Monday, June 24, 2019 | ePaper

Operation Search Light

The beginning of an end

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Dr. Md. Shairul Mashreque and M Abul Kashem Mozumder :
We observe 25th March as the horror of brutal operation that had caused a tremendous bloodshed -- this was Operation Search Light. According to a White Paper published on August 5, 1971 by the Pakistan government, Major General Khadim Hossain Raja, GOC of 14 Division and Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan, GOC of 57 Division came to a decision on February 22, 1971 regarding the army expedition named "Operation Search Light." The brutal operation was   aimed at curbing revolution of the Bengalis nation against the conspiracy of Pakistani military junta.
Pakistan army was waiting for a mortal strike and the moment came when Yahya Khan before leaving Dacca in the night of 25th March ordered army crackdown as a military solution to the post election political impasse. Unfortunately Yahya Khan opted for a crackdown instead of providing a political solution of the crisis. The apprehensive crackdown began after 11pm. The army launched an attack all of a sudden on Bengalis in a frantic attempt to 'crush the autonomy movement'.  In the fateful night of 25th March the soldiers started going on rampage by killing unarmed civilians in Dacca with unprecedented brutality.
According to a report, "on March 25, 1971 under cover of darkness, one of the most gruesome crimes in the history of mankind was perpetrated by the blood thirsty military junta against a whole population of seventy-five million, constituting the majority of the people of Pakistan." Bangabandhu in a clandestine broadcast transmitted the call for declaration of independence on 26th March 1971. He also 'declared the 75 million people of East Pakistan as citizens of the sovereign independent Bangladesh'. Since then people were fighting gallantly with the occupation force across the country. The official Proclamation of Independence issued on 10th April 1971 confirmed the declaration of independence by Bangabandhu.
The first target of the Operation Search Light seemed to have been the students. Caught completely by surprise, a large number of students perhaps (may be 200) were killed in Iqbal and Jagannath halls.  Bodies of the victims were smoldering in burnt-out rooms, other being scattered outside and some dumped in nearby drain.
As the varsity campus came under attack, other columns of troops moved on to attack Rajarbagh Police Lines and East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) barrack at Plikhana with tanks and artillery killing the soldiers at night when they were sleeping. The Rajarbagh Police Lines was attacked without warning with mortar, tanks by a large number of army cut-throats. Although there was resistance, most policemen were believed to be asleep when they were attacked and to have died during the fighting. The barrack building was completely leveled by heavy shelling and was gutted by fire. The EPR barrack at Pilkhana was attacked by the similar army forces. The number of EPR soldiers killed was unknown, although reliable estimates indicated that nearly 1000 EPR soldiers were stationed over there. A large number of EPR was reported to be trucked away. Their fate was unknown.
About three battalions of troops were used in the massacre at Dacca - one of armoured, one of artillery and one of infantry. They went on rampage killing the defenseless people indiscriminately, burning houses and engaging in looting and arson. There happened to be colossal massacre with Bengalis dying all the way around the city. The crackdown that 'killed all those hundreds in the space of a few hours included some of the most eminent men of letters' in the country, including Munir Chowdhury, Dhirendranath Dutta , GC Dev and   Jyotirmoy Guhathakurata and others.  Leading political activists were arrested, others being killed. The military removed dead bodies of numerous unarmed civilians including hawkers and rickshaw pullers.  There were photographs showing vultures and dogs eating dead bodies left in open space.
The situation that turned abnormal after the 1st March, 1971 due to the postponement of the date of National Assembly carried some ominous signs. On the one hand mass resistance was going on with the participation of some hyperactive student radicals and the plot of the army generals was going on to stage a Dacca drama of mindless killing spree on the other.  In fact Yahya Khan had set the stage for final blow. Dialogue for negotiations was used to cover mobilisation of forces in East Pakistan for creating a reign of terror. On 23rd March Bangabandhu rejected the invitation of Yahya Khan to attend the meeting of the leaders of the Parliamentary groups in the National Assembly in the wake of widespread killing of unarmed civilians in some important places (Bangladesh Documents vol. I 1999).
While Bangabandhu demanded withdrawal of Martial Law to harness the process of transition to democracy notification issued by the Cabinet Division on 6th March, 1971 to appoint Tikka Khan as the Governor of East Pakistan replacing extremely gentleman Vice Admiral S.M. Ahsan was a great provocation. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court did not administer the oath of Tikka Khan.
