In an apparent resolute voice Lt Gen Jacob said, "I will give you 30 minutes and if you do not agree, I will order the resumption of hostilities and the bombing of Dhaka."
With these words Gen Jacob walked out of the room.
That was a desperate move on his part. Because the room he was standing in belonged to Lt Gen AAK Niazi, the supreme commander of the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh. Gen Jacob was trying to bring the wounded "Tiger" (as Niazi was nicknamed then) to his knees.
It was in the afternoon of December 16, 1971. These two men were locked in a bitter bargain over the process of surrender of the Pakistani forces.
"Who said I'm surrendering?" Niazi had said a moment earlier, when he had been handed the instrument of surrender. "You have only come for ceasefire," he also said.
It was a crazy thing to do. Alone and surrounded by indignant and hawkish Pak officers at the heart of their own den, Gen Jacob was trying to whittle out something unprecedented in military history: a surrender in a public ceremony in front of thousands of people.
The 30-minute deadline Jacob hurtled towards Niazi was a gamble that actually determined the fate of the negotiation.
The final moments of the fall of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka were full of twists and turns. The memoirs of the key players on both sides of the enemy line, and the scattered records of eyewitnesses reveal a day that kept unfolding dramatic developments, packed with brevity, desperate overtures and cunning subterfuge.
For the Joint Forces of the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini, capturing Dhaka had to be brief and quick because of the liquid situation. In reality, it was so quick and brief that even the top brass of the Joint Command became a little baffled. Dhaka, the fortified bastion of the Pakistani occupation forces, fell like a house of cards.
The cheerful Niazi
General Jacob was not the first Indian officer to set foot on Dhaka Cantonment, the headquarters of the eastern command. A few hours earlier, in the morning Major General Gandharv Singh Nagra, commander of two Mountain Brigades of Indian Army, along with freedom fighter Kader Siddique had arrived at the compound, shook hands with Niazi and had a cordial chat with him. The Pakistani general mistook Nagra for an official negotiator of surrender and gave the team of four a victor's reception. In fact, Nagra was meant to keep Dhaka besieged from the north.
In a later interview with the Indian newspaper The Tribune, Nagra remembered the day vividly. He said:"…when I walked into Abdullah's (Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi) office in Dacca [now Dhaka], there was instant recognition. General Niazi had put on some weight, though his face still had the same glow.
"'Hello Abdullah, how are you?' I asked him.
"Abdullah broke down and exclaimed: 'Pindi mein bethe hue logon ne marwa diya' (The people sitting in Pindi doomed us). I let him talk to lighten his heart. There were reminiscences. Tea followed and of course there was forced friendliness. The rest is history."
This scene bore a bit of irony because Niazi and Nagra had both got commissioned in the British Army on the same day. So, it was sort of two classmates meeting after a long time.
Kader Siddique in his memoir "Swadhinata '71" wrote: "Introducing me to Niazi, Gen Nagra said, 'Meet this man, the sole representative of Mukti Bahini, for whom you could not close your eyes even for a night's sleep.'…At the mention of my name Niazi instantly stood from his chair, saluted and extended his hands for a shake, which Siddique declined. Nagra said, 'There is no problem shaking hands with a defeated commander-in-chief. In fact, it's the gesture of a hero."
Rao Farman Ali, the man behind the massacre of intellectuals prior to Bangladesh's independence and the military adviser to the East Pakistan governor, remembered the day in his memoir "How Pakistan Got Divided".
"Entering Gen Niazi's office, I was became baffled at what I saw. I found Niazi seated on a chair in front of Gen Nagra. Kader Siddique of Mukti Bahini was also there wearing a general's uniform. In a cheerful mood Niazi was reciting from Urdu poetry … I heard Niazi asking Nagra whether he understood Urdu poems or not … Niazi started to crack Panjabi jokes. Niazi has regained his previous mood, leaving behind the gloomy, broken composure he was wearing for 10 days."
Siddiq Salik in his book wrote that the jokes the two generals cracked were so nasty that they could not be deemed printable.
Rao Farman Ali read the conditions of surrender which Nagra handed to him by and protested against the prospect of surrendering at the hands of the Joint Forces. He insisted that the words "Joint Forces" be erased as it contained the name Mukti Bahini.
The crumbling fortress
In the war of '71, Gen Niazi, an accomplished strategist, had adopted a military tactic that was called "Fortress Strategy". According to this plan, he turned a number of major towns of East Pakistan into fortresses, where Pakistani forces were instructed to fight the advancing Indian Army to a certain point and then fall back in Dhaka. Hence Dhaka would become an impregnable fortress.
