Operation Searchlight was a planned military operation carried out by thePakistan Army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in the erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971 Ordered by the central government in West Pakistan, this was seen as the sequel to “Operation Blitz” which had been launched in November 1970. The original plan envisioned taking control of the major cities on March 26, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military,within one month. President Yahya Khan at the February conference said “Kill three million of them (Bangladeshis) and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by the Pakistani military leaders. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May. The operation also precipitated the 1971 Bangladesh genocide and caused roughly 10 million refugees to flee to India as well as the death of 58,000to 3 million civilians. Bengali intelligentsia, academics and Hindus were targeted for the harshest treatment, with significant indiscriminate killing taking place. These systematic killings enraged the Bengalis, who declared independence from Pakistan, to achieve the new state of Bangladesh.
The violence resulting from Operation Searchlight led to the war of liberation by the Mukti Bahini against Pakistani “occupation” forces in Bangladesh. Following the ill fated Operation Chengiz Khan, Indian intervention resulted in the Pakistani Army’s unconditional surrender to the joint command of theIndian Army and Mukti Bahinion December 16, 1971.
After the Awami League had won a decisive majority (capturing 167 out of 300 seats) in the 1970 Pakistan parliamentary elections, theBengali population expected a swift transfer of power to the Awami League based on the Six Point Programme. On February 28, 1971,Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, under the pressure of PPP of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, postponed the national assembly meeting scheduled for March. The Pakistan Peoples Party has already started lobbying to weaken the stand of Sheikh Mujeeb, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was heard saying that he wanted the Bengalis to stay away. The Awami League, in response to the postponement, launched a program of non-cooperation (largely outlined in the March 7th Awami League rally) which was so successful that the authority of the Pakistan government became limited to the cantonments and government institutions in East Pakistan. Clashes between civilians and the Pakistani Army, and between Bengali and Bihari communities erupted and became commonplace. President Yahya Khan flew to Dhaka to hold talks with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, in March, and was later joined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the leader of Pakistan Peoples Party, which had secured the second largest share of seats (81 out of 300) in the elections.Unwilling to transfer power to East Pakistan as demanded by Awami League (fearing a transfer of power would weaken or destroy the federation), or to lose face by backing down in face of the non-cooperation movement, the Pakistani generals, most of which includingGul Hassan Khan supported the Pakistan Peoples Party, finally decided on a military crackdown.
Prior to the launch of the operation, a final meeting was held in GHQ. Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan and unified Commander of Pakistan’s Eastern Military High Command Vice-Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan objected to the pre-planned operation. Air Commodore Mitty Masud also objected to the operation, fearing that violence would provoke East-Pakistan into more violence. However, under pressure during the meeting from Pakistan’s Army and Air Force’s general, General Yahya Khan gave orders to his Army and Air Force commanders to launch the operation. Disheartened and isolated, Admiral Ahsan resigned, in protest, from his position as Martial Law Administrator, unified commander of Eastern Military High Command, and the navy. With operation came in effect, Air-Commodore Mitty Masud too resigned from the Air Force and as Commander of Eastern Air Force Command (EAFC)
The operational plan
The plan was drawn up in March 1971 by Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, GOC 14th Division, and Major General Rao Farman Ali, as a followup of decisions taken at a meeting of the Pakistani army staff on 22 February. The 16th infantry division from Quetta and the 9th division from Kharian, West Pakistan, were ordered to prepare to move to East Pakistan in mid-February also as a result of that meeting.
Before putting the plan into action, senior Pakistani officers in East Pakistan who were unwilling to support the military attack on civilians, Lt. General Shahabzada Yakub Khan, GOC East Pakistan, and the governor of East Pakistan, Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, were relieved of their duties.Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan became the Governor and GOC of East Pakistan. On March 17, General Raja was given authority to plan the operation via telephone by General Hamid, COS, Pakistan Army. On the morning of March 18, General Raja and Major General Rao Farman Ali wrote the plan at the GOC’s office at Dacca cantonment. The plan was written on a light blue office pad with a lead pencil by General Farman containing 16 paragraphs spread over five pages.
General Farman defined the operational premises and conditions for success, while General Khadim Raja dealt with the distribution of forces and tasks assigned to the individual brigades and other units. It assumed that the Bengali Army and other military units would revolt at the onset of operations and the planners suggested that all Bengali units under arms should be disarmed prior to commencing the operation, and the political leadership arrested during a planned meeting with the President, General Yahya Khan. No operational reserves were earmarked. The handwritten plan was reviewed with General Hamid and Lt. General Tikka Khan on 20 March at the flag staff house. General Hamid objected to the immediate disarming of regular army Bengali units, but approved the disarming of the EPR, armed police and other para-military formations. Yahya Khan refused to sanction the arrest of Awami League leaders during a meeting with him, as the plan had proposed. The amended plan was approved and distributed to various area commanders.
The Operation was to start on the night of March 25, 1971 in Dacca, and other garrisons were to be alerted via phone about their zero hour to start their activities. General Farman Ali commanded the forces in Dhaka, while the rest of the province was commanded by General Khadim. Lt. General Tikka Khan and his staff were present in the 31st field command center, to supervise and support the command staff of the 14th division.
As outlined by the Pakistani planners, the operation aimed to eliminate the Awami League apparatus and any civilians and personnel of the armed forces supporting the Awami League movement in defiance of martial law. Cunning, surprise, deception and speed was emphasized as crucial for success. Use of free and greater force was authorized. Search and assault of civilian areas and Hindu areas also were authorized
Requirements for success:
Operation to be launched simultaneously all across East Pakistan.
Maximum number of political and student leaders, and those among cultural organizations and teaching staff to be arrested.
Operation must achieve 100% success in Dhaka. Dhaka University would be occupied and searched.
Free and greater use of fire authorised for securing cantonments.
All internal and international communications to be cut off, including telephone, television, radio and telegraph.
All East Pakistani (Bengali) troops to be neutralised by seizing weapons and ammunition.
To deceive the Awami League, President Yahia Khan to pretend to continue dialogue, even if Mr. Bhutto disagrees, and to agree to Awami League demands.
The designated centers of offensive operations under that plan were Dacca, Khulna, Chittagong, Comilla, Jessore, Rajshahi, Rangpur,Saidpur and Sylhet, areas where West Pakistani army units were concentrated. Pakistani Army units and paramilitary elements in other areas of East Pakistan were to maintain control of their respective areas and await reinforcements during the initial phase of the operation. Once Dhaka had been secured, the 9th and 16th divisions from Pakistan were to be airlifted into East Pakistan as reinforcements. Cities with airfields (Chittagong, Syhlet, Jessore, Rangpur, Comilla) would be reinforced via C-130 airplanes or heliborne troops directly from Dhaka.
Although the plan did not specify the time needed to subdue East Pakistan, it was assumed that after the arrest of the political leadership and disarming of the Bengali military and paramilitary units, civilians could be terrorised into submitting to martial law within a week.Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan estimated that no resistance would remain after April 10
The 14th infantry division was the only Pakistan Army division stationed in East Pakistan in March 1971. This division had four infantry brigadesattached to it, instead of the normally alloted three brigades. The 57th infantry brigade (under Brig. Jahanzab Arbab – W.Pakistani) was headquartered in Dacca, the 53rd (Brig. Iqbal Shafi- W.Pakistani) was in Comilla, the 23rd (Brig. Abdullah Khan Malik – Pakistani) in Rangpur and the 107th (Brig. A.R. Durrani – W.Pakistani) was in Jessore. Brig. M.H. Mozumdar, a Bengali, was in command of the Chittagong area. Normally, each brigade contained 3 or 4 infantry battalions and a field artilleryregiment and various support elements.
These four brigades had 12 infantry battalions (regiments normally had 915 soldiers each) containing purely West Pakistani personnel (mainly hailing from Punjabi, Baluch, Pathan and Sindhi background) before March 25, 1971. This division also had 5 field artillery regiments, a light anti aircraft regiment, a commando battalion (the 3rd), all of which contained a majority of Pakistani personnel, in various East Pakistani bases. The only armoured regiment in East Pakistan, the 29th Cavalry in Rangpur, was a mixed unit. 20% of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) personnel were also from West Pakistan, while the support elements of the various units and cantonments were mostly of mixed nationality. Most of the individual unit commanders and majority of the officers were from West Pakistan. West Pakistani Army personnel were also posted at Station HQ, Dhaka, Pakistan Ordnance Factory, Gazipur, Central Ordnance Depot, Dhaka, Ammunition Depot, Rajendrapur, Embercation Unit – Chittagong and with some field intelligence units.
