On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched “Operation Searchlight.” It should have been a blitzkrieg. It became a genocide.
by Massimo Introvigne
As discussed in previous articles, the immediate cause of the Bangladesh genocide was the victory of the Awami League, which represented the interests of East Pakistan, in the national Pakistani political elections of December 7, 1970, where it obtained the absolute majority of the seats in the Assembly. The Western Pakistanis had no intention of being governed by Eastern Pakistanis, and both President General Yahya Khan (1917–1980), who was in power as head of a military regime, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), the leader of the largest party in West Pakistan, started negotiating with Awami leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), called Mujib by Bengalis, trying to find a solution.
Mujib kept negotiating, but he went to his last meeting with Yahya Khan, on March 23, 1971, after having raised the flag of independence before a cheering crowd.
However, while negotiations were still going on in March 1971, by February the Pakistani Army had decided to intervene and put East Pakistan under a regime of military occupation. Riots in early March where Bengalis killed some 300 immigrants from the Indian state of Bihar, which were hostile to the Awami League, were later cited by the Army as the reason for the intervention. However, we now know that the decision to intervene had already been taken before the riots involving the Biharis.
Most documents on what happened in 1971 remain classified in Pakistan but in 2000 some were declassified, including (with the omission of some enclosures) the report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, created in Pakistan in December 1971 to investigate the atrocities. While the report was ridiculed internationally for assessing the Bengali victims at 28,000 (even a figure ten times higher would have been too low), it did reveal, together with other documents, what the Western Pakistani establishment and the Army expected to achieve with the intervention.
Initially, the plan of the Pakistani Army anticipated that East Pakistan will be “pacified” in two weeks by some 30,000 soldiers from the West. The main leaders of the Awami League, and the intellectuals supporting them, will be arrested. Dhaka University, whose students had been the backbone of previous revolts, will be put under military control. East Pakistan troops, which were theoretically part of the same Pakistani Army but whose loyalty was doubted, will be disarmed. Publications of all media, radio, and television will be suspended, and East Pakistan will be put under a provisional military administration.
The plan, codenamed Operation Searchlight, started on March 25, 1971, after all foreign correspondents had been expelled from East Pakistan. It should have been concluded by April 10, but this was not to be. Mujid was captured on the first day of the operation, and sent to West Pakistan to be detained near Faisalabad. International protests avoided worst consequences for the Awami leader, but he was in prison for the rest of 1971. However, the capture of Mujid alerted the other Awami leaders, and most escaped to India or went underground.
Both university students and East Pakistan troops put up a resistance much stronger than expected, galvanized by the announcement by the Awami League of March 26, made on behalf of the incarcerated Mujid and broadcast from a radio in Chittagong still under control of the Bengalis, which proclaimed the independence of East Pakistan under the name of Bangladesh. In the same day, the Pakistani Army had secured control of Dhaka University, a key target, but only after killing some 400 students and professors. Hundreds of female students were then raped.
Eastern Pakistani soldiers also resisted disarmament, and thousands were killed in the first days of Operation Searchlight. By April 10, when theoretically the operation should have ended, the Pakistani Army controlled Dhaka and other major cities, although still finding resistance in Chittagong, but medium-sized cities such as Rajshahi and Sylhet and large areas of the countryside remained under the control of forces loyal to the Awami League.
Rather than the conclusion of the operations, April 10 saw the formation of a provisional government of independent Bangladesh in India and the formal institution of a Bangladeshi army, the Mukti Bahini. Ironically, the provisional government was established in Agartala, the very place where, as discussed in a previous article, where according to the Western Pakistani authorities the Awami League had started a conspiracy to overthrow the government, although it took oath on April 17 in Eastern Pakistani soil, in Baidyanathtala (renamed Mujibnagar after independence in honor of Mujib).
The reaction of (West) Pakistan was escalation. More troops were sent, eventually approaching the number of 100,000, and an ill-fated decision was taken to arm militias of Eastern Pakistanis hostile to the Awami League. They were either Bihari Muslims or Islamic fundamentalists, including members of the Jamaat-e-Islami. These militias will become responsible of some of the worst atrocities in the following months, and retaliation against them after the independence will lead to the killing by Bangladeshis of thousands of Biharis and members of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Arming the militias was part of a new program, a war of extermination aimed at killing entire parts of the East Pakistan’s population. We will discuss how the genocide developed in the next article of the series.