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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The tragedy of East Pakistan: Operation searchlight, myth or reality?

Operation Searchlight was the codename for a planned military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army in an effort to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in former East Pakistan in March 1971. As per instruction of the Chief of Staff General Abdul Hamid Khan on 17 March, General Khadim Hossain Raja finalized the plan of Operation Searchlight.

26th March 1971. The day “Operation Searchlight” began against the supposed uprising of the Bengalis in Dhaka. But did the operation really begin that day? Some international reports have it that it was decided in February 1971 and later in early March two Major General’s Rao Farman Ali & Khadim Hussain Raja put the finishing touches to that. But that would render all the negotiations and talk that was being held at the frantic pace a futile exercise.

Knowing the professionalism of the Pakistan army, it’s more likely that it was an alternate plan developed in case the talks failed. Talks did fail. Whether we can put it to Bhutto’s refrain of “udhar tum idhar hum” (you there and we here), or Mujibur Rahman’s obstinacy or the failure of the political class to hammer out a settlement or a preplanned scripted scenario played out that way, whatever the reasons were the talks did fail. The Pakistan army had no choice but to operationalize the implementation of “Operation Searchlight” and that they did.

Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Understanding the issue of free and fair elections

What was the “operation searchlight”?

History does not portray the Pakistani political class in a favorable way when they look back at January to March 1971. The situation on the ground kept on deteriorating day by day and the mood turned vicious & civil disobedience spread in the local populace & law and order situation went almost out of control. The set-up of a parallel government on the ground can be seen by everyone. While some of the thinkers clearly opined that internal politics aside, a party holding 53 % of the seats (167 in a house of 313) deserves to be in the government.

There was no rationale that can be offered to keep Shaikh Mujibur Rahman out of the office of Prime Ministership of Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did not even sweep the election in West Pakistan and got 81 seats out of 138 (which is just 59 %) and if combined then just 27 % of seats. So there was no justification to keep the Awami League out of the government and for Bhutto to be Prime Minister.

The total mishandling and irresponsible behavior of the political class led to a situation where Shaikh Mujib gave a speech on the 7th of March 1971 at Ramna Race Course ground where he called for a fortress to be built in every house of Bengal. He proclaimed “The struggle this time, is a struggle for our liberty. The struggle this time is a struggle for our independence” That was in reality a revolt. That was the last nail in the coffin. That was the time when “Operation Searchlight” became a real option.

The situation went from bad to worse 

The political class at no point in time showed the inclination to sit down and talk things out. The differences could have been sorted out, the allegation was of discrimination, the call was for more equality, the call was not for separation. By the 25th of March the situation totally went out of control & to take back the province “operation searchlight” was put into motion.

While Awami League had full mass support and street power at their call, they were ill-prepared for an armed conflict. The East Bengal Regiment were few and sparsely distributed with mixed command, East Pakistan Rifles a paramilitary force originally designed as a border force and anti-smuggling unit revolted and so did the police. However, Pakistan had a very professional army and the “operation searchlight” covered all aspects of the war scenario which was implemented very strongly by the Pakistan Army. By the 25th of May, all small pockets of resistance had been wiped out and total state control had been established on East Pakistan. There were claims and counterclaims of atrocities that historically have been underplayed and overplayed depending on which side you favor.

Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Sowing of Discord

The next three months June, July and August were the months of fatal mistakes that sealed the fate of Pakistan. In 60 days, the resistance was wiped out, the armed insurgency and for the other side, the war of liberation was over. East Pakistan was under full control of the state of Pakistan.  That was the time when Pakistan should have started political activities. Indians were clearly displaying signs of aggressive intent, but the monsoon hindered them from full aggression. Pakistan should have started a dialogue with the Awami League supremo Shaikh Mujibur Rahman with the full participation of the political class.

Assured him that he is to be the next Prime minister of Pakistan, declared a general amnesty for the Awami League leadership who crossed over to India, negotiated based on giving and take and opted for a political settlement of the issue. Pakistan wasted the time when peace could have been negotiated rather than went in with more power with classical mistakes of unpopular political paramilitary forces like Al Badr and Al Shams spawned by Jamaat e Islami. Historically in a situation like this unpopular political paramilitary forces usually go for settling personal scores and exacerbate the situation. That’s what happened. Excesses by the paramilitary forces added fuel to the fire & added to more people becoming refugees in India.

A nightmare of a campaign was over

Once the monsoon was over and India had the option of direct participation and with the logistics and supply source so far & not open the outcome was an open and shut case. The local population was totally hostile, supply source blocked, unknown terrain, language problem, motivation problem, everything was against Pakistan. The only way Pakistan could have survived the situation was an intervention by a third country, a superpower China or USA.

At that time Pakistan did not have the strategic importance for any superpower to risk a war on their behest. Well-trained Pakistan army fought to their utmost ability but 16th December was the day when General A.A.K.Niazi surrendered to General Arora. It was inevitable, it was a fait accompli it was to be and to be it was. No army can capture their own country and hold it without a political settlement.

The day will live in the memory of Pakistanis for thousands and thousands of years. Every year in the month of December the wound becomes fresh and festering once again. It also raised many questions about the nation, the one nation that became two after a blood bath. The Pakistani nation. 1972 was a year of depression for Pakistanis.

Read more: Forks in the Road: The fatal decision that precipitated a revolt in East Pakistan

Looking back, we can see that we took an election victory and turned it with our idiocy, shortsightedness and lack of political vision into a separatist movement and dismembered ourselves. India was a medium, but we actually did it to ourselves. 4 days after the dismemberment of the country Zulfikar Ali Bhutto realized his dream to become Chief Executive of Pakistan when he was sworn in as a Civilian Chief Martial Law Administrator and President of Pakistan. Alas!

The author has worked for Unilever for 25 years. He is a professional translator/interpreter of five languages and is also a certified computer trainer. He is currently living in Virginia, USA. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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