The Pakistan Air Force had 20 F-86 Saber Jets and 3 T-33 Trainers at the Dacca airbase. The Army aviation wing had a flight of 2 Mil Mi-8 and 2 Allouette III helicopters, under the command of Major Liakat Bukhari posted in East Pakistan.The whole squadron was transferred to Dhaka after March 25, 1971 C-130 Hercules planes were transferred to Dhaka for the operation from West Pakistan. Airfields were located in Chittagong, Comilla, Lalmonirhut near Rangpur, in Salutikor near Sylhet, in Jessore and near Thakurgaon.
Rear-Admiral Mohammad Shariff (later 4-Star Admiral) was given the command of Eastern Naval Command of Pakistan Navy. The Pakistan Navy had 4 gunboats (Rajshahi, Jessore, Comilla, and Sylhet) a patrol boat (Balaghat) and the destroyer PNS Jahangir in East Pakistan. PNS Babur, flagship of the Pakistan Navy would visit East Pakistan after the operation started. Major naval bases were located in Dhaka, Chittagong and Mongla.
Six regular army Bengali infantry regiments were present in East Pakistan in March 1971. The 1st East Bengal Regiment (EBR) was in Jessore, attached to the 107th Brigade. The 2nd EBR was in Joydevpur north of Dacca, attached to the 57th Brigade. The 3rd EBR was in Saidpur with the 23rd Brigade, and the 4th EBR was in Comilla with the 53rd Brigade. The 8th EBR was preparing to ship to West Pakistan and was at 75% strength in Chittagong. The East Bengal Regimental Center (EBRC) in Chittagong housed 2,000 Bengali troops including the newly raised 9th EBR. The 10th EBR, a training unit, was in the Dacca cantonment attached to the 14th Division. Bengali officers commanded the 1st, 2nd and the 10th EBR, while the rest were under Pakistani officers.
East Pakistan Police, almost exclusively Bengali, had 33,995 members of all ranks, 23,606 members were armed while the rest had fire arms training. Several Thousand Anser and Mujahid members, trained to fire .303 rifles, were scattered around the province. The East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), a 15,000 strong (80% Bengali) paramilitary force, was divided into 17 operational wings (each wing contained 3 to 6 companies of 150 men each) in 7 sectors (headquartered in Dacca, Mymenshingh, Jessore, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Sylhet and Chittagong) and was deployed around the country. The EPR companies were often divided into sections (15-20 soldiers) and platoons (20-35 soldiers) and deployed in camps near the border or in border outposts. Unlike regular army units, EPR companies were commanded by JCO/NCOs (army companies normally were commanded by Captains or Major ranked officers), and EPR wings contained only light anti-tank weapons and a mortar platoon with 6 mortars as artillery. EPR Headquarters and 2,500 EPR troops were posted in Dhaka. The majority of the EPR officers were from West Pakistan, serving on deputation from the regular army for 2 to 3 years.
Pre operational steps implementation
The planners needed to ensure that all Pakistani unit commanders became aware of their role prior to commencing operation, which had to be done while maintaining complete secrecy. The concentration of forces and allocation of supplies, as well as arrival of reinforcements from West Pakistan and briefing of Area commanders had to be carried without raising suspicion. On 24 and 25 March, a group of Pakistani Generals, accompanied by General Hamid, General Mittha, the Quartermaster General, and Col. Saadullah, Principal Staff Officer, visited major garrisons via helicopter and personally briefed garrison commanders and senior West Pakistani officers on the operation. General Farman was sent to Jessore, General Khadim himself briefed the Comilla and Chittagong garrison commanders while Brig. El-Edrus and Col. Saadullah visited Rangpur.
Secrecy had been strictly maintained; only a few Lt. Colonels learned about the plan beforehand on a need to know basis. Although some Bengali officers had become suspicious of the all West Pakistani officer briefings, no one outside the briefings learned the details beforehand.
Maj. Gen. Qamar Ali Mirza and Brig. Harrison arrived from West Pakistan during the second week of March to arrange the logistical details, mainly because the non cooperation program was hampering food supply to the cantonments. The main ammunition depots were located in Rajendrapur near Dhaka and 9000 tons of arms and ammunition were in Chittagong abroad MV Swat, so it was decided to speed up the unloading of the ship. Pakistani troops started arriving in Dacca via PIA flights carrying “special passengers”, in addition to the 13 FF and 22 Baluch which had already arrived. Pakistanis planned to send a brigade to East Pakistan to enhance the chance of success prior to March 25, and the new arrivals were part of that processes.Pakistan Army Eastern Command also had to make arrangements to house and feed these additional arrivals – a fact that was noted by Bengali officers in the army supply units, but ultimately nothing threatening to the plan came of this. Brig. Harrison stayed behind in Dhaka to coordinate the logistical effort after Gen. Mirza left for West Pakistan to arrange matters there.
Shuffling of armed forces personnel
The army also took steps to enhance their chances of success by relocating Bengali officers away from sensitive areas, and bringing Pakistani troops to the cities. The departure of two Pakistani army units, the 25th Punjab and the 20th Baluch was delayed, while the 13th Frontier Force and the 22nd Baluch regiments were flown to Dhaka from West Pakistan before March 25. To maintain secrecy, no major reinforcements were initially sent to the other garrisons in East Pakistan before March 25.
Brig. Mozumdar, who had refused to fire on Bengal civilians blocking the unloading of MV Swat was relieved of his post on 24 March by Gen. Khadim himself on the pretext that he was needed to address 2 EBR at Joydevpur and Brig. M.H. Ansari (West Pakistani – Station Commander Dhaka) took command of Chittagong area. Maj. Khaled Musharraf, Brigade Major of the 57th Brigade in Dhaka, was sent to 4th EBR in Comilla as 2IC on March 22.Lt. Col. Masudul Hasan (CO 2nd EBR) was relieved of his post on March 23, and Lt. Col. Rakibuddin took over on March 25. Pakistanis refrained from mass transfer of Bengali officers, as that might have compromised security of the plan. Bengali officers were urged to take leave (although all leave had been cancelled since February 1971), while West Pakistani officers were told to stay put. Families of West Pakistani officers and soldiers were evacuated from East Pakistan, and when possible families of some West Pakistani civilians were brought into the cities.
Dispersion of Bengali units before March 25
Denied permission by General Hamid to disarm the regular Bengali army units en masse before the crackdown, the Pakistani command employed other ploys to minimise the threat of these formations.
Bengali units were sent out of the cantonments, or were broken into smaller units and deployed away from each other, and cut off from the main radio and wireless communication grid before or on 25 March. Bengali officers were sent on leave, or were posted away from command centers or units directly involved in the operation. In some cases, West Pakistani officers took command of Bengali formations. Some Bengali soldiers were sent on leave, and some were disarmed on various pretexts whenever possible without raising alarm.
The 1st EBR (at 50% strength), was sent out of Jessore cantonment to Chaugacha near the border for winter training, where they stayed until March 29. Companies of the 2nd EBR were disbursed around areas outside Dacca and their radio communication net was shut off. The 3rd EBR had its companies disbursed around Ghoraghat, and at Parvatipur outside the Saidpur cantonment. The 4th EBR units were deployed between Brahmanbaria and Shamshernagar. Only in Chittagong did the regular army Bengali units remain in their respective bases.
West Pakistani EPR troops were posted in the cities whenever possible, while Bengali EPR troops were sent to the border outposts. Most EPR units were away from the main action areas, and would need at least a day to reach the major cities. The EPR wireless net was shut off on the night of March 24 or 25.
Operation Searchlight: March 25/26 to April 10
This is a brief description of the units engaged and the result of Pakistani military action from March 25 until April 10, when the operation was supposed to end. This only covers events in the areas that were the major focus of Operation Searchlight, not the Bengali resistance throughout East Pakistan. In some areas, Pakistani assault and mass murders started clashes with the Bengali forces on 25 March. In other areas, no clashes took place until as late as the 30 March.
Pakistani troops in Dhaka, commanded by Maj. Gen. Farman, had the following objectives:
Impose curfew at 0110 hrs and close telephone/telegraph/radio station and shut all presses down
Seal off the city by taking over road, rail and river communication and patrol river
Arrest Sheikh Mujib and 15 top Awami League leaders during operation
Conduct house to house search in Dhanmondi and Hindu areas
Subdue Dhaka University, EPR HQ and Rajarbagh police line, disarm 2nd and 10th EBR
Take over and protect Ammunition factory at Gazipur and Arms depot at Rajendrapur.
