ, eastern command, Brig. Chajju Ram, to go ahead and build up the infrastructure and logistics to support our draft outline plan. This meant working through the monsoons. We built up the infrastructure to cater for a full corps of two or more infantry divisions in Tripura. This entailed construction and improvement of roads in Tripura, increasing the capacity of the railroad, and construction of landing grounds. A total of some 30,000 tonnes were moved to Tripura. Signal centres and communications were established. Some 7000 tonnes were moved in the north to Tura in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya to support a division plus for the thrust to Dacca. Similarly, in the north-west and west there was a logistic build-up. This was done in anticipation of army HQ accepting our outline plan. We had hoped that there would be no major deviations. As the army commander, Gen. JS Aurora, was otherwise busy, I did not brief him on the build up of the logistics.

At the beginning of May Brig. Chajju Ram came to me with some routine papers for the army commander’s signature. As I was busy, I told him to go directly to the army commander to get them signed. Brig. Chajju Ram told the army commander of the progress in building up the logistical support and Aurora was taken aback and came to my office and told me not to proceed further, stating that we should await the army HQ’s operational instructions. I told him that it was difficult to stop the movement of stores now that the work was in progress. I told him that if we halted the build- up now we would not have the infrastructure and logistics in place when operations did eventually commence. I added that I could not visualise army HQ making any substantial changes to our outline plan. After much discussion, he reluctantly agreed to let the logistical build up continue.

We had at our disposal some military river landing craft at Calcutta and also in Assam, and the Calcutta flotilla had some craft capable of carrying tanks. I had intended to use the Calcutta craft in the Meghna river but they were unable to cross the open sea. I asked Vice Admiral N. Krishnan if his naval landing craft could operate there. He said that because of their draught they could not. I then decided to use these craft in the Ganges in order to support operations towards Dacca from the west. The water level of the Hoogly dropped towards the end of the monsoon so I decided to move the craft upriver north to Farakka in the months of June and July. These craft I had moved on 4 December to Hardinge Bridge which they reached on the 5 December. They reported to the new corps HQ that had been set up for control of the operations of 4 Infantry Division and 9 Infantry Division.

In the first week of August 1971, Gen. Manekshaw, accompanied by the director, military operations, Maj. Gen. KK Singh, arrived at Fort William to discuss their draft operation instruction sent to us in the beginning of August. Aurora and I attended the discussions that took place in the operations room. Though much of our draft plan had been incorporated, such as sectors and to some degree troop allocations to sectors, the essential basic strategy and objectives were not included. The aim of the army HQ Operation Instruction appeared to be limited to taking territory, and setting up a ‘provisional Bangladesh government’.

The principal objectives were to be the river port of Khulna (the principal anchorages being at Chalna and Mangla downstream) and the port of Chittagong. Dacca was nowhere mentioned. Manekshaw let the DMO do the talking. KK Singh stressed the importance of these two ports which he termed the entry ports, and that we should direct our main thrust to Khulna. I was flabbergasted. Aurora, on the contrary, nodded in approval. I explained that the question of ‘entry’ ports was irrelevant as our navy would certainly blockade them and deny entry or exit from them. In any event, Khulna was only a minor port, the principal anchorages being Mangla/Chalna downstream.

Also, although Khulna was relatively close to our border, there were several tidal unbridged rivers in between, with terrain too unsuitable for manoeuvre. Chittagong was peripheral and far from the geostrategic heart, namely Dacca. I maintained that it was imperative that we capture Dacca to control the whole of East Pakistan. Gen. Manekshaw smiled at me, using his favourite term of endearment, ‘Jake sweetie, don’t you see that if we take Khulna and Chittagong, Dacca will automatically fall. There is, therefore, no need to take Dacca.’ Further heated exchanges took place with the DMO. Eventually, Manekshaw turned to Aurora for support, ‘Jagjit, don’t you agree that if we take Khulna and Chittagong, Dacca will automatically fall.’ Aurora replied, ‘Yes Sir,I entirely agree.’ This was a view Aurora maintained right up to the commencement of hostilities. I was at a complete loss to understand the concept underlying Manekshaw’s operational thinking. However, before he left he did make one concession; that he would delete the word ‘weight’ in the context of the main thrust to Khulna! The meeting ended. On leaving the operations room, Manekshaw put his arm round me and said, ‘Jake, I am relying on you’.

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Excerpted with permission from Roli Books from the book, An Odyssey in War and Peace: An Autobiography, authored by Lt. Gen. JFR Jacob. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.