Operation Searchlight And Creation Of Bangladesh – The Timeline
The 1970 polls kicked off a series of events which led to the breakup of Pakistan. Haider Imtiaz in a twitter thread has compiled the timeline into the conveniently forgotten history of Pakistan. On the night of March 25, 1971, Operation Searchlight was launched in erstwhile East Pakistan by the military regime led by Gen. Yahya Khan. The operation triggered a civil war in E. Pakistan which continued for 9 months & culminated in the creation of Bangladesh.
The immediate aim of Op Searchlight was to crush the civil disobedience movement launched by the Awami League in E. Pakistan, in response to President Yahya Khan’s decision to indefinitely postpone the inaugural session of the National Assembly elected through the 1970 elections.
1970 Elections Represented Split in Sentiments of Two Wings
In the December 1970 elections, the East Pakistan-based Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman had won the majority of the seats in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Under the LFO of 1970, the newly elected National Assembly was to frame a new Constitution for Pakistan. Awami League had also won an overwhelming majority of the seats in the Provincial Assembly of the province of East Pakistan. Awami League’s election manifesto was based on the Six-Point Program formulated in 1966. The Six-Point Program envisaged a federal parliamentary republic wherein the provinces of Pakistan would be fully autonomous. Following its overwhelming electoral victory, AL was determined to implement the Six-Point Program. Implementation of the Six-Point Program would’ve meant the establishment of a constitutional framework in Pakistan wherein the provinces, particularly the province of E. Pakistan, would’ve become fully autonomous & the Centre would exercise very limited powers over the provinces.
Hamid Khan points out in his book ‘Constitutional and Political History of Pakistan’ that even though AL’s manifesto was based on the SPP, ‘the Six Points were never examined in depth at the official level’. In W. Pakistan, ‘they were not taken seriously before the elections.’For AL, the first step towards implementation of the SPP was the convening of the inaugural session of the National Assembly by the President of Pakistan, wherein the elected representatives from all the provinces of Pakistan were to take their oaths & elect the PM of Pakistan. With AL having won the majority of the seats in the National Assembly, Sheikh Mujib was most likely to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. It was also quite obvious that AL would then push forward with its agenda of framing a new Constitution based on the Six-Point Program. Both of these possibilities were a source of great concern for the W. Pakistani military & political establishments which had dominated Pakistan since its inception.
The delay in Inaugural Session of Assembly was the key cause of strife
Post elections, Mujib demanded that the inaugural session be called at the earliest & latest by February 15, 1971. On the other hand, Z. A. Bhutto, leader of Pakistan Peoples Party, which had won the largest number of seats in W. Pakistan, insisted on a prior consensus between the political parties of both wings on the outline of a future Constitution before the inaugural session was called. Amid these circumstances, President Yahya fixed March 3, 1971 as the date of the inaugural session. In West Pakistan there were calls for delaying the session, particularly by PPP, on the pretext that more time would be needed for reaching a prior consensus on the Constitution. Meanwhile, AL had started working on a draft Constitution based on the SPP and was preparing itself for transfer of power. Considering the reservations of the West Pakistani leaders, Mujib indicated that their concerns will be addressed in the Assembly once it would be convened.
On February 15, 1971, Bhutto announced that Pakistan Peoples Party would not attend the inaugural session scheduled on March 3 in Dhaka, as Awami League had already drafted a Constitution on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. ‘Bhutto demanded that either the assembly session be postponed to allow for consultation between the AL and the PPP or the LFO’s condition to prepare the Constitution within 120 days be dropped.’
On March 1, 1971, President Yahya Khan announced that the inaugural session was being indefinitely postponed. (Read ‘Was Bhutto Responsible For Breakup Of Pakistan?‘) The indefinite postponement of the inaugural session indicated two things as far as the Awami League was concerned: firstly, Bhutto’s influence over the military regime, and secondly, that the regime was also in favor of compelling the Awami League to compromise on its Six Points. G.W. Choudhury, a Bengali member of President Yahya’s cabinet, states in his book ‘The Last Days of United Pakistan’ that when Yahya decided to postpone the session, he advised Yahya to give another date for the session so as to diffuse the reaction of the people of East Pakistan. Choudhury even drafted a postponement announcement to be delivered by the President in which he wrote: ‘I would, however, wish to make it absolutely clear that the postponement will not exceed two to three weeks and during this short period I shall make all endeavours to bring rapprochement between the elected representatives of the two regions of our country.’ However, this conciliatory sentence drafted by Choudhury about the timeline to hold the session was deleted and instead a statement to indefinitely postpone the session was issued by Yahya.