Niazi's plan was to fight a prolonged war till international community could force the Indian side to a ceasefire. All through the last days of the war, Niazi was convinced that he was going to have Chinese forces from the north and American forces from the south to his aid. So, all he had to do was hang on for a while.
In his memoir "Witness to Surrender" Major Siddiq Salik, the then public relations officer in East Pakistan Army, wrote that he had brought Niazi's attention to the limited number of troops and resources at their disposal. Niazi responded by saying, "In war, it is not the number but the generalship that counts."
The Indian Army and the Joint Forces took a different move. Lt Gen Sagat Singh (Commander 4 Corps) and Maj Gen Gandharva Nagra (Commander 101 Communication Zone) bypassed and blocked Niazi's fortresses so effectively that nothing substantial could fall back to Dhaka. His fortresses crumbled at a gentle breeze.
Field Marshal Michael Carver, a retired Chief of Defence Staff of Great Britain and a known military expert, in his book "War since 1945" writes about the quick fall of Dhaka: "This blitzkrieg, as it could truly be called, was a classic example of the application of Lidell Hart's theory of the expanding torrent, first pioneered by the German army with its tactics of infiltration in the Ludendorff offensive on the Western Front in March 1918."
At the dawn of December 16, 1971 the Pakistani high command rose to the news of two battalions of Indian Army banging at the doorstep of Dhaka.
Major General Nagra was standing at the Mirpur Bridge (at present Gabtoli) and from there he sent a message directly to Niazi. He wrote:"My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up. I suggest you give yourself up to me, and I will look after you."
When the messenger entered Niazi's den, he was conferring with a number of top brass officers.
This moment is vividly described in Rao Farman Ali and Siddiq Salik's memoirs. Salik wrote:"Major-General Jamshed, Major-General Farman and Rear-Admiral Shariff were with General Niazi when he received the note at about 9 am. Farman, who still stuck to the message for 'cease-fire negotiations', said, 'Is he [Nagra] the negotiating team?' General Niazi did not comment. The obvious question was whether he was to be received or resisted. He was already on the threshold of Dacca.
"Major-General Farman asked General Niazi, 'Have you any reserves?' Niazi again said nothing. Rear-Admiral Shariff translating it in Panjabi, said, 'Kuj palley hai?' (Have you anything in the kitty?) Niazi looked to Jamshed, the defender of Dacca, who shook his head sideways to signify 'nothing'. 'If that is the case, then go and do what he [Nagra] asks,' Farman and Shariff said almost simultaneously."
The trembling knees
In fact, the Pakistani generals were suffering a shattered morale from the first week of December after India formally declared war on December 3. From then onward there were a number of messages between Niazi and Pak GHQ in Rawalpindi and between Governor Dr Malik and President Gen Yahya Khan. Niazi and Dr Malik kept updating West Pakistan about the fast deteriorating situation.
On December 10, Niazi informed the Pak GHQ that India had helidropped a brigade size force south of Narsingdi and paradropped a brigade in Tangail. In fact, it was just 2 para-battalion in Tangail and not a brigade.
Niazi desperately asked that the promised foreign help should reach East Pakistan by first light December 12. Instead, he received a false hope from the CGS Gen Gul Hassan: "White friends [Americans] will come from the south and Yellow friends [Chinese] will come from the north."
Finally, early on December 14, Gen Yahya sent a signal to Niazi and the Governor Dr Malik. Yahya praised them for fighting a heroic battle against overwhelming odds and asked Niazi to take all necessary measures to stop the fighting and save lives of armed forces personnel from West Pakistan and of loyal elements.
On the same day, at 11:15am, three Indian MIGs attacked the Government House and bombed the main hall where an emergency meeting of the cabinet of the provincial government was being held. The bombs ripped the massive roof of the hall. Governor Malik rushed to the air-raid shelter and reportedly hiding under a table scribbled out his resignation.
On that day the governor and his whole cabinet took refuge at Hotel Intercontinental, which had been converted into a Neutral Zone by the International Red Cross. This was meant for the international community staff who were working inside the war zone. But most of West Pakistani VIPs, including chief secretary, inspector general of police, the commissioner of Dhaka division and provincial secretaries "dissociated" themselves from the government in writing and crowded into the hotel.