Pakistani forces: In addition to the Eastern Command HQ, the headquarters of the 14th division and the 57th brigade were also located in Dacca cantonment. The regular army units present were: the 57th Brigade containing: 18th and 32nd Punjab (C.O: Lt. Col. Taj) regiments, 13th Frontier Force regiment, 22nd Baluch regiment, 604th Intelligence unit and the 31st Field Artillery Regiment (CO: Lt. Col. Zahid Hassan). 14th division HQ had the following units attached to it: 43rd Light Ack-Ack regiment (CO: Lt. Col. Shaffat Ali – Pakistani), elements of the 3rd Commando Battalion (CO: Lt. Col. Z.A. Khan – Pakistani), 19th Signal Regiment (CO: Lt. Col. Ifthekhar Hussain -Pakistani) and the 149th infantry workshop. PAF personnel were stationed at the Tejgaon Airport. A squadron of at least 14 M24 Chaffee tanks from the 29th Cavalry regiment was stationed in Dhaka along with 2 Tank troops with 6 PT-76 tanks.In addition to these units, other support elements (engineering, supply and medical units) of the 57th brigade, the 14th division and the Eastern Command HQ were located in Dacca.
Bengali forces: The 10th EBR, called “National Service Battalion” had a few trainers under the command of Lt. Col Moyeeduddin Ahmed, a Bengali officer. 2,500 EPR troops were attached with the EPR HQ (the 13th, 15th and 16th wings, plus the EPR HQ wing and signals wing) at Pilkhana.Each EPR wing contained 3 companies, although most EPR troops were at Pilkhana, 2 companies were deployed in Mirpur, two at the President house and one at the Governor house in the city. W.Pakistani Brig. Nissar Ahmad Khan was the director general of all EPR while Lt. Col. Anwar Hossain Shah (W. Pakistani) commanded EPR Dhaka sector troops. The Rajarbag police line housed at least 2,000 armed police. 2nd EBR (C.O: Lt. Col. Rakib – Bengali) was at Joydevpur to the north of Dhaka, with one company in Tangail and one at Mymensying and a small detachment at Gazipur. EPR 2nd wing HQ (C.O – Capt. Qamar Abbas – W. Pakistani) was also at Mymensingh, containing no Bengali officers.
Course of events:
Pakistani plan of action for Dhaka, as drawn up by Maj. Gen. Farman, was:
13th Frontier Force to stay in cantonment as reserve and provide security
43rd Light Ack Ack regiment was to secure Tejgaon airport
22nd Baluch regiment would disarm the EPR and seize wireless at Pilkhana EPR HQ
32nd Punjab was to neutralize Rajarbag Police line
18th Punjab was to fan out and secure Nawabpur and old Dhaka
31st Field was to secure Second capital, Mohammadpur and Mirpur
A platoon from 3 SSG was to capture Sheikh Mujib
22nd Baluch and 32nd Punjab was to neutralize Dhaka University “rebels”
22 Baluch would be reinforced at Pilkhana
Bengali EPR officers were detained by the Pakistanis in Pilkhana and the troops were mostly ordered to stand down and relax, while 22nd Baluch took over security duties at Pilkhana on March 25 morning hours. Rumor spread in the city after dusk that Yahia Khan had left and Awami League volunteers put up makeshift barricades in the streets, but these did not cause any significant delay to Pakistani troop movements. The volunteers manning the barricades were the first civilians to be shot by Pakistani troops. Although the operation was to start at 0110 hours, Pakistani troops moved out at 11:30 PM from Dacca cantonment as the Pakistani field commander wished to cut the reaction time of the Bengali forces. The army was given a 6 hour deadline to achieve its goal in Dhaka. Pakistani Army troops quickly shut off all communication channels in Dacca before commencing the operation.
The 10th Bengal was easily disarmed in the cantonment and later eliminated. The 31st Field was deployed in the second capital of Dacca city itself and secured the northern part of the city. The commandos, accompanied by Major Belal and Lt. Col. Z.A. Khan easily captured Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the beginning of the crackdown,but most of the Awami League senior leadership save one managed to evade capture and left the city by 29 March.The audio tape containing all these were done by the siblings, resident of Khilgaon Chowdhury Para area, Dacca. Bela’s troup was referred as Belal boys. The capture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was announced to all units (perhaps) “The big bird has been caged”. The death of Commodore Moazzem Hossain was announced in Urdu. The military were searching for Tajuddin and Bhuiya and they were announcing that any building shown hoisting black flag or Bangladeshi flag will be knocked down. They referred to Bengali as “Native Language”.One copy of this tape is given to Muktijuddho Jadughor, but the original is retained by the brother of the two siblings-Dr. Mozammel Hussain.
22nd Baluch at the EPR HQ attacked and subdued the disorganised resistance of the mostly disarmed EPR after an all night battle. Pakistanis captured the EPR troops posted at Mirpur, the President House and the Governor house without resistance, but many managed to flee while some were executed.
Contingents from the 18th and 32nd Punjab regiments assaulted the Dacca University area, subdued the light resistance from the Awami League volunteers, killed unarmed students present in the resident halls, also murdered some professors, then moved on to attack the Hindu areas and the old town on the morning of March 26. The Police at Rajarbag, aided by Awami League volunteers, put up a stout resistance, but were eventually overcome and most survivors were captured or scattered. Pakistani forces had used artillery and armour liberally, disregarding civilian safety altogether during the operation. The city was secured before dawn and a curfew was imposed. Surviving EPR and police fled the city, some crossed the Buriganga river to gather at Jingira. Sporadic attacks on the army took place during March 26-April 5, but barring the failure to arrest Awami league leaders, the army had achieved its objectives. Pakistani soldiers had also destroyed the Shaheed Minar, offices of the Daily Ittafaq, Daily People and the Kali temple at Ramna, none of which had any military value.
Captured Bengali soldiers, EPR and police personnel were either executed or imprisoned without trial. From March 26 to April 6, in an operation dubbed “GREAT FLY-IN” PIA Boeings and C 130 Transports would fly the 9th (made of the 27th, 313ed and 117th Brigades)and 16th (34th and 205th bdes) divisions (a total of 5 Brigade HQs, containing 16 infantry battalions) to Dacca, and elements of these formations would be flown to various locations in East Pakistan to reinforce Pakistani garrisons. 2 Mortar batteries and 2 wings each of EPCAF and West Pakistan Rangers, accompanied by a considerable number of Tochi and Thal Scouts were also deployed. PAF No. 6 Squadron had 9 C-130B/E Hercules Aircraft available in March 1971. 5 C-130B and 1 C-130E were employed to transfer troops from West to East Pakistan under Operation Great Fly-In.After March 25, two C-130B planes were stationed in Dhaka. PIA fleet had 7 Boeing 707 and 4 Boeing 720 planes, 75% of PIA transport capacity was also used to ferry troops from West Pakistan.
Pakistan army lifted the curfew for 2 hours on 27 March, when thousands of civilians left Dacca for the countryside. Pakistani troops began to move out of the city after March 26, taking up positions at Demra to the east, Tongi to the north and Narayangaung to the south to block road access to the city. By April 10, Pakistani Army had taken over the area between the Padma River to the south and Tangail-Narshindi to the north.
The 2nd EBR was posted in Joydevpur to the north of Dhaka, and had detachments posted in the Gazipur Ordnance factory (which had a small arsenal)and Rajendrapur Munitions factory (also housed an ammunition depot). Pakistani planners had feared that this unit could launch attacks on Dhaka Airport or the cantonment itself and disrupt the operation during the early hours of March 25/26, when Dhaka garrison had no reserve forces to spare. Although Lt. Col. Masudul Hasan had informed Maj. K M Shafiullah of the Pakistani crackdown on March 26 via telephone, the unit did not take any action until March 27. Pakistani troops took control of the Rajendrapur factory on March 26 and began to replenish munitions from that depot.
