Exploding Myths About 1971 – Part 4: Contextualizing Operation Search Light

by Dr. Junaid Ahmad
The military operation ‘Operation Search Light’ was launched by Pak army to counter the insurgency and lawlessness in East Pakistan in early March 1971. Pakistan and its army is bashed by Indian and Bangladeshi propagandists for killing, raping and massacring innocent Bengalis to normalize the deteriorating law and order situation in East Pakistan. Such a prejudiced version based on the situation in East Pakistan. The objectives of the military operation and operational mechanisms of Pakistan army, Awami League’s anti-state campaign under the leadership of Mujib, the Indian created and backed Mukti Bahini’s reign of terror, and more specifically the context in which the operation was initiated by Pakistan army. In this article, we a provide a contextual and casual analysis of this operation to offer a better understanding.
In the first place, it’s imperative to understand the causal background of the Operation Search Light. The controversial and rigged general elections held on 7th December, 1970, resulted in an overwhelming victory of Mujib’s Awami League in East Pakistan, and Bhutto’s Pakistan People Party (PPP) in West Pakistan. Both parties lacked a constructive approach and Bhutto did not agree to share power, thus, making political collision inevitable. Adding the Indian ill-intentions in the mix, it became a perfect recipe for creating chaos, causing loss of life and property. The stubborn attitude of both the leaders, Mujib and Bhutto, resulted in an unending political deadlock. This political crisis provided Awami League with ample grounds to sell hatred against Pakistan and its institutions. When the political split further deteriorated, Mujib ceased the opportunity to start a civil war in East Pakistan.
On 1st March, 1971, when meeting of the National Assembly was postponed third time by Yahya Khan, Mujib called for province-wide strike and agitation, thus, formally launched assault against united Pakistan. Sharmila Bose, in her book, Dead Reckoning, reports; “Within one hour of Yahya’s announcement 50,000 to 60,000 people, carrying bamboo sticks and iron rods, jammed all the roads in front of Hotel Purbani. They burnt the Pakistani Flag and Picture of Jinnah too, and there were slogans and processions, and shops, restaurants and cinemas owned by non -Bengalis were looted and burnt”. Several other attacks on the persons and property of non-Bengalis were reported in other parts of the Province.
L F Rushbrook Williams, in his book, The East Pakistan Tragedy, published in 1972, gives a detailed chronological account of atrocities of Awami League in first week of March, he reports; “On March 1, Awami league militants looted and burned many shops and houses and raided the Narayanganj Rifle club, On March 2, two firearms shops were looted and arms taken to an arsenal which was being started in Jagnath Hall [ Dhaka University]. On March 3, mob violence spread to other parts of Dhaka, particularly Islampur, Patnakhali Bazar, and Nawabpur. Shops, private houses belonging to non-supporters of the Awami League and business premises were looted and set fire, where 5 were killed and 62 were wounded. On the night of March 5-6, militants tried to set fire to the British Council premises, and on 6th March, there was a jail break of 341 prisoners from the central Prison. The escaped prisoners joined Awami Leaguers and shouted Anti-Pakistan slogans”.
In his speech of 7th March, 1971, held in famous Race Course Ground in Dhaka, Mujib clearly stated his vicious designs by calling for civil disobedience and armed resistance against central government, he said; “Make every house into a fortress and fight the enemy with whatever they had…………; The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation; the struggle now is the struggle for our independence.” He revealed his plan and ordered for the establishment of a parallel government. He called for complete closure of all government offices, educational institutions, courts and organized Revolutionary councils in every district and union council. The revolutionary Councils were basically formed to supervise the reign of terror of Awami League terrorists. Reporting about the speech in Race Course at Dhaka, Anthony Mascarenhas in his book, The Rape of Bangladesh, published in 1971, writes; “Huge crowd gathered to hear Mujib at the race-course on 7th March, they bought with them a variety of Weapons – Shot guns, swords, home-made spears, bamboo poles and iron rods”. The presence of such deadly weapons clearly demonstrates the intentions of the violent mob. With this announcement, the Indian trained terrorists of Awami League ruthlessly started their anti-Pakistan campaign, and killed, looted, and raped innocents non-Bengalis and Biharis all over East Pakistan.
West Pakistani and non-Bengalis were not the only victim of Awami League’s brutality, even the peaceful foreigners and the armed forces also faced the wrath of these goons, Sharmila Bose in her book, Dead Reckoning, reports that; “Anti- Foreigners violence increased in Dhaka during this period. On 12th March two bombs exploded at the US consulate and one of the attackers fired a revolver. More shots were fired at the consulate on 15th March. Molotov cocktails were thrown at American consulate buildings and the Intercontinental Hotel on 19th March. Bombs were also thrown at the Dacca Club, the British Council, American Life Insurance Company and American Express”. Likewise, she also reports about the attacks and blockade against the army. She writes; “Food and fuel supplies were blocked and shops and local markets would not sell the army anything. There was no fresh food – no fish, meat, vegetables or even milk for infants. The army’s movement was disrupted, and army personnel were attacked and their weapons snatched. Some of these encounters turned deadly”.
