Dhaka, March 25, 1971, Tejgaon airport. Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya, before boarding his special aircraft, turned to Eastern Command’s General Tikka Khan, and ordered, “Sort them out!”
Operation Searchlight had received the green signal from the highest authority in the land. The operation to “sort out” Bengali citizens of Pakistan was launched around midnight on that fateful day in the nation’s turbulent history. Operation Searchlight extinguished the lives of many innocent Bengalis. It spread a thick pall of doom and gloom all across the fair and beautiful land of Bengal and destroyed the fragile relationship between East and West Pakistan. The night of March 25, 1971 was probably the last night of a united Pakistan.
All foreign correspondents and journalists had already been kicked out of Dhaka by military authorities and a tight censorship imposed on local news media. Three correspondents at the risk of their lives managed to stay in hiding; Arnold Zeitlin, Michael Laurent and Simon Dring. On March 31, 1971 the daily Telegraph of London published Simon Dring’s eyewitness account of Operation Searchlight. Datelined Dhaka it was called, “How Dhaka paid for a united Pakistan.” Dring’s account of the army’s attack on Dhaka University was horrifying and shocking but vivid and factual. “Led by the American supplied M-24 World War II tanks, one column of troops sped to Dhaka University shortly after midnight. Troops took over the British Council library and used it as a firebase to shell nearby dormitory areas. Caught completely by surprise, some 200 students were killed in Iqbal Hall headquarters of the militant anti-government students union I was told.”
After midnight on March 25, Dhaka resounded with the sound of gunfire and the pungent odour of cordite. Tikka Khan was faced with a massive popular revolution, which he tried to crush with brutal military force and ruthless measures. Dhaka University, the headquarters of the police in Motijheel, and the stronghold of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) in Philkhana bore the brunt of the army’s onslaught. Heavy weapons such as the 105-mm recoilless rifles were freely used. Major Zia-ur-Rehman, the second in command of the East Bengal regiment (EBR), killed all the non-Bengali officers in his unit and announced the formation of the government of Bangladesh from the Chittagong Radio station on March 26, 1971
The Awami League team waited all day on March 25 for the call from General Peezada. The telephone in the Awami League office did not ring all day
Subsequently Taj-ud-din Ahmed, the prime minister of the provisional government, in exile based in Calcutta issued another declaration of independence on April 17, 1971. “Pakistan is now dead and buried under a mountain of corpses.” Operation Searchlight was definitely the last nail in the coffin of a united Pakistan.
The Awami League of Sheikh Mujib-ur-rehman won a landslide victory, bagging 167 out of 169 seats from East Pakistan in the National assembly of 300 members. This election victory gave the Awami League an absolute majority in the assembly and the legal and constitutional right to form the central government of Pakistan.
Faced with imminent rebellion and civil war, General Yahya Khan rushed to Dhaka on March 15 to defuse the situation through a political settlement. After intense negotiations, the two sides came to an agreement by March 20 for the transfer of power. At this stage Z.A. Bhutto threw a spanner in the works. He announced that the agreement was not acceptable to him. He wanted the National Assembly session to be called first, or he should be given more time to negotiate with Mujib directly. The National Assembly session scheduled for March 23 was postponed and Bhutto joined the parleys in Dhaka. On March 21, Colonel Hassan, the judge advocate general and a member of the negotiating team, handed over the draft of a presidential proclamation to the Awami League. On March 23, the Awami League negotiators met the president’s team.
Now the Awami Leaguers were told that their six-point program could be adopted with some minor adjustments. It was proposed that M.M. Ahmed, the deputy chairman of the planning commission will negotiate with the Awami League to sort out the economic and financial details of their six-point program. By nightfall on March 24, the Awami League had concluded its political negotiations. It was proposed by Mujib that his Aide Dr Kamal Hussein and the eminent jurist Justice Cornelius should work throughout the night to finalize the agreement. Cornelius agreed, but General S.G.M Peerzada torpedoed the proposal with the cryptic remark: “No, we may discuss it for a while then we can meet tomorrow morning.” When the Bengalis insisted on a fixed time for the meeting, they were told that they will be informed of the time on telephone. The Awami League team waited all day on March 25 for the call from General Peezada. The telephone in the Awami League office did not ring all day. The last and final chance to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of Pakistan was lost.
Z.A. Bhutto witnessed the bloody and gory drama of Operation Searchlight from the balcony of his room in the luxurious Hotel Intercontinental Dhaka and remarked later, “At about ten thirty at night after finishing our dinner we went up to our rooms. An hour later we were awakened by the sound of gunfire. A number of my friends came to my room and we saw the army in action. We witnessed the military operations from our room for about three hours. A number of places were ablaze. We saw the demolition of the office of the newspaper The People. This local English daily had indulged in crude and unrestrained provocation against the army and West Pakistan. With the horizon ablaze, my thoughts turned to the past and the future. I wondered what was in store for us. Here in front of my own eyes I saw the death and destruction of my own people. Many thoughts crossed my mind. It was difficult to think straight. Had we passed the point of no return? Or would time heal the wounds and open a new chapter in the history of Pakistan? How I wished I knew the answer.”
The answer to Bhutto’s philosophical musings was that the point of no return had definitely been reached with the launching of Operation Searchlight.