EPR 2nd wing (4 companies, one in Mymenshing, while other were posted to the north at Naqshi, Karaitoli and Lengura) was HQed at Mymenshing, along with a company of 2 EBR and a mixed company of W. Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani unit attacked the EPR company on March 27 but was wiped out on March 28, while other 2nd Wing companies neutralised Pakistani soldiers (either arrested them and sent them across the border or killed them) and deployed in towns to the east and west of Mymensingh by March 29. The 2nd EBR, under Major Shafiullah, revolted on 27 March, partially looted the Gazipur armory and regrouped at Mymensingh on 30 March. Shafiullah took command of 2nd EBR and 7 EPR companies (4 from 2nd wing and 3 made out of EPR, police, Mujahid and Answer personnel), and deployed his forces at Tangail, Bahadurabad, Sirajgaung, and Gaffargaon by March 30. 3 EPR companies were sent to Dacca to conduct sneak attacks, while the 2nd EBR moved via Kishorgaung and Narshindi to attack Dacca. Maj. Shafiullah canceled this plan on 31 March and joined the forces of Khaled Mosharraf north of Comilla with the 2nd EBR troops. Major Shafiullah deployed his forces as follows: 1 Company each at Narshindi, Ashuganj, Azabpur, Brahmanbaria, Sarail, Taliapara, 2 EBR HQ at Teliapara, and 1 company sent to Shadipur in Sylhet, and 1 to Chittagong to help Major Zia.
Pakistani forces (27th Brigade) moved north from Dacca on April 1, one column headed for Tangail while the other for Narshindi. EPR forces ambushed them near Tangail, but Pakistanis broke through despite heavy casualties and Tangail fell on April 9. Two columns headed north from Tangail, one towards Jamalpur and the other towards Mymensingh. Despite being repeatedly ambushed by Bengali forces, Jamalpur fell on April 14 and Mymensingh by April 22.
PAF bombed Narshindi on April 6, dispursing the EPR forces, and the army column (31st Baluch) attacked EPR positions near Narshindi on 8 April. This was repulsed, but the next attack, aided by artillery and Saber jets, broke through on April 9 and Narshindi fell on April 12. Mopping up action was conducted by the 27th Brigade, which secured Mymensingh, Sylhet and part of Comilla
Ring around Rajshahi
After securing Pabna and Bogura, Major Nazmul Huq focused on Rajshahi, around which Bengali fighters had been gathering since March 28. After keeping a small reserve at Naogaon, Major Nazmul Huq concentrated a mixed force of EPR, Police and volunteers around Rajshahi by April 1. Captain Gias commanded a mixed force of almost 1,000 fighters from Nawabgaung while Captain Rashid led another 1,000 from Panba to Rajshahi. Sporadic clashes with Pakistanis started on the following day. A three pronged attack was launched on the town, with Captain Gias attacking from the south, Captain Rashid from the east and another group from the northwest on April 4. After a fierce 4 hour battle causing severe casualties on both sides, Pakistani forces left the town and took up a strong defensive position around the cantonment at Sapura, using minefields and barbed wire to beef up the place. Between April 1 – April 5, the PAF had launched airstrikes to little effect on Rajshahi. Bengali fighters launched several attacks on the cantonment between April 6 – April 10, and although the Pakistanis were ultimately confined in an area only 800 yards square, the Punjab regiment managed to survive. Rajshahi town remained free until April 15. On April 10, 3 EPR companies took position to block the Pakistani 57th infantry brigade at Nagarbari. Pakistani forces softened the position by airstrikes on April 10, a launch borne forced probed it the following day. At night Pakistani assault force crossed the Jamuna River and secured the position, forcing the battered remnants of Bengali fighters to flee towards Pabna. Brig. Arbab began cleaving a path of terror and destruction as he headed for Rajshahi with the 57th brigade.
Chittagong housed the only oil refienry in East Pakistan, had a large fuel depot, was the largest seaport and MV Swat, with 9000 tons of arms and ammunition was in port. Bengali units substantially outnumbered the West Pakistani Chittagong garrison, which was a cause of concern for Pakistani planners. Bengali officers of EPR and EBR had discussed a preemptive strike on Pakistan forces, but the senior Bengali officers (Lt. Col M.R. Choudhury -Chief Instructor, EBRC) and Major Ziaur Rahman (2IC, 8 EBR), dissuaded Captain Rafiq (Sector Adjutant, EPR) from rebelling in the belief that the Pakistani army would not take action against civilians, but confirmed that they will revolt in case of any Pakistani attack.Attempts to unload arms and ammunition from MV Swat were a partial failure during March 20-25th, as civilian protestors blocked any attempt to take the arms to the cantonment and many were shot by the army. Brig. Mazumdar was relieved of his post because of this failure.
Pakistani units were given the following objectives in Chittagong:
Disarm EBRC units, 8 EBR, EPR and police units
Seize police armory, radio station and telephone exchange
Liaise with Pakistani Navy
Arrest Lt. Col. M.R. Choudhury and Awami League leaders.
The Chittagong garrison was to be reinforced by the bulk of 53rd Brigade troops from Comilla on March 26.
Pakistani forces: The Chittagong cantonment is located to the north of the city, while the Naval base was near the airport on the south end of the city. The port facilities are positioned between the airport and the naval base. The 20th Baluch regiment (CO: Lt. Col. Fatami-Pakistani), minus its advance party, was the only army unit present in the cantonment besides a company from the 31st Punjab and elements from the 3rd Commando battalion. These were supported by a section of 6 M24 Chaffee tanks from the 29 Cavalry. 20 Baluch had 400 troops, 29th Cavalry had 100 soldiers, while another 100 troops were attached with various service units. Some plain cloths Commandos were in the city The Pakistani Navy (under Commodore Mumtaz) had 300 troops and the PAF had an unknown number of personnel at the naval base and at the airport respectively. Also, some commandos were operating in civilian clothing in the city.EPR had about 300 Pakistani troops in Chittagong EPR HQ. PNS Jahangir, a destroyer, and the gunboat PNS Rajshahi and PNS Balaghat was also present in Chittagong. Brig. Ansari took command of the port area, while Lt. Col Fatami looked after the cantonment.
Bengali forces: The East Bengal Regimental Center (EBRC – Commanded by Lt. Col. Shaigri- Pakistani), located in the cantonment housed 2,000 Bengali troops, including the newly raised 9th EBR. The 8th EBR (CO: Lt. Col. Rashid Janjua, Pakistani) was at 50% strength and stationed outside the cantonment. EPR Sector #6 was HQed in Chittagong (CO: Lt. Col. Abdul Aziz Sheikh – W. Pakistani) contained the 11th (5 companies, CO Major Md. Iqbal, W. Pakistani), 14th (4 companies, CO Major Shamsuddin Ahmed, Bengali) and the 17th wings(4 companies, CO Major Peer Mohammad, W. Pakistani). Sector HQ was at Halishahar south of the cantonment, where a company from each wing in addition to HQ company, nearly 600 Bengali and 300 Pakistani troops were billeted. Other 14th Wing companies were deployed at Ramgarh, Taindong and Sajek, to the north and east of Chittagong. 17th wing had 2 companies at Kaptai and 1 at Rangamati. 11th Wing had a company each at Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf, Barkal and Maislong areas. The Dampara police line housed a substantial police contingent. A company of Bengali troops were deployed to unload munitions from the MV Swat at the port,while an EPR platoon guarded the airport.
Course of events:
The daytime witnessed nothing unusual, Pakistani and Bengali troops continued normal activities, while civilians barricaded streets to impede army movements. 1 Company of Bengali soldiers unloaded the MV Swat, all day and night, which would be finished by March 26 midday. Pakistani navy secured the airport just after dusk,capturing all EPR personnel stationed there. Commodore Mumtaj prevented any massacre of Bengali Naval personnel at the naval base but also ensured they cause no mischief. The port facility was secured by a Pakistani infantry company by 9:00 PM. Communication networks were partially shutdown.
Around 8:30 PM, Captain Rafiq was informed of troop movements in Dhaka by Chittagong Awami League leader Dr. Zafar. He immediately went to the EPR HQ and successfully took control of the facility by 10:30, imprisoning about 300 Pakistani EPR members, then sent a prearranged signal to all Bengali EPR companies attached to the Chittagong EPR sector to imprison all Pakistani soldiers and come to the city. This is the only instance where Bengali units launched a preemptive strike against the Pakistanis during the operation. Captain Rafiq deployed his troops in Agrabad (100 soldiers), Railway Hill (150) and Court hill (a platoon). The rest guarded the EPR HQ. The EPR Ramgarh contingent was told to blow up the Shuvopur bridge. As per his discussions with Lt. Col. M.R. Choudhury and Major Zia, he had assumed they would take over the cantonment – an assumption that would have fatal consequences.
20 Baluch, under Lt. Col Fatami, sent 6 truck loaded with troops to secure EBRC around 11:30 PM. They achieved total surprise and killed over 1000+ Bengali troops and their families and secured the area by 3:30 PM. (Islam pp. 105–106) Lt Col. M.R. Choudhury was among those killed, while surviving Bengali personnel were scattered. Pakistani forces had partially achieved their objectives by securing the cantonment, the port and the airport, and they awaited reinforcements from Comilla before taking further steps.
