Revisiting Operation ‘Searchlight’

Militarily “Operation Searchlight” was necessary as a pre-emptive strike. That an outstanding military success would end in a horrible human catastrophe and an unmitigated political disaster was also inevitable. Has anyone really been held accountable in Pakistan?

Posted on 03/24/17
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek
Bangladesh's national martyres monument in Dhaka. (Photo by nasir khan, CC license)
Bangladesh’s national martyres monument in Dhaka. (Photo by nasir khan, CC license)

Despite the complex and demanding negotiations during the tumultuous days of March 1971, a positive outcome was possible and seemed near but it came to grief because of the gameplan of extremists of both the sides.  The plans for military action to restore the writ of the central authority in East Pakistan was unanimous, finalized by the local military commanders a week before March 25. Given its inevitability only the timing was a surprise.


Operation ‘Searchlight’ aims were to (1) restore military control over the administration of East Pakistan (2) dismantle the Awami League (AL) by taking Shaikh Mujibur Rahman and his leadership circle into custody and (3) disarm the Bengali troops in the Army, East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) and the police to prevent an organized rebellion.


The fourth aim was to conceal the character and severity of the operations from the West Pakistani population and the international community. All internal and external communications were closed, foreign journalists rounded up and deported.  This contributed to force-multiplying the adverse Indian propaganda. Because of the persistent disinformation plan through 1971 the West Pakistani public were mostly unaware of the circumstances availing in East Pakistan, and thus were shocked, at the reasons for the defeat in Dec 1971. It took them and the Pakistan Army personnel (in West Pakistan) many years to come to terms with the truth. Many are still living in self-denial even today.


GOC 14 Division Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja briefed Commanders 53 and 107 Brigade in Comilla and Jessore respectively, Commanders 23 Brigade in Rangpur and 57 Brigade in Dacca (Dhaka) were briefed separately, GSO-I Intelligence 14 Div Lt Col (later Brig) Muhammad Taj SJ took over command of 32 Punjab and along with 18 Punjab was tasked to clear Dacca of all miscreants.


Sheikh Mujibur Rahman waited in his house in Dhanmondi for the Army to arrest him. The troops moved out of Dacca (Dhaka) Cantonment around 1 am on March 26 only after he was taken into custody by SSG. Under explicit orders from Gen Yahya Khan he was not harmed.  Mujib had ordered AL’s leadership on March 25 to disperse to Dacca (Dhaka) old town as soon as the military moved and cross the river to avoid arrest.  The majority escaped detention and crossed the border into India.


Teaching in Dacca University being suspended since the beginning of March, most students had returned to their homes. Rokeya Hostel for girls was vacated much before Mar 25. The militants remaining in the hostels were joined by other students from Dacca and surrounding places and by volunteers.  EPR Peelkhana and the Rajarbagh Police Lines were also attacked. Soldiers will respond with overwhelming force when fired upon, to civilians even a rifle company’s firepower can be awesome to behold.


About Dacca University Sarmila Bose writes: “The realty is that there were weapons, and training, and no matter how unequal the firepower, a few Bengalis apparently did put up a fight. The numbers of dead in Jaganath Hall, the hostel for Hindu students, and Iqbal Hall differ widely. The ‘victim’ story denies them their true role while undermining the creditability of the narrative as a whole as it is contradicted by Bengali eye witness accounts themselves.” Rumors of mass graves dug by soldiers the same night in order to hide the dead bodies have strangely never been investigated by the Bangladeshis. Even today (46 years later), a mass grave can throw light on the real number of dead.


Before March 25 Bengali officers and men located in East Pakistan comprised about 4,500 regulars in 6 battalions of the East Bengal Regiment (EB) (10 EB being a National Service Battalion), about 1500 in the Regimental Centre (EBRC) at Nutanpara, Chittagong and along with 12-15,000 East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) personnel about 45,000 Bengali policemen. While not organized they were numerically superior to West Pakistan. There were enough indicators of an imminent military operation, changing the CO 2EB with CO 32 Punjab (albeit another Bengali officer) only confirmed their worst suspicions. On the other hand Brig Mazumdar Commandant EBRC  sent Capt. (later Maj Gen Bangladesh Army) Amin Ahmad Chaudhry to India before Mar 25, Brig Pande IG BSF post-haste sent him by air to New Delhi to meet the Indian PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  Even though this was not known to the Army Brig Mazumdar was brought to Dacca on the pretext that he was needed to calm down 2 E8 at Joydebpur which had become restive after the removal of their CO.


Thousands of civilians, some of them armed, gathered to side with the Bengali troops. Sarmila Bose says “The disarming of Bengali police and Bengali personnel turned into a bloodbath in many places with casualties on both sides, and many Bengali personnel escaped with their arms, to return to fight another day.”  The disarming of 3 EB in Rangpur became a bloody affair with many casualties on both sides, “action” in Dinajpur and Saidpur during night of 25/26 March was only partly successful. The disarming in Pabna and Kushtia was botched resulting in massacre of many non-Bengalis.


On 26 Mar after killing the CO and other West Pakistani officers 8 EB momentarily captured Chittagong City, isolating it from the Cantonment. With the naval base in Chittagong having half their personnel Bengali, securing Chittagong harbor was essential for the survival of the Pakistan military. Securing Comilla Cantonment 53 Brigade HQs and 24 FF were tasked to retake Chittagong. Delayed by demolished bridges, it took them until the end of March to recapture the city.


The Army succeeded in reestablishing control over most of East Pakistan by end April 1971 but not before incurring considerable collateral damage. Conversely massive excesses took place against non-Bengalis in isolated communities, most of them women and children, neither can be minimized or brushed aside by either side, neither should they be magnified. Labeling any of this “genocide” is patently wrong and grossly incorrect. Spare a thought and prayer for all those who were killed, non-Bengali and Bengali, still Pakistanis by name till December 16 1971.


The stupidity of our military and political leaders in 1971 (and their selfishness) gave India opportunity to blatantly do what they had been attempting surreptitiously for years, dismember the finest experiment in nationhood of its kind. Officers and men of EB, EPR and police along with thousands and thousands of volunteers crossed over to India and were re-organized by them with arms and training as the ‘Mukti Bahini’.


Given the complete civil disobedience and numerical military superiority of possible organized resistance, militarily “Operation Searchlight” was necessary as a pre-emptive strike. That an outstanding military success would end in a horrible human catastrophe and an unmitigated political disaster was also inevitable. Has anyone really been held accountable?


(A defense and security analyst, the writer acknowledges with gratitude assistance from Dr Bettina Robotka of Humboldt University, Berlin).

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