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Operation Searchlight-1

Major-General Khadim Hissain was brooding over the possible outcome of political talks on 25 March when his green telephone rang at about 11 AM. Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan was on the line. He said, ‘Khadim, it is tonight.’

It created no excitement for Khadim. He was already waiting for the fall of the hammer. The President’s decision coincided with the second anniversary of his assumption of power. General Khadim passed the word to his assumption of power. General Khadim passed the word to his staff for implementation. The lower the news traveled, the greater the sensation it created. I saw some junior officers hustling about mustering some extra recoilless rifles, getting additional ammunition issued, a defective mortar sight replaced. The tank crew, brought from Rangpur (29 Cavalry) a few days earlier, hurried with their task to oil six rusty M-24s for use at night. They were enough to make a noise on the Dacca streets.

The general staff of Headquarters 14 Division rang up all the outstation garrisons to inform them of H-hour. They devised a private code for passing the message. All garrisons were to act simultaneously. The fateful hour was set at 26 0100 hours-1 AM 26 March. It was calculated that by then the President would have landed safely in Karachi.

The plan for operation SEARCHLIGHT visualized the setting up of two headquarters. Major-General Farman, with 57 Brigade under Brigadier Arbab, was responsible for operations in Dacca city and its suburbs while Major-General Khadim was to look after the rest of the province. In addition, Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan and his staff were to spent the night at the Martial Law Headquarters in the Second Capital to watch the progress of action in and outside Dacca.

A few days earlier, General Yahya had sent Major-General Iftikhar Janjua and Major-General A. O. Mitha to Dacca as possible replacements for Khadim and Farman in case they refused to crack down. After all, they had formed General Yakub’s team until very recently and might still share his ideas. General Hamid had even gone to the extent to questioning Khadim’s and Farman’s wives to assess their husbands’ views on the subject. Both the generals, however, assured Hamid that they would faithfully carry out the orders.

Junior officers like me started collecting at Headquarters, Martial law administrator, Zone ‘B’ (Second Capital) at about 10 PM They laid out sofas and easy chairs on the lawn and made arrangements for tea and coffee last night. I had no specific job to perform except ‘to be available’. A jeep fitted with a wireless set was parked next to this ‘outdoor operations room’. The city wrapped in starlight, was in deep slumber. The setting was perfect for anything but a bloody holocaust.

Besides the armed forces, another class of people was active that night. They were the Awami League leaders and their private army of Bengali soldiers, policemen, ex-servicemen, students and party volunteers. They were in communication with Mujib, Colonel Osmani and other important Bengali officers. They were preparing for the toughest resistance. In Dacca, they erected innumerable road blocks to obstruct the march of troops to the city.

The wireless set fitted in the jeep groaned for the first time at about 11.30 PM the local commander (Dacca) asked permission to advance the H-hour because ‘the other side’ was hectically preparing for resistance. Everybody looked at his watch. The President was still half way between Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Karachi. General Tikka gave the decision. ‘Tell Bobby (Arbab) to hold on, as long as he can.’

At the given hour, Brigadier Arbab’s brigade was to act as follows:

13 Frontier Force was to stay in Dacca cantonment as reserve and defend the cantonment, if necessary.

43 Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment, deployed at the airport in an anti-aircraft role since the banning of over-flights by India, was to look after the airport area.

22 Baluch, already in East Pakistan Rifles Lines at Pilkhana, was to disarm approximately 5,000 E.P.R. personnel and seize their wireless exchange.

32 Punjab was to disarm 1,000 ‘highly motivated’ policemen, a prime possible source of armed manpower for the Awami League, at Rajarbagh Police Lines.

18 Punjab was to fan out in the Nawabpur area and the old city where many Hindu houses were said to have been converted into armouries.

Field Regiment was to control the Second Capital and the adjoining Bihari localities (mohammadpur, Mirpur).

A composite force consisting of one company each of 18 Punjab, 22 Baluch and 32 Punjab, was to ‘flush’ the University Campus particularly Iqbal Hall and Jagan Nath Hall which were reported to be the strong points of the Awami League rebels.

A platoon of Special Service Group (Commandos) was to raid Mujib’s house and capture him alive. A skeleton squadron of M-24 tanks was to make an appearance before first light, mainly as a show of force. They could fire for effect if required.

These troops, in their respective areas, were to guard the key points, break resistance (if offered) and arrest the listed political leaders from their residences.

The troops were to be in their target areas before 1 AM but some of them, anticipating delay on the way, had started moving from the cantonment at about 11.30 PM Those who were already in the city to guard the radio and television stations, telephone exchange, power house and State Bank ets., had also taken their posts much before the H-hour.

The first column from the cantonment met resistance at Farm Gate, about one kilometer from the cantonment. The column was halted by a huge tree trunk freshly felled across the road. The side gaps were covered with the hulks of old cars and a disabled steam-roller. On the city side of the barricade stood several hundred Awami Leaguers shouting Joi Bangla slogans. I heard their spirited shouts while standing on the verandah of General Tikka’s headquarters. Soon some rifle shots were mingled with the Joi Bangla slogans. A little later, a burst of fire from an automatic weapon shrilled through the air. Thereafter, it was a mixed affair of firing and fiery slogans, punctuated with the occasional chatter of a light machine gun. Fifteen minutes later the noise began to subside and the slogans started dying down. Apparently, the weapons had triumphed. The army column moved on to the city.

Thus the action had started before schedule. There was no point now in sticking to the prescribed H-hour. The gates of hell had been cast open. When the first shot had been fired, ‘the voice of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came faintly through on a wavelength close to that of the official Pakistan Radio. In what must have been, and sounded like, a pre-recorded message, the Sheikh proclaimed East Pakistan to be the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.’ The full text of the proclamation is published in Bangla Desh Documents released by the Indian Foreign Ministry. It said, ‘This may be my last message, from today Bangla Desh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangla Desh, wherever you are and with whatever you have, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangla Desh and final victory is achieved.

I didn’t hear this broadcast. I only heard the big bang of the rocket launcher fired by the commandos to remove a barrier blocking their way to Mujib’s house. Lieutenant-Colonel Z.A. Khan, the commanding officer, and Major Bilal, the company commander, themselves had accompanied the raiding platoon.

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