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Operation Searchlight-V

The infantry column opened up on the slightest pretext of suspicion. A stir in a bunch of tress or a little rustle in the air was enough to evoke a burst of automatic fire or at least a rifle shot. I remember that a little short of Karotea, on the Tangail road, there was a small locality which hardly rated a name. The searching troops passed through it, putting a match to the thatched huts and the adjoining bamboo plants. As soon as they advanced ahead, a bamboo stick burst with a crack because of the heat of the fire; everybody took it as a rifle shot by some hiddn ‘miscreant’. This caused the weight of the entire column to be riveted on the locality and all sorts of weapons fired into the trees. When the source of danger had been ‘eliminated’, a careful search was ordered. During the search, the column stood at the ready to shoot the ‘miscreant’ on sight. The search party found no sign of a human being-alive or dead. The bamboo crack had delayed the march by about fifteen minutes.

Karotea was a modest town surrounded by a thick growth of wild trees. It boasted a local bazaar consisting of a single row of shops. The people had already fled their homes. Where had they gone? It was difficult to investigate. The column halted there, surveyed the town, burnt the bazaar and set fire to some kerosene drums. Soon, it developed into a conflagration. The smoky columns of fire smouldered through the green branches of the trees the troops did not wait to see the fruits of their efforts, they soon moved on. When we reached the other end of the town, I saw a Black lamb tied to a spike, trying to wriggle out of its gutted abode but with no success because the rope was tightening round its neck with every additional attempt at liberation. It must have strangled itself to death.

A few kilometers further on, we saw on the road-side two V-shaped trenches, newly dug but hurriedly abandoned. Probabley the rebels had prepared these positions to meet us but after hearing the bang of guns, had decided to leave. Whatever the case, the column could not advance without flushing the area. As the troops scanned around, I walked into a mud but to see how the people there lived. The interior was neatly plastered with clay-a mild grey shade. A framed portrait of two children, probably brothers, hung on the front wall. The only furniture in the hut was a charpoy and a mat of date leaves. On the mat was a handful of boiled rice which bore the finger prints of infant eaters. Where were they now? Why had they gone?

I was awakened from these disturbing thoughts by a loud argument between the soldiers and an old Bengali civilian whom they had discovered under the banana trees. The old man had refused to divulge any information about the ‘miscreants’ and the soldiers threatened to kill him if he did not co-operate. I went to see what was going on.

The Bengali, a walking skeleton, had wrapped a patch of dirty linen round his waist. His bearded face wore a frightened look. My eyes, following his half-naked body down to his ankles, settled on the inflated veins of his dusty feet. Finding me so inquisitive, he the inflated veins of his dusty feet. Finding me so inquisitive, he turned to me and said, I am a poor fellow, I don’t know what to do. A little earlier, they (the miscreants) were here. They threatened to put me to death if I told anybody about them. Now, you confront me with an equally dreadful end if I don’t tell you about them.’ That summed up the dilemma of the common Bengali.

The column, maintaining its diligent pursuit on the way, finally reached Tangalil in the evening. It replaced the Bangla Desh flag with the national flag on the Circuit House, fired eight shells in the environs to announce its arrival and settled down for the night. I returned to Dacca. The widespread killings zestfully reported by a hostile world press, did not take place in the initial phase of operation SEARCHLIGHT. They occurred in the subsequent period of prolonged civil war. Infantry columns on clearing missions were sent from Comilla Jessore, Rangpur, Sylhet and other places. Usually, they moved along the metalloid roads, leaving the option to the rebels to slip into the countryside or recede to the borders and eventually into the lap of their Indian patrons. The speed of these operations depended on the availability of troops and their resources.

Additional manpower and resources became available between 26 March and 6 April. During this period there arrived two divisional headquarters (9 Division, 16 Division), five brigade headquarters, one commando and twelve infantry battalions. They had all left their heavy equipment in West Pakistan as they were to quell a rebellion rather than fight a proper war. Three more infantry battalions and two mortar batteries arrived on 24 April and 2 May respectively. The paramilitary forces funneled into East Pakistan between 10 April and 21 April included two wings each of East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces (E.P.C.A.F) and West Pakistan Rangers (W.P.R.), besides a sizeable number of Scouts from the North West Frontier. They were mainly taken in place of defecting East Pakistan Rifles and police.

Whatever reinforcements arrived from West Pakistan, were used to complete operation SEARCHLIGHT Which was never formally closed but was deemed to have achieved its end by the middle of April when all major towns in the province had been secured.

I have not been able to collect the figures of casualties suffered or inflicted during operation SEARCHLIGHT except those I have mentioned in the course of this narration. But I can vouch for the strength of my assessment that the number of lives lost in the clashes barely touched the four figure mark. If the foreign press made the world believe that several million people perished, the blame lies with those who expelled the foreign press from Dacca on 26 March (evening) and forced them to base their stories on the fantasy of Indian propagandists or the whims of opinionated tourists. If the foreign journalists had been allowed to stay in East Pakistan after 25 March, even the most biased among them would have witnessed a reality which, though tragic, was far less gruesome than what appeared in their stories.

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