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History according to Jake

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Lieutenant General J F R Jacob’s second book, like his first, should be given a wide berth. An exercise in unabashed self-aggrandisement, shores up his reputation by destroying others’, a ham-handed attempt that ends in failure and leaves one gritting one’s teeth.

The innocent reader should have been warned in 1997, when Jacob published Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, an implausible chronicle of the Bangladesh campaign of 1971 that essentially argued that the official history was cockamamie. Jacob unblushingly claimed that he had masterminded that campaign; while his boss and his boss’ boss – eastern army commander (Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora) and the army chief (General, later Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw) – were incompetent figureheads who garnered the credit.

Now, has come out with a wider-ranging paean of self-adoration. In chapter after unrelenting chapter, Jake (as the author styles himself) recounts his army career. Moving with Jake from one posting to the next, the yawning reader quickly discerns a pattern: each boss is an incompetent wastrel with only one thing going for him — Jake’s arrival on the team. Predictably, Jake quickly sizes up the situation, bulldozes his plan through his dim-witted superiors, and pulls off a rescue act for which posterity should be grateful.

“Jake and I, we broke the Naxals,” he quotes West Bengal Chief Minister as telling “all and sundry” after anti-naxal operations in West Bengal. Even the moderately well-informed newspaper reader would wonder when and how the Naxals got back on their feet after Jake was done with breaking them. Don’t bother looking for the answer in this book.

For those looking for slander, obliges at every page-turn. One boss, Major General Reggie Noronha, is described as a “coward” who “loved his liquor and insisted that [Jacob’s] officers and their wives should attend the numerous parties” at his mess. Another one of Jacob’s commanders in Ladakh was “suffering from gout and did not move out of his headquarters”, leaving Jake to run affairs. The southern army commander, Lt Gen LP Sen, was “a pucca brown sahib [who was] more interested in attending the races in Bombay and Pune than in attending office or visiting combat units and formations”. And Jacob’s commander in 1971, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, is ridiculed as an ineffectual wimp who planned the travel of his wife to the surrender ceremony in Dacca in 1971, even as Jacob bulldozed the Pakistani commander into surrendering with 93,000 soldiers!

Lt Gen Jacob’s memoirs are located in a militarily interesting era from World War II; through the 1947-48 Kashmir conflict; the 1962 Sino-Indian war; the 1965 war with Pakistan; to the triumph at Dacca in 1971. Most soldiers of that period would have a story to tell. Sadly, Lt Gen Jacob clouds those events with his obsession with himself. Having been left out of battle in 1947-48 (he was in the artillery school in Deolali, Maharashtra); of the 1962 war (posted at Staff College, Wellington, Tamil Nadu), and in 1965 (back again in Deolali), a military psychologist would understand Jacob’s attempt to snatch all the credit for the 1971 Bangladesh campaign, independent India’s most comprehensive military victory. 

Lt Gen Jacob’s bete noir is the hero of 1971, Field Marshal S H F J Manekshaw, modern India’s best- known and acclaimed military commander. Most people who knew Manekshaw concede that his talent as a raconteur immeasurably enhanced his public charisma. But for Jacob, Manekshaw was a mere creation of a “media campaign”. He describes Manekshaw variously as anti-national; anti-government; anti-Semetic; verbally indiscreet and professionally indifferent. Jacob claims that Manekshaw had no combat experience other than “a brief spell” in 1942. Manekshaw’s famously colourful account of how he won a Military Cross for gallantry after being badly wounded in Burma is dismissed as “Manekshaw’s flair for the dramatic”. As proof of Manekshaw’s failings, the author cites the infamous court of enquiry ordered into his “anti-national” behaviour by the defence minister of that time, V K Krishna Menon, allegedly at the behest of his protégé (and virulent Manekshaw-hater) Lt Gen B M Kaul. Ironically, this same incident is usually invoked to illustrate Manekshaw’s uprightness.

Lt Gen Jacob recounts some shocking conversations with Manekshaw, unverifiable since the latter is dead. When Manekshaw was named army chief, he appointed Jacob the Chief of Staff (second-in-command) of the crucial eastern command. Jacob alleges that Manekshaw told him in a phone call that “he had very little confidence in [Aurora]”. When Jacob asked Manekshaw why, then, was he appointing Aurora to such a key position, the future field marshal allegedly replied, “I like to have him as a doormat.” Readers familiar with military custom and tradition would find this hard to swallow.

Independent India has produced dozens of combat heroes, young men and women as gallant as any in the history of warfare. But we can boast of a mere handful of world-class generals. Lt Gen Jacob’s vainglorious autobiography provides a psychological insight into how some generals put self before everything else, including the reputation of many who are no longer alive to answer and before an institution that emerges in appalling light.

Lt Gen
India: Roli Books, 2011
189 pages; $350

First Published: Wed, June 15 2011. 00:16 IST