8 EBR troops at Sholoshahar were unaware of the attack on EBRC. Major Ziaur Rahman was away, making his way to port to unload ammunition from MV Swat around 11:45 PM while Major Mir Shawkat Ali had been ordered to take a company to the port. When some of the EBRC survivors reached 8 EBR lines begging for help, Captain Oli Ahmad (Oli Ahmed) began recalling EBR troops to Sholoshahar and arrested all Pakistani soldiers and officers of the unit. After taking controle of 8 EBR Captain Oli Ahmad (Oli Ahmed) sent Captain Khaleuzzaman to find Zia and bring him back. Captain Khalek managed to find Maj. Zia and get his escort of Pakistani troops back to 8 EBR lines, where Zia managed to arrest his escort and order Bengali troops to revolt. Bengali officers were divided in their opinion, some wanted to take on the 20 Baluch at EBRC to save Bengali lives, but ultimately it was decided that such a move would be suicidal. 8 EBR left the city and took position across the Kalurghat bridge around 1:15 AM.Bengali troops killed all Pakistani prisoners including 8 EBR CO, Lt. Col. Janjua who was killed by his second in command Major Ziaprior to moving out.
Pakistani troops from the Naval base launched an unsuccessful attack on the EPR HQ in the early hours (2:00AM – 4:00 AM) of March 26. Around 4:00 March 26, Major Bahar (CO 53rd Brigade Signal Company -Bengali), warned Captain Rafiq of 80 to 100 vehicles bearing the bulk of 53rd Brigade troops under Brig. Iqbal Shaffi was moving towards Chittagomg. Captain Rafiq sent an EPR Machine gun platoon under Subadar Musa, with a mortar and rocket launcher to delay the Pakistani column near Kumira, 12 miles north of Chittagong.
M.R Siddiqui (Awami League leader) had phoned Captain Haroon (2IC 17th EPR Wing) in Kaptai around 9:40 PM about the situation in Chittagong. By 11:30 PM Captain Haroon had taken control of the wing, put Pakistani personnel in jail, and had signaled EPR troops in border areas to move to Chittagong by 3:30 AM. Captain Haroon with his troops reached Kalurghat Bridge by 26 March morning, where Major Zia ordered him to stay with the 8 EBR troops, along with 2 EPR companies coming from Teknaf Rangamati EPR Company imprisoned their Pakistani members and took position to the north east of cantonment by the early hours of March 26. Bengali plan of resistance had fallen apart, EPR troops were to remain without the expected reinforcements throughout the battle.
53rd Brigade detachment had moved out around 3:00 AM from Comilla, but was repeatedly faced delays on the way because of barricades, damaged culverts and other obstacles thrown up by civilians during their 100 mile journey to Chittagong, forcing them to stop and make makeshift repairs and diversion roads before moving on. They captured the partially damaged Suvapor Bridge intact around 10:00 AM then stopped to make repairs. Brig. Shaffi was ordered to make for Chittagong, so he resumed his advance with the infantry, commando troops and some mortars after midday, when his engineers put up a path across the ravine, leaving his engineers and mortar battery at Shuvopur. By 7 PM, March 26, this group had reached Kumira (Comeera), by which time Captain S.A. Bhuyan (after talking with Captain Rafiq over phone) of EBRC had reinforced the EPR Platoon at Kumira with 70 soldiers, and had divided his forces in 3 platoons to set up an ambush.
20 Baluch with some tanks had secured the area immediately around the cantonment in the morning. During the day Pakistani troops from naval base and EPR soldiers had several clashes inside the city, especially around the Agrabad area and the Railway hill resulting in Pakistani soldiers being bottled up in the naval base. Bengali positions in the city came under shellfire from Pakistani Naval ships and artillery, while Bengali troops at the port facility were disarmed around midday and shot before dusk. Around 2:30 PM local Awami League leader M. A. Hannan made a declaration of Independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Kalurghat Radio station, which was not picked up by many people.
Around 7 PM, Brig. Shaffi’s troops were ambushed near Kumira, losing 10 killed,and suffering almost 100 casualties, including Lt. Col. Shahpur Khan (CO 24 FF). Brig. Shaffi himself had to flee for the hills, and 2 truck full of arms were recovered by the Bengalis. Half the convoy was outside the ambush firing range and Pakistanis, commanded by Major Amzad Hussain (Bengali -2IC 24 FF) fought back, and a 2 hour long battle ensued. The mortars were handled by Captain Fazlur Rahman Bhuyan (Bengali), who ironically was a Kakul Academy batch mate of Captain S.A. Bhuyan, leading the Bengali ambush. The Pakistani column lost all contact with Comilla and the GHQ at Dhaka, raising fears that it had been wiped out, which, if true, might have crippled the Pakistani effort.
The EPR HQ and Railway hill came under intense bombardment by Pakistani naval ships (PNS Jahangir and 2 gunboats) and artillery during the day. Pakistani troops launched two attacks on the Railway hill and EPR HQ after a 2 hour barrage around 8:30 PM, but both attacks were repulsed. Pakistanis continued to shell both areas throughout the night.
At the end of March 26, both Pakistani and Bengali troops had been denied land based reinforcements. Pakistani troops were stuck at Kumira, while Major Zia was keeping any EPR troops heading to the city at Kalurghat. Pakistani troops were in control of the northern and southern part of the city, and they were getting reinforcements through the air. The 2nd SSG (CO: Lt. Col Sulayman) was flown to Chittagong, while ammunition was flown out to replenish Pakistani forces around the province. Bengali troops were stuck in the middle (literally and figuratively) so the lack of communication and coordination between Maj. Zia and Captain Rafiq meant Bengali positions would come under intense pressure. Major Zia sent his troops to different parts of the Chittagong city for some quick operations and after being requested by several people he captured the Kalurghat radio station and broadcast declaration of independence of Bangladesh with himself as the provisional head of state in the evening.Next day he amended the declaration on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after being requested by local Awami League leaders and arranged to broadcast the announcement hourly. The impact of this broadcast, which was picked up by the civilians and isolated Bengali units fighting the Pakistanis, was significant. EPR troops from Ramgarh could not reach the city as Pakistanis stuck at Kumira barred their way, and the troops from Rangamati were stuck outside the cantonment. The Bengali soldiers in the city were in dire need of supplies and reinforcements.
Captain Rafiq and EPR troops withdrew from the Railway Hill position, and planning to join the EPR troops on the north of the cantonment before sunrise. Captain Rafiq planned to attack the cantonment and take over the supply dumps, but his troops moving towards the cantonment were taken to Kalurghat by Maj Zia en route, scuttling this risky plan. Pakistani troops from the naval base moved through Agrabad towards the EPR HQ, but EPR troops managed to beat back the attack.
General Khadim, GOC East Pakistan flew to Chittagong cantonment in the morning and conferred with Col. Fatami, then tried to locate Brig. Shaffi’s troops flying along the Comilla-Chittagong highway by Helicopter. The helicopter was hit by small arms fire near Kumira, and returned to Dacca without making contact. Gen Khadim moved his HQ from Dhaka to Chittagong cantonment next, and sent a column of 20 Baluch to locate the 53rd Brigade troops, but this column clashed with the EPR troops north of the city and got bogged down. General Mitha arrived in Chittagong around midday via Helicopter and planned to send a commando platoon from 2 SSG under Lt. Col Sulayman to link up with 20 Baluch before going on to locate Brig. Shaffi. The platoon raced north from the naval base in 2 jeeps and 3 pickup trucks, but were ambushed near Double Mooring, losing 13 members including the CO.
Meanwhile Brig. Shaffi had regrouped his forces at Kumira, and the Pakistani soldiers from Shuvopur had joined him after leaving a rearguard on the bridge. He sent a column east to bypass the Bengali position and linkup with the 20 Baluch, but it was ambushed and forced to withdraw. Another column moving along the seashore was also ambushed, and some Pakistani soldiers lost their way and were killed by Bengali mobs. Bengali civilians had provided warnings which were crucial for setting up the ambushes. The EPR troops at Kumira were almost out of ammunition and fell back 5 miles south to Bhatiari. Captain Bhuyan left for the city to get supplies, but could not return to Kumira. Captain Rafiq finally managed to re-supply the troops, but it took 7 long hours. Later that day Capt. Rafiq left for Ramgarh to seek Indian assistance. In the meantime, EPR troops took control of Feni, thus cutting off the road link between Comilla and Brig. Shaffi. EPR troops at Ramgarh split in two groups, one moved to join the Bengali soldiers near the Chittagong cantonment, while the others made for Shuvopur.
