Haunting history- 50 years of Operation Searchlight in Dhaka
Operation Searchlight started on March 25, 1971. Over the next 267 days, three million Bengalis were killed; lakhs of women brutalised. Around 10 million people fled the country to escape brutality
Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman secured a majority in Pakistan’s General Election of 1970. He should have become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. But Pakistan refused to hand over power to the Awami League. In January, 1971, President General Yahya Khan, PPP leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto & the military brass met in Larkana and decided in favour of military action. Pakistanis gave a name to their vicious plan- ‘Operation Searchlight’.
General Tikka Khan, infamous as the ‘butcher of Baluchistan’, was appointed the chief of East Pakistan Military Command. He knew how to crush an uprising with his past experience in Baluchistan. He reportedly said, ‘I don’t need people, just the soil’. Major Gen. Rao Farman Ali, who served under General Tikka Khan, wrote in his diary- ‘The green soil of East Pakistan would be turned red’.
In his diary, Gen. Farman listed the names of Bengali intellectuals killed. After the liberation of Bangladesh, few pages of this diary were salvaged from the Governor House in Dhaka.
The mobilization of the army continued unabated from February onward. A meeting between Mujib-Bhutto-Yahya in March, 1971 was a diversionary tactics as soldiers and arms were flown and shipped to East Pakistan. Soldiers of 22 Baluch Regiment & 13 Frontier Force Regiment were flown into Dhaka in civilian dress by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).
PIA’s Bengali crew and officials noticed this and refused to service those fights. Two of them planned to blow up a plane carrying troops in civilian dress but were nabbed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Thereafter Pakistan Air-force took over control of PIA flights. Light arms were carried by the troops coming by air while heavy arms & artillery were brought in by ships. MV SWAT arrived at Chittagong port with seven thousand tons of ammunition. Tanks were also brought into Dhaka for the operation from Rangpur. East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) and police were kept out of the exercise.
Instead, the army planned to first attack EPR headquarters at Pilkhana and Police headquarters at Rajarbagh and snuff out any possibility of resistance by killing Bengali soldiers in cantonments of East Pakistan and other Bengali armed personnel.
On 25 March, 1971, Yahya khan left Dhaka after it was decided to begin the crackdown at 6 pm. By 10.30 pm, the troops took over the TV and radio stations in Dhaka. An hour later, the indiscriminate killing of Bengalis commenced. EPR headquarter, Police Headquarter, University of Dhaka, EBRC of Chittagong came under attack. In the second phase, Pakistan army began to kill civilians.
The genocide continued for the next nine months till December when the Indian army and Bangladesh Mukti Bahini liberated Dhaka and forced 90,000 Pakistani soldiers to surrender. The genocide remains the largest & the bloodiest massacre since WWII.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested after midnight, minutes after he declared Bangladesh independent in response to the bloodbath. Two weeks earlier on March 7, Sheikh Mujib had warned people about West Pakistan’s ill intentions and called upon the people to be prepared to launch a freedom struggle. The rest, as they say, is history.