Opinion Columnists 20 Nov 2021 Manish Tewari | Nove ...
Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari

Manish Tewari | November 21st, 1971

Published Nov 21, 2021, 2:17 am IST
Updated Nov 21, 2021, 2:17 am IST
On March 25, 1971, the West Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight massacring
Both General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), did not want a federal government to be headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the predominantly East Pakistan-based Awami League. (Twitter)
 Both General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), did not want a federal government to be headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the predominantly East Pakistan-based Awami League. (Twitter)

1971 was a seminal year in the history of the Indian subcontinent. On March 25, 1971, the West Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight massacring over 7,000 Bengali intellectuals and other important opinion makers in a night-long operation in Dhaka alone. There is a very poignant film by Mrityunjay Devrat called the Children of War or The Bastard Child (May 2014) that captures as to how the West Pakistan Army used rape and impregnation as a weapon of war to try and bring about a racial transformation in East Pakistan.

Nine months later that night of horror finally ended for the brutalised people of East Pakistan. The decisively routed West Pakistan Army finally surrendered on December 16, 1971, to Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora. Ninety three thousand Pakistani troops commanded by General Amir Abdul Khan Niazi were taken as prisoners of war (PoWs). Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was credited with redrawing the map of South Asia once again after 1971 and General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw became an eternal war hero.

 

However, first, Operation Searchlight. General elections to the Pakistan National Assembly were held on the 7th of December, 1970, to elect members to the National Assembly. Ironically, these were the very first general elections that were held since the inception of Pakistan and eventually the only ones held prior to the Independence of Bangladesh. In all, 300 constituencies went to vote. One hundred and sixty two of them were in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan. The Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman succeeded in winning 160 out of the 162 seats located in East Pakistan. The Pakistan Peoples Party won only 81 seats, all of them falling in West Pakistan.

 

General Yahya Khan, the military dictator of Pakistan, refused to recognise the verdict and formally inaugurated the National Assembly. Both he and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), did not want a federal government to be headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the predominantly East Pakistan-based Awami League. The general appointed appointed a “quisling” from East Pakistan, Nurul Amin, as the premier. He was tasked to midwife a a power sharing modus vivendi between the Awami League and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

 

When this came a cropper, West Pakistani generals meeting as they do as a collegium of core commanders took a conscious decision on February 22, 1971, to exterminate the Awami League and its supporters. There was a clear-eyed consensus among the military brass of West Pakistan that nothing short of a genocide would be required to annihilate the Bengali spirit of resistance. “Kill three million of them,” bellowed President Yahya Khan at the February meeting, “and the rest will eat out of our hands”.

The West Pakistani generals framed the fight in bigoted terms to rationalise to their soldiers why they needed to perpetrate atrocities on their own countrymen and Muslims. The foot soldiers were indoctrinated to believe “This is a war between the pure and the impure... The people here may have Muslim names and call themselves Muslims. But they are Hindu at heart. We are now sorting them out... Those who are left will be real Muslims. We will even teach them Urdu.” Muslims were labelled as Hindus to justify loot, rape, mayhem and massacre. By May 25, 1971, three million Bengalis had been ruthlessly butchered As General Yahya Khan had ordained and another ten million fled across the border to India.

 

That is why the date of March 25, 1971, commencement of Operation Searchlight finds prominent mention in Para 5.8 of the Assam Accord of 1985 for post that pogram millions fled East Pakistan to seek refuge in Northeast India.
In a blink of an eyelid thousands of Bengali servicemen serving in the then East Pakistan Rifles and East Pakistan Police respectively revolted against the atrocities being perpetrated on their hapless civilian brethren. They deserted their regiments and battalions and commenced a resistance movement.

In order to coordinate the action on the ground it became imperative to operationalise a command headquarters. It was set up in Calcutta and integrated with the East Pakistani government in exile under the overall superintendence of Eastern Command of the Indian Army. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Commander of the Eastern Army, was designated as Supreme Commander of Indian Armed Forces and resistance fighters, colloquially known as Mukti Bahini. He was tasked with implementing the higher direction of war especially offensive operations across the Indo-East Pakistan border.

 

As the monsoon broke over east India operational plans for liberation of East Pakistan had been honed to a degree of exactitude virtually unprecedented in such a short span of time. East Pakistan was apportioned into 11 sectors and further delineated into sub sectors for better functional efficacy.

Masses of trained and untrained resistance fighters who had reached India in undulating waves of migration from East Pakistan were also organised into three infantry brigades in addition to their guerilla warfare remit. The Z Force, so organised, was positioned on the extreme northeastern border of East Pakistan. Sylhet was its goal. The S Force, so raised was placed on the eastern border of East Pakistan, just a wee north of Agartala. Its target, to clear and hold Akhaura; finally liberate Ashuganj. Kilo Force so created was stationed to the south of Agartala. Its objective, to conquer Cumilla and Chattogram.

 

The rationale of rearing these brigade-level formations in double quick time was to ensure that these East Pakistani freedom fighters also get a taste of some conventional military action when the Indian Army moved into battle. Since the Mukti Bahini cadres were intimately familiar with the lay of the land across the border they were best placed to weed out and neutralise the “collaborators” and the Razakars so that the Indian Army would race towards Dacca at blitzkrieg speed unimpeded by saboteurs.

On November 21, 1971, precision raids called surgical strikes in today’s language, were initiated by Mukti Bahini out to sow panic among West Pakistan Army formations.

 

By November 30, the West Pakistani defences had been sufficiently softened up for regular Indian Army troops to initiate a decisive assault across a broad frontage. This attack commenced on the night of November 30 and December 1, 1971. By December 16, Dhaka fell into Indian hands. Bangladesh was thus born.
It was, therefore, on November 21 that military operations in East Pakistan commenced in right earnest and not 10 days or 12 days later as popularly believed.

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