According to Choudhury ‘as soon as the postponement of the assembly session was announced over the radio, the reaction in Dhaka was violent. Mujib started what he termed ‘hartal’ & then non-violent non-cooperation but it was not the Gandhian type of non-violent non-cooperation nor was Pakistan’s ruling junta’s reaction marked by any moderation as was that of the British authorities. An almost parallel government began to function under Mujib’s instructions. Between March 3 and 25, 1971, the central government’s writ did not run in East Pakistan.’
As the central govt & martial law authorities lost control over the province, law & order began to break down.
On March 6, 1971, President Yahya announced a new date for the inaugural session: March 25. But ‘nothing seemed to cool down or reverse the situation.’ Maj. Gen. Khadim Hussain Raja, GOC of the Dhaka-based 14 Division at that time, explained the situation in detail in his book ‘A Stranger in My Own Country’: ‘The de facto position was that all organs of the E. Pakistan govt reported to Sheikh Mujib’s headquarters for instructions. Even the IG of Police had stopped coming to Martial Law headquarters, but had started reporting to Sheikh Mujib.’
According to Maj. Gen. Khadim, following the elections the military regime had apprehended such an eventuality. Therefore a military crackdown in E. Pakistan was envisaged in late Jan – early Feb, 1971. President Yahya had approved a plan in this regard called ‘Operation Blitz’. ‘In essence, Operation Blitz meant the suspension of all political activity in the country and a reversion to Martial Law rule. This meant that the armed forces of the country would be permitted to move against defiant political leaders and to take them into protective custody.’ However, in light of the situation prevailing in early March, Maj. Gen. Khadim & his officers were of the view that ‘it would be sheer ‘lunacy’ to attempt the operation. The problem could only be solved politically now; any attempt at the use of force would divide both wings…’
With political temperature rising & martial law authorities having lost all control over the local govt machinery, the Martial Law Administrator of E. Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yaqub Khan requested President Yahya to visit the province in order to reach a political solution. Lt. Gen. Yaqub’s efforts to convince President Yahya to visit Dhaka to find a political solution failed, consequently he submitted his resignation. Before him the Governor, Admiral S. M. Ahsan had also been relieved from his duty for opposing the postponement of the NA session.
Mujib’s Civil Disobedience Movement
Meanwhile on March 7, 1971, Sh. Mujib delivered his famous speech at Dhaka’s Race Course Ground where he spoke against the use of force against the Bengalis who had been agitating against the postponement of the National Assembly session.
Mujib spoke about how W. Pakistan had been exploiting the people of E. Pakistan since 1947 & was not ready to transfer power to its elected representatives. He, however, called the W. Pakistani army deployed in E. Pakistan as ‘brothers’ but warned them not to kill Bengali people. The four demands made in his speech reflected popular Bengali sentiments:
- Immediate lifting of martial law
- Immediate withdrawal of military personnel to their barracks
- Immediate transfer of power to elected representatives
- Inquiry into loss of life at the hands of the govt
Mujib also asked the people not to pay taxes & asked govt officials not to cooperate with martial law authorities. The tone of his speech reflected his popularity with the people of East Pakistan and the extent of his control over the province. Although Mujib had by then become the de facto ruler of E. Pakistan as a result of successful non-cooperation/civil disobedience movement, he refrained from declaring independence and clarified in interviews that he wasn’t necessarily seeking independence.
In the meantime, Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yaqub’s resignation was accepted by the President and he was replaced by Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan. Maj. Gen. Khadim states in his book that Tikka Khan’s appointment indicated that the regime was replacing the ‘doves’ with the ‘hawks’ in E. Pakistan. On March 15, 1971, President Yahya finally reached Dhaka & negotiations between him & Mujib started on March 16. PPP’s Bhutto also joined on March 21. The gravity of situation in E. Pakistan at that time can be gauged from this report by Associated Press.
The Ultimate Falling – Operation Searchlight was the final nail in the coffin
A lot has been written and said about why, or whether, these final talks between Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto failed. What is important is that by March 17, President Yahya had given instructions to Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan to prepare a plan for military action against the Awami League. Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan called Maj. Gen. Khadim Raja & Maj. Gen. Rao Farman Ali on the night of March 17 and informed them that the negotiations with Sheikh Mujib were not proceeding well ‘and the President, therefore, wanted us to be ready for military action and to prepare a plan.’