Before staging the violent showdown on 25th March, 1971 Yahya's troops caused bloodshed in several places opening fire on the demonstrators and protesters. There was military action in Saidpur, Rangpur. Joydevpur, Tongi, Gazipur, Chittagong and other places with heavy firing on the civilian population, and of atrocities being committed on them. The police forces were completely by-passed thus indicating bad intention of military junta. Reports were pouring from Chittagong of heavy firing from 23rd to 24th March, 1971 as there was resistance around the sea port for unloading sophisticated firearms from Swat. In fact the junta set the stage for dress rehearsal for horrendous act of genocide targeting the Bengalis.     
The Operation Search Light marked the beginning of wholesale genocide by the   Pakistan occupation army with Mukti Bahini giving tough resistance here and there applying guerilla tactics. The genocide was "deliberately planned and executed ruthlessly by the Pak army and was marked among other unspeakable atrocities by the systematic decimation of Bengali intellectuals, including eminent professors, lawyers, journalists, doctors, students, etc."
So, the new nation state of Bangladesh was born through heavy bloodshed. Supreme sacrifices made by the martyrs are ever written in blood. The Liberation War of Bangladesh fought by the Mukti Bahini, both shaheeds and ghazi, remains "an immortal saga of pain, sacrifices and sufferings". Now there has been a spontaneous mass appeal for the trials of war criminals that included murderous Pakistani occupation forces and their quislings and cohorts.
Aims of the Operation Search Light were: The operation shall start simultaneously in the entire East Pakistan; * Maximum number of politicians and student leaders, teachers and "extremist" activists of cultural organisations will be arrested; * The operations in Dacca will have to be a 100% success. To that end Dacca University shall have to be captured; * The security of the Dacca Cantonment must be ensured; * All sorts of domestic and international communications must be disrupted; * Telephone exchange, radio, TV, teleprinter service, transmitter in the foreign consulates must be stopped; * The soldiers of the EPR must be disarmed and in their places West Pakistani soldiers would take charge.
Besides, the 32-Punjab Regiment shall disarm 1,000 Bangali policemen in Rajarbagh Police Lines; * 18-Punjab Regiment will launch attack on the Hindu majority areas of Shakhari Patti and in other parts of Old Dhaka; * A group of selected soldiers from 22 Baluch, 18 and 32 Punjab Regiments will attack Iqbal Hall (Zahurul Haq Hall), Jagannath Hall and Liaquat Hall of BUET, which are known as centers of strength of the rebels; * One platoon of commando soldiers of Special Service Group will attack the house of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and will arrest him; * The Field Regiment will control the second capital and the adjoining settlements (Mirpur-Mohammadpur); * In order to show strength, a small squadron of M-24 tanks will be moving on the road and will start shelling, if necessary.
It was the beginning of genocide and as such the beginning of an end. Yahya Khan let loose a reign of horror unleashing brutality all the way in the night.
The Pakistani soldiers came out of the Cantonment at 11:30pm, launched indiscriminate attack on the demonstrating Bengalis in the Farmgate area, and thus initiated the Operation Search Light. They arrested Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from his residence. At dead of night, they launched operation at the teachers' residential quarters of Dhaka University and killed a huge number of students and nine teachers.  Under the same planning, serious attacks were carried out in Old Dhaka, Tejgaon, Indira Road, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Dacca Airport, Ganaktuli, Dhanmondi, Kalabagan and Kanthalbagan areas. In the same night, many people were killed and injured in Chittagong by the firing of the army.
Under the same plan, the offices of national newspapers like the Daily Ittefaq and the Daily Sangbad were set on fire for supporting the movement of the Bengalis. A good number of journalists and media personnel were burnt to death.  On the eve of the genocide on March 25, then president Yahya Khan left Dhaka for Karachi, but Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then president of the Pakistan People's Party who came to Dacca for a dialogue with Sheikh Mujib, observed the operation from the Hotel Intercontinental of Dacca.  On March 26, Bhutto on the eve of his departure highly appreciated the action of the army and commented, "Thanks to God that Pakistan could have been saved."  
The White Paper published on 5th August termed the operation "inevitable".  The accurate figure of casualties in the night of 25th March could not be estimated. But foreign journalists working in Dacca at that time suggested that the number be between 10,000 and 35,000.  From the report of journalist Simon Dring published under the caption Dateline Dacca in the Daily Telegraph on 29th March, it was revealed that 200 students of Iqbal Hall, teachers and their family members numbering 12 in Dacca University residential area had been killed on that night. In Old Dhaka, around 700 people were burnt to death. [Sources: Banglapedia and]
Operation Search Light in fact had set the beginning of destroying Pakistan marking the emergence of a new nation in the midst of stormy gestation period. Destruction was enormous and bloodshed was tremendous for achieving the independence.

(Professor Dr. Md. Shairul Mashreque and M Abul Kashem Mozumder, Pro  `VC, BUP)

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