For an ordinary student of History, it is puzzling to know that Bangladesh does not celebrate its Independence day on the day that it seceded from Pakistan i.e. 16th December and instead on 25th March.
This was the day when Operation Searchlight was started by Pakistan Army against its own citizens and Army’s proxies Al-Shams and Al-Badr played their own ugly part in it. Bengalis chose to commemorate the martyrs of Operation Searchlight and chose March 25th as the Independence Day.
Following is an excerpt from Owen Bennet-Jones’ excellent book, “Pakistan: Eye of the Storm” on the fateful day, 42 years ago.
The order went out at 11.30 p.m. on 25 March 1971. Operation SEARCHLIGHT was underway and all over the East Pakistani capital, Dhaka, Pakistani troops fanned out to secure key objectives. After months of talks, the junta in Pakistan had decided on military action to bring the East Pakistani leadership into line. Pakistan’s military planners realised from the outset that Operation SEARCHLIGHT could alienate Bengali personnel inside the police and armed forces and that many Bengalis would disobey orders to suppress their fellow people. Worse still, they could take their weapons and use them in a fight for an independent Bangladesh. Consequently, one of Operation SEARCHLIGHT’s first objectives was to disarm any Bengali soldiers or police officers. In many places, the plans went awry.
In Chittagong, home to the Eighth East Bengal Regiment, most of the soldiers were East Pakistani Bengalis but some of the officers came from West Pakistan. As soon as the disarming operation began the Bengalis resisted. Hundreds of Bengalis in the Chittagong cantonment were killed before Major Zia ur Rehman (who later became president of Bangladesh) took the initiative. When he found out what was happening he did not hesitate. ‘We mutiny!’ he said. At midnight he went with a group of Bengali soldiers to the house of his commanding officer, Lt. Colonel A. R. Janjua and called him to the door. ‘I am taking over and you are under arrest,’ he said. Within minutes, Janjua and six other officers from West Pakistan were locked in an office. The Bengali soldiers wanted blood. At half past midnight the arrested officers, all from Punjab, were shot dead in the office. Addressing Bengali soldiers shortly afterwards Major Zia proclaimed, ‘We have mutinied. From this moment on we are in independent Bangladesh. Pakistan is no more.’
At 8.00 p.m. on 26 March General Yahya addressed the rapidly disintegrating Pakistani nation. The political negotiations, he said, had failed. Denouncing Mujib as an obstinate, obdurate traitor, he declared that it was the duty of the armed forces to ensure the integrity, solidarity and security of the country. The party that had won the overwhelming backing of the East Pakistani people, the Awami League, was banned. ‘I should have taken action against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his collaborators weeks ago,’ declared Yahya. ‘He and his party have defied the lawful authority for over three weeks. They have insulted Pakistan’s flag and defiled the photograph of the Father of the Nation. They have tried to run a parallel government. They have created turmoil, terror and insecurity.’
By the time he spoke, the Pakistan army had already moved into action. After the final breakdown of the talks with Mujib, Yahya had left Dhaka by plane. Operation SEARCHLIGHT began the moment he reached West Pakistani airspace. For weeks, West Pakistani troops in Dhaka had been too afraid to leave their barracks. Even to be seen in public risked violent attack from Bengali activists – some soldiers had been killed in the city in broad daylight. The troops wanted revenge and, in the words of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, ‘It was as if a ferocious animal having been kept chained and starved was suddenly let loose.’
At midnight, a commando unit raided Mujib’s house and, after a brief fight, arrested the Awami League leader. The Pakistan army’s next targets were any Bengalis with weapons.
While some soldiers from West Pakistan were trying to gather arms from their erstwhile colleagues, others headed for Dhaka University, long considered a hotbed of Bengali nationalism. At 2.00 a.m. soldiers arrived at two student hostels and met strong resistance but within a couple of hours the army had prevailed. It is impossible to say how many died – quite probably hundreds. By the morning, freshly-turned earth indicated that the West Pakistani troops had dug mass graves.
Dhaka was, more or less, under control but outside the city it was a different story. With their obstinate refusal to understand East Pakistani opinion, the senior officers in West Pakistan predicted that the general population would remain largely neutral. It did not. The Bengali population stood full square behind their arrested leader, Mujibur Rahman. The West Pakistani troops responded to this defiance with furious aggression, murdering and even massacring whole villages, women and children included. The man in charge of the campaign, General Tikka Khan, himself conceded that the West Pakistani troops killed as many as 30,000 people. Presumably, the true figure was far higher.
For all the difficulties it faced, though, the Pakistani army soon felt it was getting the upper hand. Even if they refused to acquiesce, the Bengalis suffered from a lack of arms and by May the army had managed to establish control of all the major towns. The countryside, however, remained a much more difficult proposition. And, as the Bengalis became better organised, the Pakistan army’s problems mounted: ‘From June onwards’, Major General Shaukat Riza recalled, ‘the Pakistan army was chasing ghosts. Every bush, every hut, every moving thing was suspect.’
When killing Bengalis, the Pakistani soldiers used a euphemism: their victim, they used to say, ‘was being sent to Bangladesh’. The following quotations are from Pakistani officers who gave evidence to the Hamoodur Commission Report:
There was a general feeling of hatred against Bengalis amongst the soldiers and officers including Generals. There were verbal instructions to eliminate Hindus. In Salda Nadi area about 500 persons were killed. When the army moved to clear the rural areas and small towns, it moved in a ruthless manner; destroying, burning, killing.
—Lt. Col. Mansoorul Haq
Many junior and other officers took the law into their own hands to deal with so-called miscreants. There have been cases of interrogation of miscreants which were far more severe in character than normal and in some cases blatantly in front of the public. The discipline of the Pakistani army, as was generally understood, had broken down.
—Brigadier Mian Taskeenudin
General Niazi visited my unit at Thakurgaon and Bogra. He asked us how many Hindus we had killed. In May, there was an order in writing to kill Hindus.
—Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmed Khan.