At the Chittagong naval base Brig. Ansari formed a task force of 2 tanks, one infantry battalion and mortars to hold the port area, supported by the 2 SSG commandos and naval ships. He was later reinforced by another battalion flown from Dhaka. Pakistanis made another attack on the EPR HQ without success later in the day. Gen. Mitha planned to send another commando platoon to blow up the station, but the fate of the first platoon convinced him to send this in speedboats instead of overland.EPR troops attempted to capture the Shuvopur bridge without success. Pakistani troops had failed to take control of Chittagong as planned, but they had access to airborne reinforcements and no lack of supplies, while Bengali troops were running out of supplies, needed reinforcements and the lack of coordination between Maj. Zia and Captain Rafiq meant their effort were not fully effective. By 27 March, most Bengali troops outside Chittagong city had assembled near the Kalurghat bridge under Major Zia’s command and they went for some quick operations in the city against the Pakistani forces.
Pakistani forces at Kumira launched a 3 pronged attack on Bengali forces in the morning, supported by mortars and PNS Rajshahi and Balaghat from the sea. The attack broke through and surviving EPR troops retreated to Fauzdarhut, were they were joined by an EPR platoon. Brig. Shaffi soon began attacking the area around 8 AM. After a clash of 3 hours, Bengali troops fell back to a position near the Haji Camp, which soon came under attack from Brig. Shaffi’s troops.
The Pakistani commando platoon sent to blow up Kalurghat Radio station was cornered in the Agri Building near the river and wiped out. Gen. Khadim then ordered the 20 Baluch to attack the station, which was repulsed. 20 Baluch also unsuccessfully attempted to dislodge the EPR troops positioned to the north of the cantonment around midday. Pakistani troops managed to push south from the cantonment and take control of the Circuit house (this became the HQ for Gen. Khadim). Pakistani ships and artillery continued pummel Bengali positions, but Pakistani attempts from the naval base to drive the EPR from Agrabad and link up with the 20 Baluch failed, although 20 Baluch and Brig. Shaffi’s group made contact with each other later in the day.
Captain Bhuyan, who was posted at Kalurghat Radio station by Major Zia, made two Radio announcements. The first one was to observe a blackout, the second was for all Bengali armed forces personnel to gather at Laldighi Moydan. Realizing the danger from the PAF in an open air gathering, the second announcement was cancelled, which was mainly given to gather scattered Bengali troops in the city. 8 EBR units under Major Zia made a surprise attack on the barracks of the 20 Baluch regiment and killed 250 West Pakistani soldiers. For a time the Pakistan troops retreated and shut themselves in their fortifications.According to Major Zia,the battle in Chittagong city was fierce. EPR troops from Ramgarh, now commanded by Maj. Shamsuddin (CO 14th EPR Wing) attacked the Pakistani guard on Shuvopur bridge in the evening, wiping out the Pakistani contingent and capturing the bridge.
Brig. Ansari sent a Pakistani detachment from the naval base bypassing EPR positions at Agrabad and captured New market and DC hill in the morning, but they were repulsed at Court Hill. Brig. Shaffi, who had taken control of the Haji camp and linked up with the 20 Baluch, now pushed south to the edge of Agrabad and made contact with Brig. Ansari’s detachment around evening, much to the relief of Pakistani HQ in Dhaka then captured the Medical college and Pravartak hill as well. Bengali troops fell back to Halishahar, while small groups continued to make hit and run attacks around the city. Bengali forces now held EPR HQ, Dampara, Kalurghat Radio station, Chawkbazar and Court hill, but were isolated from each other and had almost exhausted their ammunition. Major Zia luckily escaped a rifle shot and a rocket fired at him. Some of his small groups were sent to the city to make hit and run attacks. The initiative now fully rested with the Pakistan forces after 4 days of bitter fighting.
Brig. Ansari began organizing a task force to clear the city, while Brig. Shaffi took overall command with the task of taking out the Radio station, EPR HQ and the Dampara police line immediately. While Pakistan Navy and army shelled Bengali positions, Gen. Mitha again sent a commando platoon to attack Kalurghat Radio Station, which failed. 20 Baluch next attacked towards the station but was repulsed after heavy fighting. Finally the PAF bombed the station, and the transmitters were removed to another location by Bengali personnel. Sporadic clashes took place around the EPR HQ, while Major Zia left Maj. Shawkat in command at Kalurghat Bridge and left for Ramgarh around 7:30 PM to seek Indian assistance.
Brig. Ansari launched a battalion sized attack on the EPR HQ at Halishahar (a strongly fortified area), supported by another battalion and 2 tanks, with PNS Babur and Jahangir and 2 gunboats, plus a mortar battery lending fire support. The buildings at the HQ were leveled by shellfire – inadvertently leading to the death of Pakistani POWs. The battle raged from 7 am to 2 PM, and when the attack stalled around midday, PAF jets bombed the area, and another 3 hours were needed before the base was secured. Bengali survivors fled north through by lanes and left the city altogether.
Brig. Ansari next attacked the Dampara police line on March 31 with his task force which fell after a sharp firefight. On April 1 the Pakistani attack on Court hill was repulsed with the loss of a tank. Brig. Ansari launched an attack with 2 companies on April 2, which got stalled. He then sent 4 companies from two directions at Court hill, and captured the place, leaving Bengali troops with control of Chawlkbazar only in Chittagong city. For his services the superseded Brig. Ansari was awarded the ‘‘Hilal-i-Jurat’’ and the rank of Major General.
Between April 3 –April 6, Pakistani troops carried out mop up operations and fought several sharp street battles in and around Chawlkbazar, and by April 10 they had secured the city. Captain Rafiq and Maj. Zia had secured aid from BSF by April 6, and were busy organizing Bengali forces around Ramgarh. Bengali troops had captured 18 Pakistani officers near Ramgarh including Lt. Col Sheikh and Major Iqbal, all of whom Maj. Zia surrendered to the Indian authorities. Major Shafiullah and Major Khaled Musharraf sent 1 company each to Ramgarh in aid to 8 EBR, while Maj. Zia was busy attending them at Teliapara conference. All Bengali troops had left the city to regroup in 2 areas, at Kalurghat (1,000+ Bengali troops of the EPR and EBR), and at Kumira to the north of the city. By the 10th of April, Pakistani troops were poised to launch a three pronged coordinated attack to drive the Bengali troops from their positions.
Comilla is on the strategically important Dhaka-Chittagong highway and a crucial road link. Pakistani objectives were:
Disarm 4 EBR, EPR and police
Secure town, telephone exchange and arrest Awami League leaders
- Secure Radio station and exchange
- Secure Kean bridge and airport
Pakistani troops took over Sylhet city on March 26 without resistance, while Bengali EPR troops from 3rd wing and EPR Sector HQ managed to escape capture because Major Javed Barkat aided them. 31st Punjab companies sent to neutralize 4 EBR took up platoon size defensive position at Sherpur, Sadipur and Shamshernagar after being foiled by the 4 EBR revolt in Brahmanbaria. EPR 12th wing troops began to gather at Sunamganj while 3rd wing troops began taking over the BOPs after learning of the Pakistani crackdown from March 27 onward.
Bengali resistance solidifies
Major C.R Dutta (Frontier Force – on leave) was at Habiganj on March 25 and with the aid of Lt. Col. (ret) M.A. Rab (M.N.A 70 and future COS Bangladesh Army) had gathered a mixed force of EPR, police and volunteers totaling 2 companies by March 27. This force moved to Maulvi Bazar on April 1.On April 4 EPR troops from Sunamganj attacked Pakistanis in Sylhet with inconclusive results. While the Pakistanis began to reinforce Salutikar airfield, Major Dutta advanced on Sherpur on April 4, crossed the river at night with civilian assistance, and launched a 3 pronged attack on Pakistani forces on 5 April around 5 AM. After a 7 hour firefight surviving Pakistanis fell back to Sadipur.