From December 14, the civil government of East Pakistan ceased to exist. The military generals also were looking desperately for ways for a ceasefire or surrender – any ways to end the war and save their lives. They were worried about the wrath of marching freedom fighters and frantically sent messages to their bosses in West Pakistan and sought approval for a safe exit.
Siddiq Salik wrote:"By now, General Niazi, too, had lost all hopes of foreign help. He slumped back into his earlier mood of despondency and hardly came out of his fortified cabin."
After receiving a message from President Yahya, General Niazi on the evening of December 14 decided to initiate necessary steps to obtain a ceasefire. He was seeking someone as an intermediary. He first thought of Soviet and Chinese diplomats, then finally chose US consul-general in Dhaka. Gen Niazi and Rao Farman Ali both went to the office of Mr Spivak and asked him to negotiate ceasefire terms with the Indians. Mr Spivak agreed only to forward a message.
Hence, it was through the US consul-general of Dhaka that a message from Niazi and Rao Farman Ali reached Indian Chief of Staff General Sam Manekshaw, calling for an immediate ceasefire. The message sought guarantee of safety of Pakistan armed forces and protection from reprisals by Mukti Bahini.
The following day Maneksahw replied that a ceasefire would be acceptable and the safety would be guaranteed only if the Pakistani Army surrenders to his advancing army.
On December 16, General Jacob flew from Calcutta. Touching down on Dhaka, he went directly to the Headquarters of Pakistani Eastern Command and showed Niazi the written instrument of surrender which he had drafted all by himself and waited for the final approval that eventually did not come.
All the generals including Rao Farman Ali protested. They said it was a ceasefire arrangement they could sit for, not a surrender, let alone in a public ceremony and to the Joint Forces.
In his memoir "Surrender at Dacca" Gen Jacob has an elaborate description of the tough negotiation:"I was a little annoyed and pulled Niazi aside. 'I have been talking to you for three days,' I told him. 'I have offered you terms that you will be treated with respect and under Geneva Convention. We will protect all ethnic minorities and everyone. If you surrender, we can protect you. If you do not surrender, I wash my hands off anything that happens.'"
Then Gen Jacob conveyed the 30 minutes ultimatum to decide on a surrender or face the consequences and he then left the room.
Gen Jacob wrote:"Once outside, doubts assailed me. 'What have I done?' I thought. 'I have nothing in my hand. He has 26,400 troops in Dhaka and we only have 3,000, and that too thirty miles away.'"
For quite some time, Gen Jacob paced the veranda of the military headquarters in a city behind enemy lines. He was alone and unarmed.
He wrote:"The other officers present with him had in no uncertain terms voiced their extreme displeasure at my demand, but I remained unfazed. Logic was my sword, faith the shield. The fate of millions hinged on the reply of the enemy commander to my no-nonsense threat. Only I knew I had been bluffing. For me, this was a defining moment of my life. I used all my control to appear calm as I paced back and forth. I was completely alone. I wondered what would happen if he said no."
Thirty minutes later, as Gen Jacob re-entered the room, he wanted to know the decision. Gen Niazi was silent. Gen Jacob picked the surrender document lying on the table and said, "I take it as accepted."
He said in a resolute voice, "General, you will surrender on the Race Course in front of the people of Dacca."
It was sometime past 1:00pm and there was little time left for the arrangement of a surrender ceremony. There were still sporadic fights going on in different parts of the city. Gunfire shots could be heard.
At around 4:30pm, General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the Commander in Chief of the Eastern Command, arrived at the Dhaka airport. Jacob and Niazi went there to receive him. Among the entourage was AK Khandoker, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Mukti Bahini. The Chief of Staff was not there as he was busy in Sylhet in a military operation.
AK Khandoker in a memoir wrote: "People thronged around Ramna. We waded through the crowd towards the podium. The surrender ceremony was simple and brief. There was only one table and two chairs on the podium. General Niazi and General Aurora occupied the chairs. The ceremony was a bit chaotic. The guests could hardly stand due to the pressure of huge crowd…
"The instrument of surrender was brought in. Gen Niazi first signed the document and then Gen Aurora followed. Aurora extended his pen towards Niazi to sign. The pen was not working initially. Aurora flicked it several times to get the ink running and handed it back. Later on, we came to know that Aurora had bought the pen from Calcutta with the surrender ceremony in mind.
"Once the signing was over, the two commanders rose from their chairs. Then according to the tradition of surrender, General Niazi with a trembling hand and a melancholic face handed his revolver to Aurora."
And thus ended the last chapter of the nine-month-long war that saw untold bloodbath and emergence of a new nation – Bangladesh.