Was operation search light essential?

Dr Junaid Ahmed

Operation Search Light’ (OSL) was launched by Pakistan army to counter the insurgency and lawlessness in East Pakistan started early March 1971. Why it became essential needs to be understood in the backdrop of situation prevailing in that part of the country.On 1st March, when the National Assembly meeting was postponed third time by Yahya Khan, Mujib ur Rehman called for province-wide strike and agitation, thus, formally launched assault against united Pakistan. Sarmila 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 Pakistan 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”.
L F Rushbrook Williams, in his book, The East Pakistan Tragedy, published in 1972, gives a detailed chronological account of atrocities of Awami League (AL). He reports; “On March 1, AL 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 AL and business premises were looted and set on fire, where 5 were killed and 62 were wounded. On the night of March 5-6, militants tried to set fire the British Council premises, and on 6 March, there was a jailbreak of 341 prisoners from the Central Prison. The escaped prisoners joined AL and shouted Anti-Pakistan slogans”.
In his speech of 7 March, held at Racecourse, Mujib unveiled his design by calling for civil disobedience and armed resistance against Islamabad. “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 called for closure of all government offices, educational institutions, courts and organized Revolutionary Councils in each district and union council. Anthony Mascarenhas in his book, The Rape of Bangladesh, published in 1971, writes; “Huge crowd gathered to hear Mujib at the Racecourse, they brought with them a variety of weapons – shotguns, swords, home-made spears, bamboo poles and iron rods”.
Sarmila Bose reports; “Anti-Foreigners violence increased in Dhaka during this period. On 12 March two bombs exploded at the US Consulate and one of the attackers fired a revolver. More shots were fired at the Consulate on 15 March. Molotov cocktails were thrown at American Consulate building and the Intercontinental Hotel on 19 March. Bombs were also thrown at the Dhaka 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 struck 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.
LF Rushbrook Williams, in his book, The East Pakistan Tragedy, further writes; “The widespread and inhuman massacre of men, women and children by AL militants during their brief reign of terror in March and April 1971 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 army acted only when Pakistan flag was burnt, public and private property was destroyed and plundered, unarmed civilians were slaughtered and raped and when Indian trained AL terrorists tried to take over the state affairs. It was early hours of 25 March, when army started its crackdown against AL and as a result the very next day, Maj Ziaur Rehman via radio proclaimed ‘Peoples Republic of Bangladesh’. Such an announcement clearly demonstrates the mindset of AL and its allies. Operation SL was exploited by AL to evoke separatist emotions within Bengalis and thus it also provided ground for direct Indian intervention. The incompetence of political elite within West Pakistan further alienated the people of East Pakistan.
The military objectives of OSL as stated by the Army HQ were “to seal off the borders, to create conditions for creating a civilian setup, to regain administration of the province, to accommodate non-radical elements of the elected representatives into a new political arrangement”. The short-term objectives were; disarming all Bengali troops, arrest the AL leadership, impose Martial Law, take over airfields and Chittagong Naval Base, ensure security of towns, cut off communication links of East Pakistan and to take over Radio, TV Stations. Army had clear orders to rescue and not 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 AL-led reign of terror. OSL was the last resort, as negotiations had failed and law and order situation kept deteriorating.
— The author, Chairman of National Management Consultants, is based in Karachi.
Email: [email protected]

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