One of the tragic ironies of history is that Pakistan, a country created explicitly to safeguard Muslims from predatory non-Muslims, perpetrated in 1971 the single-largest massacre of Muslims since the birth of Islam.
The man whose plan halted the bloodbath in what was then East Pakistan and led to the birth of what is now Bangladesh — one of the largest Muslim nations on earth — was Jewish.
Lieutenant General (retired) Jacob Farj Rafael Jacob, who passed away at the age of 93 in New Delhi last week, was born in 1923 to a family of affluent “Baghdadi Jews” in Calcutta.
His parents sheltered Jewish refugees fleeing Adolf Hitler, and their stories motivated the young Jacob to enlist in the British Indian Army, despite the objections of his family.
The only antisemitism he ever experienced, he later told an interviewer, “was from the British in their army. Among Indians [antisemitism] does not exist”.
Jacob rose steadily through the ranks of independent India’s army. The genocide in East Pakistan — in which Pakistani troops slaughtered three million, displaced ten million, and coerced half a million women into sexual slavery — made Jacob restless with rage.
As refugees began flooding India, Jacob, then chief of the eastern command of the Indian army, started work on a plan for the liberation of East Pakistan.
His peers shouted him down but Jacob persisted, laying down roads and building communication infrastructure for an eventual war with Pakistan.
On 3 December 1971, Pakistani air force launched a massive pre-emptive attack on India. India responded by punching deep into the eastern territory.
Jacob intercepted AAK Niazi, commander of the Pakistani forces, on wireless and terrified him with news of an imminent Indian assault aided by Bengali freedom fighters. The next day, Jacob had the governor’s mansion bombed by the Indian air force.
When Niazi agreed to a ceasefire, Jacob landed in Dhaka with an instrument of surrender. The Pakistani general was furious. Who had said anything about surrender? Jacob, dogged as ever, placed the document on the table. “General,” Jacob said, “I cannot give you any better terms. I will give you 30 minutes”. Smoking his pipe outside Niazi’s office, Jacob felt more anxious than ever: Niazi’s fighting force outnumbered India’s by 10 to 1. Jacob said the Sh’ma Yisrael and walked back inside. “General, do you accept this document?” he asked. Niazi was in tears. Dhaka had fallen. But Jacob was not satisfied with this enormous victory. He wanted Niazi to surrender at the Ramna Green racecourse in Dhaka, in front of the Bengali masses. “I won’t,” Niazi shrieked. “You will”, Jacob snapped. “You will also provide a guard of honour.” On 16 December 1971, General Niazi surrendered. Jacob, aided by Bengali freedom fighters, had liberated an entire nation in 13 days.
Jacob never really retired. After leaving the army, he served as governor of Goa and Punjab. Some saw him as an ideal candidate for the presidency of India. He played a key part in the deepening of India-Israel relations. Israel’s most revered leaders were his close friends, and his Indian army uniform is on display at Israel’s Yad La-Shiryon military museum — a recognition of his role in forging the friendship between India and Israel.