Major Shafiullah had sent a 2nd EBR company (CO Captain Aziz) to aid Major Dutta. While Major Dutta advanced north along the Sylhet-Comilla highway, Capt. Aziz took an easterly route towards Sylhet. On April 6, he arrived within 3 miles of Sylhet, and after a sharp fight with some Pakistani troops, managed to take control of the south side of Surma river. By this time Major Dutta had driven the Pakistanis from Sadipur to Sylhet and joined Capt. Aziz on April 7, augmenting his forces to 4 infantry companies. Captain Aziz took position on the Southern end of Keans Bridge in Sylhet city, cutting off road access to areas south of the Surman river. Pakistani planes carried on strikes at EPR on Khadimnagar on April 6, doing considerable damage. Pakistanis evacuated Sylhet city on April 7 and took up defense around Salutikar Airfield. EPR companies from Sunamgaj entered Sylhet on the same day, while 2 platoons occupied Khadimnagar. An attack on the airport by 2 platoon EPR troops from Khadimnagar on April 8 was unsuccessful, after which 1 EPR company reinforced the troops there. Bengali forces had by this time gathered 4 companies of regular troops and EPR and 2 mixed companies around Sylhet.
Reinforced through air by 2 infantry battalions and a mortar battery (possibly the 22 Baluch, 30 Frontier Force and the 81st Ind. Mortar Battery)[of the 313st brigade,a Pakistani column attacked Khadimnagar on April 9 night, and drove out Bengali troops by 3:00 AM after a hand to hand battle, who retreated to Haripur. Another detachment attacked Sylhet city and occupied the area after a 4 hour struggle.Pakistani planes bombed Keans bridge around 2:00 PM April 10, then launched a 3 prong attack on the bridge, outflanked the position by crossing the river both upstream and downstream, and by dusk Captain Aziz retreated south to Sadipur. Aside from sporadic fighting, no major clashes took place near Sylhet until April 18.
Pakistani army Jessore contingent were given the following objectives:
- Disarm 1st EBR, EPR sector HQ and police
- Secure town, telephone exchange and arrest Awami League leaders
- Maintain control of cantonment and airfield
- Reinforce Khulna if required.
Pakistani soldiers entered Jessore city around 11:30 PM on March 25, took up positions on several locations and began patrolling the city. A few shots were exchanged near the EPR HQ but no major clash took place that night. ERP Bengali troops took up arms and began patrolling inside the HQ. Sector CO Lt. Col Aslam requested Bengali troops to stand down on March 26, assuring them that he would stand with them in case of an army attack, and Bengali troops reluctantly surrendered some of their weapons around midday. Major Osman (CO EPR 4 Wing at Chuadanga) tried to contact Bengali officers of the wing on March 26 but the officers refused to talk to him. The situation in Jessore remained calm until March 30.
From January 1971 1st EBR was training at Chaugacha (13 miles west of Jessore) near the Indian border and was unaware of the events taking place around the country. This unit was scheduled to relocate to West Pakistan and 50% of its troops were on pre-embarkation leave. On March 27 and 28 Major Osman had requested Col. Jalil to join the resistance but he had refused and warned Major Osman not to bother him further. On March 28 1 EBR was ordered to Jessore and they reached the cantonment on March 29 4:00 PM. 7th Field Ambulance soldiers requested 1 EBR troops not to deposit their arms to the armory, but this request was disregarded. Around 8:00 AM on March 30 Brig. Durrani himself came to 1 EBR barracks and ordered all arms to be surrendered and took away the keys of the armory. Bengali soldiers then revolted, broke arms out of the kotes and began firing at the nearby Baluch barracks around 9:00 AM. The EBR line immediately came under mortar and automatic weapons fire from entrenched Pakistani soldiers from 3 sides.
Lt. Col Jalil refused to join his soldiers, and on his request the Pakistani soldiers and officers attached to 1 EBR was spared, while 50 Bengali soldiers surrendered to the Pakistanis and were shot as traitors.Lt. Hafiz and Lt. Anwar took command of the Bengali troops and led the firefight until 4:30 PM, when Bengali soldiers began an orderly retreat from the cantonment in small groups after losing nearly half the unit present strength and leaving their families behind. Lt. Hafiz managed to regroup his surviving troops 11 miles west of the cantonment around 8:30 PM. The retreat was carried out through heavy interdiction fire and majority of the surviving troops made it, except Lt. Anwar, who was shot while leading a group out, and 40 soldiers. 7th Field Ambulance troops also revolted and were wiped out. Pakistanis killed several Bengali soldiers and their family members, including doctors at the CMH (including Lt. Col. S.A. Hai), and the surviving Bengali families were interned for their safety.
EPR troops received news of the cantonment clash and readied their defenses by 9:30 AM on March 30. All Pakistani personnel were imprisoned, but the Bengali officers left the HQ after the revolt started, leaving command to the JCOs. The city police also joined the revolt and began attacking army positions all around the city, while arms kept in government installations were distributed among civilian volunteers. EPR troops ambushed a Pakistani convoy coming from Khulna on March 30 evening, despite suffering heavy losses, surviving Pakistani troops managed to reach Jessore cantonment.
A confused battle erupted around the city, and on March 31 3 companies from the EPR 5th Wing cut off the Jessore – Khulna highway link. Pakistani troops abandoned the city and withdrew to the cantonment on March 31, to the anger of Pakistan Army Eastern HQ.2 EPR companies coming from Chuadanga got stuck just east of the city and failed to arrive. However, Bengali fighters managed to take up positions with 6 miles of the cantonment and began shelling Pakistani outposts with 3 inch mortars.
Pakistani reinforcements began arriving from Dhaka via C-130 planes and helicopters from April 2. Jessore Airfield was inside the cantonment area and Pakistani troops maintained control of both throughout the operation. A Pakistani column moved towards Kushtia, but was ambushed on April 3 and driven back, although Pakistanis took up positions in the Bihari colony in the city suburbs the same day. The Pakistanis made several unsuccessful attempts on April 5 to move towards Jhenida. On April 6, the Pakistan army simultaneously attacked all Bengali position near Jessore and recaptured the city. A Pakistani column moving towards Jhenida was ambushed and driven back on April 7. Bengali troops regrouped at Narail and moved towards Jessore, but were scattered by Pakistani air attacks on April 9. On 11 April several Pakistani army columns left Jessore, one heading for Jhenida, one towards Khulna, and one towards Benapol. Pakistani 57th Brigade crossed over from Rajshahi and began attacking Kushtia. By the last week of April, Bengali resistance had been driven across the border by the converging attacks of the 57th and 10th brigade.
By the dawn of 10 April, Pakistani forces had gained control of Dhaka, Rangpur-Saidpur, Comilla, Chittagong, and Khulna. Their forces had lost or abandoned Rajshahi, Sylhet, Pabna, Dinajpur, Mymenshing and Kushtia. The vital airfields and all the cantonments remained under Pakistani control, while the rest of the province was unoccupied and outside government control. The Bengali resistance had put up an unexpected stiff resistance and had managed to derail the initial Pakistani estimate of pacifying East Pakistan by April 10. The initial successes were not sustainable as the Bengali forces began to suffer from lack of trained men, officers, coordination among scattered troops and lack of central command structure, proper supplies (despite limited aid from BSF). Pakistani army had airlifted the 9th and 16th infantry division to Bangladesh by April 10 and was poised to seize the initiative. Gen. Niazi, who took command of Pakistan forces in Bangladesh on April 11, obtained a brief from Gen. Raza (the departing GOC) and implemented the following strategy:
Clear all the big cities of insurgents and secure Chittagong.
Take control and open all river, highway and rail communication network.
Drive the insurgents away from the interior of the country
Launch combing operations across Bangladesh to wipe out the insurgent network.
Against this strategy Bengali field commanders opted to go with “holding as much area for as long as possible”, The Bengali leadership hoped to keep the Pakistanis confined into the cities, while the Bangladesh government in exile sought diplomatic recognition and the resistance prepared for eventual guerrilla warfare and awaited the expected Indian military intervention. Lacking everything except unskilled volunteers, Mukti Bahini fought a conventional battle against an enemy enjoying superiority in number of trained men, firepower, and complete air superiority and played to the strength of Pakistanis. Choosing to attack Bengali forces all over Bangladesh simultaneously, Gen. Niazi concentrated battalion and brigade size forces on company and battalion size defense positions repeatedly, used air strikes and artillery to soften targets, and employed Heli-borne troops to outflank positions and hammered through to reach chosen objectives. Pakistani troop convoys were repeatedly ambushed, but these only delayed the Pakistani advance temporarily. By using their superiority of weapons and command of air ruthlessly, with little regard for safety of civilians and often targeting civilian areas to spread terror, the Pakistani army began to fan out of their bases and take over the province. By late April, all the major cities had fallen, by mid May all major towns had been captured and by mid June the battered remnant of Bengali fighters had been driven across the border into India. The Bengali resistance, suffering from a lack of trained men, proper logistics and coordination, lost the conventional battle against the Pakistan forces.