In all of East Pakistan, non-Bengalis continued to be the unarmed prey of Awami League terrorists, their homes and shops were looted and later burnt, their women folk and young girls were raped, killed and their bodies were mutilated and dumped. The final nail in the coffin of political reconciliation was struct by Mujib, when he declared 23rd March (Pakistan’s Resolution Day) as the ‘Resistance Day’. Meanwhile, the general strike in East Pakistan became a non-cooperative and violent movement. Awami League was in-charge of the all anti-Pakistan terror campaign and was operating a parallel government and Mujib was issuing orders like a de facto ruler.
H M Seervai in his book, Partition of India, Legend and Reality, published in 1989 reports that till 25th March, “the number of West Pakistanis and Biharis killed by Awami League militant were more than 100,000, including 15,000 at Santar, 10,000 at Chittagong and 2,000 at Mymensing”.
LF Rushbrook Williams, in his book, The East Pakistan Tragedy, published in 1972, summarizing the events from the postponement of National Assembly meeting to the beginning of Operation Search Light writes; “The widespread and inhuman massacre of men, women and children by Awami League militants during their brief reign of terror in March and April 1971, although factually reported by several foreign correspondents, aroused comparatively little attention throughout the world. Yet it was true genocide in the worst sense of the word. No pen could do justice to their ghastly nature as shown by the Photographs taken by the Army authorities. Rooms ceiling splashed with blood and carpeted with corpses; pariah dogs and crows feeding on the dead; men, women and even small children hurriedly shoveled into graves; bloodstained dolls and toys pathetically testifying to the fate of their baby owners – these were some of the sights which the Army met when at length they overcame the obstacles of blocked roads, blown-up bridges, and the water-transport destroyed, the number of murdered cannot be less than 120,000 and may be far higher, as corpses were just thrown into the rivers and carried away”.
The army acted only when Pakistani flag was burnt, public and private property was demolished and plundered, unarmed civilians were slaughtered and raped and when Indian armed and trained terrorists of Awami League tried to take over the state affairs. It was in the early hours of 25th March, 1971, when Pakistan army started its crackdown against the terrorist of Awami League, and as a result on the very next day, Major Zia-ur-Rehman via radio proclaimed East Pakistan as ‘Peoples Republic of Bangladesh’. Such an announcement clearly demonstrates the mindset of Awami League and its allies. The Operation Search Light was exploited by the Awami League to evoke separatist emotions within Bengalis and thus it also provided ground for direct Indian intervention. The incompetence of the political elite within West Pakistan further alienated the people of East Pakistan.
This context has been deliberatively overlooked to undermine the objectives of the Operation. The aforementioned highlights from the vicious campaign of Awami League brings us to the conclusion that, Operation Search Light was entirely a defensive operation which aimed to restore normalcy and writ of the State in East Pakistan.
The military objectives of Operation Search Light as stated by the Army Head Quarters were: “To seal-off the borders, to create conditions for creating a civilian set-up, to regain the administration of the province, to accommodate the non-radical elements of the elected representatives into a new political arrangement”. The short-term objectives were; Disarming all Bengali troops, Arrest the Awami League Leadership, Imposition of the Martial Law, taking over airfields, taking over Chittagong Naval Base, Ensure Security of all towns, Cut off communication links of East Pakistan with other parts of the world and to Take over Radio and TV Stations. Moreover, the army had clear and strict orders to rescue and not to target civilians at any cost.
After understanding the military objectives of the Operation, any individual with little understanding of military operational mechanism would agree that the Operation was entirely targeted to curb Awami League led reign of terror. The rules of military necessity and proportionality of the Operation amid such worsening law and order situation also qualifies the operational objectives and its mechanism.
To sum up, the Operation had three different phase, in the first phase, the foremost objective was trying to restore law and order, then later it was fighting the Indian engineered battle against the terrorist of Awami League and Mukti Bahinis, and lastly it was to fight the large Indian forces. Operation Search Light was the last resort, as the political negotiations had failed and law and order situation kept deteriorating, the Operation was inevitable, which was ordered only after the civil administration failed to maintain law and order situation. Such operations are inevitable amid civil unrest in any country. As the defenders of nation’s security, the army cannot act like by-standing spectators when the terrorists are shaking the pillars of the state. Everywhere such limited scale and targeted Operation are initiated to maintain law and security. In statecraft mechanism, one does not shower rose petals on those who brutally kill and rape innocent citizens and challenge the writ of the state. Therefore, Operation Search Light must be comprehended in the given context.
Pakistan Army has carried out such operations to restore writ of the state in Karachi in the 1990s, in Swat and recently in North Waziristan. In all these operations, it took only necessary measures to control the law and order situation and protected public property and life. The world acknowledges these army actions as entirely successful. Operation Search Light was similarly executed, the difference being Indian backing to both Awami League and Mukthi Bahini terrorists openly.

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