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Operation Searchlight

As the commandos approached Mujib’s house, they drew fire from the armed guard posted at his gate. The guards were quickly neutralized. Then up raced the fifty tough soldiers to climb the four-foot high compound wall. They announced their arrival in the courtyard by firing a sten-gun burst and shouted for Mujib to come out. But there was no response. Scrambling across the verandah and up the stairs, they finally discovered the door of Mujib’s bedroom. It was locked from outside. A bullet pierced the hanging metal, and it dangled down. Whereupon Mujib readily emerged offering himself for arrest. He seemed to be waiting for it. The raiding party rounded up everybody in the house and brought them to the Second Capital in army jeeps. Minutes later, Major Jaffar, Brigade Major of 57 Brigade, was on the wireless. I could hear his crisp voice saying ‘BIG BIRD IN THE CAGE… OTHERS NOT IN THEIR NESTS… OVER.’

As soon as the message ended, I saw the “big bird” in a white shirt being driven in an army jeep to the cantonment for safe custody. Somebody asked General Tikka if he would like him to be produced before him. He said firmly, ‘I don’t want to see his face.’

Mujib’s domestic servants were released immediately after identification while he himself was lodged in the Adamjee School for the night. Next day, he was shifted to Flag Staff House from where he was flown to Karachi three days later. Subsequently, when complications arose about the ‘final disposal’ of Mujib (such as international pressure for his release), I asked my friend Major Bilal why he had not finished him off in the heat of action He said, ‘General Mitha had personally ordered me to capture him alive.’

While Mujib rested in the Adamjee School, the city of Dacca was in the throes of a civil war. I watched the harrowing sight from the verandah for four hours. The prominent feature of this gory night was the flames shooting to the sky. At times, mournful clouds of smoke accompanied the blaze but soon they were overwhelmed by the flaming fire trying to lick at the stars. The light of the moon and the glow of the stars paled before this man-made furnace. The tallest columns of smoke and fire emerged from- the university campus, although some other parts of the city, such as the premises of the daily People, had no small share in these macabre fireworks.

At about 2 AM the wireless set in the jeep again drew our attention. I was ordered to receive the call. The Captain on the other end of the line said that he was facing a lot of resistance from Iqbal Hall and Jagan Nath Hall. Meanwhile, a senior staff officer snatched the hand-set from me and shouted into the mouth-piece: ‘How long will you take to neutralize the target? … Four hours! … Nonsense … What weapons have you got? … Rocket launcher, recoilless rifles, mortars and … O.K., use all of them and ensure complete capture of the area in two hours.’

The university building was conquered by 4 AM but the ideology of Bengali nationalism preached there over the years would take much longer to subdue, Perhaps ideas are unconquerable.

In the rest of the city, the troops had accomplished their tasks including disarming the police at RajarBagh and the East Pakistan Rifles at Pilkhana. In other parts of the city, they had only fired a sniping shot here and a burst there to create terror. They did not enter houses, except thoses, except those mentioned in the operational plan (to arrest the political leaders), or those used by rebels as sanctuaries.

Before first light on 26 March, the troops reported completion of their mission. General Tikka Khan left his sofa at about 5 AM and went into his office for a while. When he reappeared cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief and surveying the area, he said, ‘Oh, not a soul there!’ Standing on the verandah, I heard his soliloquy and looked around for confirmation. I saw only a stray dog, with its tail tucked between its hind legs, stealing its way towards the city.

After day-break, Bhutto was collected from his hotel room and escorted to Dacca airport by the Army. Before boarding the plane, he made a general remark of appreciation for the Army action on the previous night and said to his chief escort. Brigadier Arbab, ‘Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.’ He repeated this statement on his arrival at Karachi.

When Bhutto was making this optimistic remark, I was surveying mass graves in the university area where I found three pits-of five to fifteen meters diameter each. They were filled with fresh earth. But no officer was prepared to disclose the exact number of casualties. I started going round the buildings, particularly Iqbal Hall and Jagan Nath Hall which, I had thought from a distance, had been razed to the ground during the action, Iqbal Hall had apparently been hit by only two, and Jagan Nath Hall by four, rockets The rooms were mostly charred, but intact. A few dozen half-burnt rifles and stray papers were still smouldering. The damage was very grave-but not enough to match the horrible picture I had conjured up on the verandah of General Tikka’s headquarters.

The foreign press fancied several thousand deaths (in the university area) while army officers placed the figure at around a hundred. Officially, only forty deaths were admitted.

From the university area, I drove on the principal roads of Dacca city and saw odd corpses lying on the footpaths or near the corner of a winding street. There were no mountains of bodies, as was alleged later. However, I experienced a strange and ominous sensation. I do not know what it signified but I could not bear it for long. I drove on to a different area.

In the old city, I saw some streets still barricaded but there was no one to man the road blocks. Everybody had shrunk to the sanctuary of his house. On one street corner, however, I saw a shadow, like a displaced soul, quickly lapsing into a side lane. After a round of the city, I went to Dhanmandi where I visited Mujib’s house. It was totally deserted. From the scattered things, it appeared that it had been thoroughly searched. I did not find anything memorable except an overturned life-size portrait of Rabindranath Tagore. The frame was cracked in several places, but the image was intact.

The outer gate of the house, too, had lost its valuable decoration. During Mujib’s rule, they had fixed a brass replica of a Bangla Desh map and had addes six stars to represent the Awami League’s Six Points. But now only the black iron bars of the gate, with holes for the metal fixtures, were there. The glory that had quickly dawned, had quickly disappeared.

I hurried back to the cantonment for lunch. I found the atmosphere very different there. The tragedy in the city had eased the nerves of defence personnel and their dependents. They felt that the storm after a long lull had finally blown past leaving the horizon clear. The officers chatted in the officers’ mess with a visible air of relaxation. Peeling an orange. Captain Chowdhury said, ‘The Bengalis have been sorted out well and proper-at least for a generation’. Major Malik added, ‘Yes, they only know the language of force. Their history says so.’

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