The two generals were told to plan together & discuss their plan with Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan on the evening of March 18. They prepared the plan on the morning of March 18 and named it ‘Op Searchlight’. It was approved by Lt. Gen. Tikka on the same evening ‘without any discussion.’
Once the plan was approved, preparations began. According to Maj. Gen. Khadim, verbal orders were given/conveyed to all West Pakistani officers in command of troops in E. Pakistan. No written orders were issued. As per Maj. Gen. Khadim, main elements of the plan were as follows:
By March 23, 1971 i.e. Pakistan Day, the situation was such that the Pakistani flag could hardly be seen flying anywhere in Dhaka except in the localities inhabited by Urdu speaking Biharis. This news report by CBS News reveals the situation:
The immediate aim of Operation Searchlight was to crush Awami League’s non-cooperation/civil disobedience movement and to restore the writ of the martial law authorities in East Pakistan. One of the very first steps taken in this regard was the arrest of Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman. Soon after, raids were also made to arrest other prominent AL leaders. All of them, except Dr. Kamal Hossain (ex Vice Chairman of Pakistan Bar Council), managed to escape before they could be arrested. These leaders later formed the nucleus of the Bangladesh government-in-exile. Major targets included the Dhaka University, which was the hub of pro AL/pro independence political activity. The army claimed that students there had armed themselves & it retaliated when it was attacked. However subsequent evidence revealed otherwise.
Although it was initially denied by the Yahya Khan regime, but fifty years on the brutal massacre of professors and students at the Dhaka University on March 26, 1971 is now a well documented historical fact. The massacre amply depicts the brutal nature of the military crackdown. During the first few days of the crackdown, reprisal attacks were carried out across major cities of E. Pakistan against pro AL/pro independence elements & any resistance whether armed or unarmed was brutally crushed. All political activity was banned & strict curfew was imposed. On March 29, 1971, the following news report was broadcast by BBC in relation to the crackdown:
Bengali Forces Rebel – Role of Muki Bahini
Another important aspect of Operation Searchlight was the disarming of the Bengali police and paramilitary personnel stationed in East Pakistan. The aim was to prevent pro-AL Bengali personnel from organizing an armed resistance in case of a declaration of independence by AL. This effort was only partly successful. Although many Bengali police and paramilitary personnel were successfully disarmed across the province, a number of them offered resistance and managed to escape with their arms. Most of them later joined the ranks of the Mukti Bahini. It had been decided that Bengali personnel in the military/armed forces won’t be disarmed initially. However, according to Maj. Gen. Khadim, prior to the launch of the operation, Bengali units were deliberately dispersed in order to prevent cohesive action on their part.From ‘A Stranger in My Own Country’
There were six battalions of the East Bengal Regiment of Pakistan Army deployed in East Pakistan at the time Op Searchlight was launched. The majority of the soldiers and officers in these battalions were Bengalis (as part of earlier efforts to increase Bengali representation). As per plan, these battalions were deliberately dispersed and were not to take part in the crackdown. However, as the news of the brutal action reached these units, Bengali officers and soldiers in these units began to rebel. In many cases, the rebellious Bengali officers and soldiers killed their West Pakistani compatriots who were serving in the same units, then marched towards the border along with their arms & ammunition & escaped into India. (Read ‘The first resistance against Pakistan: March 19, 1971‘)
Over the next few weeks, the officers & soldiers of these rebellious EBR units became the face of Bengali armed resistance against West Pakistani forces. They eventually formed the nucleus of the Mukti Bahini which waged a nine-month long civil war against the military regime. But more on that civil war later.
Report on Operation Searchlight
According to a special report on the breakup of East Pakistan: ‘…there is broad consensus, especially among Pakistani authors, that the scale and nature of atrocities conducted by the military was on a horrific scale.’ The Report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission puts the blame for the political crisis on all three: Yahya, Mujib & Bhutto. But it apportions the ultimate responsibility, esp in relation to the brutal military action, on Gen. Yahya Khan and his inner circle of military advisors. Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s conclusions with regards to the conduct of the army during Op Searchlight & the overall consequences of the operation are worth reading. Leaves little doubt as to why this report remained hidden for so long.
The fall of Dhaka is a critical event in our conveniently forgotten history. In many ways, the 1970 polls gave hope to the people of Pakistan but they were ‘conventionally’ disappointed. Revisiting the above events is crucial to learn from history and not to repeat the mistake of giving powers to the likes of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan.