Operation Searchlight

A horrified and shocking chapter in the birth of Bangladesh

Tina S
Tina S
Mar 24, 2010
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We all know about operation searchlight, a planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Army. The violence resulting from Operation Searchlight led to the war of liberation by the Mukti Bahini against Pakistani "occupation" forces in Bangladesh. Ultimately, fully fledged Indian retaliation resulted in Pakistan Army's unconditional surrender to the joint command of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini on December 16, 1971.

It started on 25 March to curb the Bengali nationalist movement by taking control of the major cities on 26 March, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. Before the beginning of the operation, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from East Pakistan.

On March 25th 1971,in Tejgaon airport, Dhaka, General Yahya, Pakistan’s military dictator, before boarding his special aircraft turned to General Tikka Khan, Commander Eastern Command, and ordered “Sort them out!” Operation Searchlight had received the green signal from the highest authority in the land. The operation to “sort out” the Bengali citizens of Pakistan was launched around midnight on that fateful day in the nations turbulent history. Operation Searchlight extinguished the lives of many innocent Bengalis.

According to the Asia Times,“At a meeting of the military top brass, Yahya Khan declared: "Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands." Accordingly, on the night of 25 March, the Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight to "crush" Bengali resistance in which Bengali members of military services were disarmed and killed, students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated and able-bodied Bengali males just picked up and gunned down.”

Three correspondents at the risk of their lives managed to stay in hiding and they were Arnold Zeitlin, Michael Laurent, and Simon Dring. On March 31st 1971 the daily Telegraph of London published Simon Dring’s eyewitness account of Operation Searchlight. Datelined Dhaka it was called “How Dhaka paid for a united Pakistan”

Dring’s account of the army’s attack on Dhaka University was horrifying and shocking but vivid and factual. “Led by the American supplied M-24 World War 11 tanks one column of troops sped to Dhaka University shortly after midnight. Troops took over the British Council library (situated within the campus) and used it as a firebase to shell nearby dormitory areas. Caught completely by surprise some 200 students were killed in Iqbal hall head quarters of the militant anti Govt. students union I was told. Two days later bodies were still smoldering in burnt out rooms, Others were scattered outside, more floated in a nearby lake. At another hall reportedly soldiers buried the dead in a hastily dug mass grave, which was then bulldozed over by tanks. People living near the university were caught in the fire too and 200 yards of shanty houses running alongside a railway line were destroyed.”

After midnight on March 25th the city of Dhaka resounded with the sound of gunfire and the pungent odor of cordite. Tikka Khan was faced with a massive popular revolution, which he tried to crush with brutal military force and ruthless measures. Dhaka University, the Headquarters of the Police in Motijheel, and the strong hold of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) in Philkhana bore the brunt of the army’s onslaught. Heavy weapons such as the 105-mm recoilless rifles were freely used. Major Zia-ur-Rehman the second in command of the East Bengal regiment (EBR) killed all the non Bengali officers in his unit and announced the formation of the Govt. of Bangladesh from the Chittagong Radio station on March 26th 1971.

Residential halls of the University of Dhaka were particularly targeted. The only Hindu residential hall — the Jagannath Hall — was destroyed by the Pakistani armed forces, and an estimated 600 to 700 of its residents were murdered. 

The Pakistani army denies any cold blooded killings at the university, though the Hamood-ur-Rehman commission in Pakistan concluded that overwhelming force was used at the university. This fact and the massacre at Jagannath Hall and nearby student dormitories of Dhaka University are corroborated by a videotape secretly filmed by Prof. Nurul Ullah of the East Pakistan Engineering University, whose residence was directly opposite the student dormitories.

Various parts of old Dhaka, including Hindu majority Mahallas such as Shankhari Patti and Tantibazar came under mortar shells. Hundreds of inmates were gunned down. It was estimated that more than 50,000 men, women and children were killed in Dhaka, Chittagong, Jessore, Mymensingh, Kushtia and other cities within the first three days of the genocide beginning from 25 March 1971. 

In an editorial, The Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper, reproduced some accounts of the day. I quote a few incidents of atrocities from the same source:

- "At Jagannath and Iqbal Halls, students were mown down mercilessly. Other students were forced to dig a large grave and once that was done, they too were shot. All the bodies were dumped into the grave, which was then bulldozed by the army."

- "Soldiers burst into the quarters of the philosopher Gobinda Chandra Dev and murdered him. They also killed the mathematics teacher Rafiqul Islam. And they left Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, a senior teacher in the English Department of Dhaka University, seriously wounded."

- "Outside the campus, the soldiers razed the Kali Mandir, a Hindu temple inside the Race Course compound, to the ground. In similar fashion, they blew up the Central Shaheed Minar before the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. On the streets, common citizens were murdered at random. Rickshaw pullers died even as they slept on their three-wheelers."

- "The military also set fire to the Ittefaq and Sangbad newspapers, leaving those inside dead or wounded."

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested by the Pakistani Army. Yahya Khan appointed Brigadier (later General) Rahimuddin Khan to preside over a special tribunal prosecuting Mujib with multiple charges. The tribunal sentenced Mujib to death, but Yahya caused the verdict to be held in abeyance. Other Awami League leaders were arrested as well, while a few fled Dhaka to avoid arrest. The Awami League was banned by General Yahya Khan.

The original plan envisioned  taking control of the major cities on 26 March 1971, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid May.


Author's note: Ref: Archive of the war genocide of 1971,Banglapedia and some blog posts.
Keywords: Operation Searchlight,1971,march 25, Pakistani army, genocide,Jagannath hall, Dhaka University,Asia Times,Mukti Bahini,Hindu residential hall,General Yahya,General Tikka Khan,Simon Dring.

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