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Operation Searchlight-IV

Major Shoaib  collected the remnants of his command to reorganize them. He found that only 65 had survived out of 150. He decided to abandon Kushtia and take the survivors to Jessore. He Lined up one three-ton truck, one Dodge and six jeeps. The convoy left at night with the company commander in one of the leading jeeps. They had traveled barely 25 kilometres when the leading vehicles, including the one that carried Major Shoaib, caved into a culvert which had been cut by the rebels in the centre deceptively covered from the surface. As soon as the convoy stopped, it came under intense fire from both sides of the road. Our troops jumped down and hit the ground but bullets continued to rain on them. Only nine out of the sixty-five managed to crawl out and disappear into the country-side. Most of them were later captured by the rebels, and subjected to a barbaric end.

The story of the Pabna action has many features in common with the Kushtia catastrophe. Here, a company of 25 Punjab had been sent from RAjshahi ‘just to establish our presence’. The 130 men had arrived in Pabna with only first line ammunition and three days rations. On arrival, the company was split into small detachments, which were posted at vulnerable points lide the power house and the telephone exchange. They also visited the residences of local political leaders but found no one. The company established its presence without any resistance and lived in peace for the first thirty-six hours. Then at about 6 PM, on 27 March, all the posts came under intense fire from across the nullah (ravine). The rebel force consisted of an East Pakistan Rifles Wing (900 men), 30 Policemen and 40 Awami League volunteers. They didn’t know our strength. They therefore kept on firing from a distance without assaulting our positions. Our troops also opened up but shortage of ammunition imposed heavy restrictions on the volume of fire. One N.C.O. and two other ranks were wounded in this initial encounter.

Captain Asghar, who was being constantly harassed by a rebel light machine-gun, decided to silence it. He took a few volunteers with him and charged its position. He knocked it out with a hand grenade which exploded right inside the post. But at the same time, another light machine-gun sent a burst into Captain Asghar. Badly hit, he swerved around to take cover behind the pillar of the gate, but collapsed. The raid was called off. Another attempt was made by Lieutenant Rashid, who also died in action.

Meanwhile, all the posts were wound up except that at the telephone exchange. The rebels also regrouped, then launched an all-out attack. The lightly equipped defenders realized their folly, but too late. They had to pay very dearly for it They lost two officers, 3 JCOs and 80 other ranks. One more officer and 32 other ranks had been wounded. Repeated calls for help were sent, in consequence of which a helicopter came to evacuate the wounded, but could not land. Major Aslam from Rajshahi, however, managed to reach Pabna with eighteen soldiers, one recoilless rifle, one machine gun and some ammunition, and managed to extricate the survivors. He loaded the wounded into the Dodge and sent them to Rajshahi across country, to avoid possible resistance on the way. He took the able-bodied with him to fight his way back to Rajshahi by road. Meeting heavy resistance on the way, he took to the countryside, where they had to wander for three days without food or water. When this column finally reached Rajshahi on 1 April at 10 AM it consisted of only eighteen soldiers. The rest, including Major Aslam, had been killed en route.

Thus Chittagong, Kushtia and Pabna turned out to be the towns where we suffered the severest casualties. These places were cleared on 6 April, 16 April and 10 April respectively. In other areas where we were in strength, we regained control without much resistance.

The rebels did not settle the score with West Pakistani soldiers only. They also killed civilian dependents with equal barbarity. It is not possible here to document all such cases but I quote an episode to illustrate this point.

2 East Bengal, which had a sprinkling of officers, JCOs and NCOs (technical trades only) from West Pakistan, was located at Joydevpur in an old palace about 30 kilometres north of Dacca. As a part of the general scheme, the East Bengal battalions had been kept away from the cantonments, to avoid trouble with West Pakistani units. Three companies of 2 East Bengal had moved to Gazipur, Tangail and Mymensingh ‘for training’. The fourth company was in the battalion headquarters located in the old palace building at Joydevpur. This is same place where I had witnessed the colour-presenting ceremony in February 1970.

The battalion revolted on 28 March after exchanging information with other Bengali units. Their first action after this change of loyalties was the massacre of their West Pakistani colleagues and their families. One Subedar Ayub, who had served the battalion for over twenty years, managed to escape from this systematic butchery and reached Dacca cantonment about midday on 28 March to break the news. I saw him when he arrived in the headquarters-pale with fear, with spots of white forth settled at the corners of his dry lips. Everybody tried to console him but he was too shaken to accept a cup of tea or piece of advice. He asked for help-immediate help.

A Company of Punjab Regiment was dispatched. A few young officers accompanied the reinforcements voluntarily. As the reinforcements reached the battalion headquarters, they saw the most gruesome sight of their lives. On a heap of filth lay five children, all butchered and mutilated, their abdomens repped with bayonets. The mothers of these children lay slaughtered and disfigured on a separate heap. Subedar Ayub identified, among them, members of his family. He went mad with shock-literally mad.

Inside the palace compound was a parked jeep fitted with a wireless set. The tyres were flat and the seats were soaked in blood. A few splashes of blood had settled on the wireless itself. ‘Search-lighting’ the interior of the building, they found blood-stained clothes in the bathroom. They were later identified as the garments of Captain Riaz from Gujranwala. In the family quarters of the other ranks, they saw a young mother lying dead, an infant trying to suckle the withered breasts. In another quarter was huddled a terror-stricken girl, about four, who cried out at the sight of the soldiers, ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me please till my father comes home. ‘Her father never came home.

Similar stories were reported from other stations. Some of them sounded too melodramatic to believe but they were all essentially true.

General Hamid, Chief of Staff, Pakistan Army, told me a few months later that the blame for this suffering must lie on Lieutenant-General Yakub ‘who had opposed the arrival of West Pakistani troops in early March. Had he allowed us to build up the forces in time, there would have been West Pakistani troops in all major towns to prevent these wild killings.’

General Yakub, it may be recalled, had opposed the move at a very delicate stage of political negotiations. If General Hamid had made his mind clear to Yakub on the eventual crack-down, I believe General Yakub’s reaction would have been different.

Now that General Yakub was no longer on the scene and the Army crack-down, with all its ugly repercussions, had commenced there was no bar to the dispatch of troops. Operation GREATFLY-IN was thus started as early as (but not before) 26 March. The arriving troops were quickly dispatched to areas under pressure.

Once the situation had stabilized in the key cities, strong columns of troops were sent to provincial towns. Let me describe here the march of one column from Dacca to Tangail on 1 April, which I accompanied. The main column, loaded in trucks fitted with machine-guns, moved on the main road while two companies spread out over about five hundred metres on either side of the road. These foot columns were equipped for all contingencies-both animate and inanimate. Nothing was to escape their wrath. Behind the infantry column was a battery of field guns which fired a few shells at suitable intervals in the general direction of the mob. The artillery bang was enough to scare away any rebels in the area.

 

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