Temporary Pakistani occupation
Lt. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi had been posted as GOC East Pakistan Command on April 11, 1971, while Gen. Tikka Khan was retained as the governor of the province. General Khadim Raza was relieved from the command of the 14th division, and General Farman continued to serve as advisor on civilian affairs to the governor.
The Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, after being reinforced by "Operation GREAT FLYIN", was reorganised to run the counter insurgency operation. The 9th division (HQ Jessore, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Riza commanding) was given the 57th (HQ in Jhenida) and 107th (HQ in Jessore) brigades for controlling Kushtia, Jessore, Khulna, Faridpur, Barisal and Patuakhali districts. The 16th Division (HQ Natore, Maj. Gen. Nazar Hussain Shah commanding) was given the 23rd (HQ Rangpur), 205th (HQ Bogura) and 34th (HQ Nator) brigades and was to control Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogura, Pabna and Rajshahi districts. The 14th division (HQ Dacca, Maj. Gen. Rahim Khan) controlled the rest of the province with the 27th (HQ Mymenshingh), 313th (HQ Sylhet), 117th (HQ Comilla) and the 53rd (HQ Chittagong) brigades.
E.P.C.A.F (East Pakistan Civil Armed Force) was organized to replace the EPR. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Jamshed, this force contained 17 combat wings, 7 sector wings (Sector HQs at Dacca, Mymeshingh, Jessore, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Comilla and Chittagong), totalling an estimated 20,000 personnel (West Pakistanies and Biharis), serving under the command of Pakistani army officers. The force was deployed to patrol the border, maintain internal security and support army operations.
Razakars and Shanti Committees were formed to support the army occupation. Mostly recruited from Bengalis and ex-EPR servicemen, an estimated 40,000 Razakers (against a target of 100,000 recruits) of mixed effectiveness was eventually fielded. Al-Badr and Al-Shams, formed by Jaamat-i-Islami, contributed another 5,000 members each. Pakistan also deployed hundreds of West Pakistani civilians and 5,000 police to support the occupation.
Admiral Mohammad Shariff, who was Rear-Admiral at that time, and the principle commander of Eastern Naval Command, released his autobiography, entitled, "Admiral's Diary". In his autobiography, Admiral Shariff provided the account of Operation Searchlight, as he said Shariff concluded, The initial military success in regaining the law and order situation in East Pakistan in March of 1971 was misunderstood as a complete success. In actuality, the law and order situation deteriorated with time, particularly after September of the same year when the population turned increasingly against the army as well as the government
Creation of Mukti Bahini
The initial resistance, which started on March 26, functioned without any central command structure. Senior Bengali army officers met at Teliapara in Sylhet on April 10, and selected Col. (ret) M. A. G. Osmani as commander of Bengali armed forces. On April 11 Osmani designated four sector commanders: Major Zia for the Chittagong area, Major Khaled Mussarraf for Comilla, Major Shafiullah for Sylhet and Major Abu Osman Chowdhury for Jessore area. The Bangladesh government in exile was formed by the Awami League leadership on April 17 at Meherpur in Kushtia, which confirmed Col. Osmani as commander of Mukti Bahini (regular armed forces and insurgents) under the authority of Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad. Bangladesh Forces Headquarters were set up in Kolkata (Calcutta) with Col. MAG Osmani as commander in chief, Lt. Col. MA Rab as Chief of Staff (based in Agartala, Tripura), and Group Captain AR Khandker as deputy Chief of Staff. The Bengali resistance, after being driven out of Bangladesh, began reorganizing to focus on irregular warfare.
Bengali refugees in India
A few thousand people sought refuge during April and May, mostly the resistance. However, as Pakistani army operations spread throughout the province, refugees fleeing to India increased. Ultimately approximately 10 million people would leave East Pakistan, and about 6.7 million were housed in 825 refugee camps. An estimated 7.3 million would be in West Bengal, and 1.5 million in Tripura. The rest were mainly in Assam and Bihar. The temporary presence of this large foreign population created economic (the cost of feeding, housing and medical care), social (tensions between locals and refugees) and national security (arms falling in the hands of Mizo and Naga rebels) concerns for India.
The main reason Generals Farman and Yakub had opposed any military action against civilians in East Pakistan was the fear of an Indian attack, which the Pakistan army was woefully unprepared to meet in March 1971. After the crackdown, Tajuddin Ahmad met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on April 3, 1971 and asked for all possible aid,by which time the Indian government had already opened East Pakistan border and the BSF was offering limited aid to the Bengali resistance. The issue of direct military intervention was discussed between the Indian military and political leadership in April 1971.The case for intervention was based on the following:
Until April 10, most of Bangladesh was outside Pakistani control, and the troops were bottled up in a few cities and was facing fierce resistance. It is likely the Indian Army, with proper air support, could have quickly taken control of most of the province by aiding the Mukti Bahini.
Indian Eastern Naval contingent (1 aircraft carrier and several warships) could have imposed a blockade of the province and cut off supplies from the sea, as the Pakistan Naval arm in the east only contained 1 destroyer and 4 gunboats.
Pakistani forces were flying in crucial reinforcements from West Pakistan during March 26 – May 2 and were dependent of the supply depots located in Dhaka, Chittagong, and Narayanganj for fuel and ammunitions. Most Pakistani garrisons were cut off from each other and reliant on supplies through airlifts. The Indian Air Force, vastly outnumbering the Pakistan Air Force Eastern contingent, could have cut off the air-links and destroyed the supply depots (as it did in December 1971).
Against this, the military leadership had to consider the following:
Indian army did not have a suitable force available for action in April 1971, and would have to assemble one from forces deployed in other areas for such an operation.Could an adequate force be put in place without jeopardizing the security of the northern and western borders of India in time to make a difference in East Pakistan?
Could a logistical network be established around East Pakistan to support the combat force operation before Pakistani army took over the province?
Should the Indians fail to gain a quick victory, was the army and the government ready (logistically, politically, diplomatically and otherwise) for a longer war, especially during the monsoon season in Bangladesh which would favor the defenders?
Intervening in East Pakistan would make India the aggressor in International circles. Was India ready to diplomatically meet the international reaction and had India ensured the cooperation of a superpower as a diplomatic ally and arms supplier, crucial for running a long war?
Although some of the Bengali leadership hoped for and expected an Indian military operation at the earliest,a view also shared by some Indian officers, Indian army eastern command decided in the present condition such a move was unadvisable, and a full attack could only take place after November 15, 1971 at the earliest, only after deliberate and extensive preparations,which was further elaborated to the Indian cabinet by Gen. Sam Manekshaw. Indian leadership decided not to directly intervene, but chose to getinvolved: Eastern command took over responsibility for East Pakistan operations on April 29, and on May 15 launched Operation Jackpot, a full fledged operation to recruit, train, arm, equip, supply and advise the Mukti Bahini fighters engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Pakistan armed forces.
Bengali Civilian casualties
The killings which began on March 25, 1971 and sparked the Bangladesh Liberation War led to the deaths of at least 26,000 people, as admitted by Pakistan (by the Hamoodur Rahman Commission) and as many as 3,000,000 as claimed by Bangladesh (from 1972 to 1975 the first post-war prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, mentioned on several occasions that at least three million died). Biharis and Non Bengalis had also suffered in the initial stages of the conflict – houses were looted and some at died in Bengali hands.
The genocide also included killing of serving Bengali senior army officers of the rank of Lt. Colonel and above in East Pakistan within the first few days of Operation Searchlight. The deaths included Col. Badiul Alam, Lt. Col. MA Qadir, Lt. Col. SA Hai, Lt. Col. MR Choudhury, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ziaur Rahman, Lt. Col. NA M. Jahangir and another dozens of senior majors who were executed by April 1971. Also, around a hundred junior officers and thousands of unfortunate captured Bengali soldiers, including members of the East Pakistan Rifles and Police, serving in East Pakistan were executed. After the defeat of the Pakistan Army, there was a call to try nearly 200 Pakistani POWs for war crimes, but no trials took place.
Evaluation and importance
The Pakistani army maintained operational security, for the most part, before the operation commenced. They also airlifted 2 infantry divisions (the 9th and the 16th) to Bangladesh in a span of 4 weeks after March 26, despite a ban on flights over India.
The disorganized initial resistance of Bengali units was crushed by mid June, and the country was under Pakistani control. As insurgent activity slacked off in July, civilians returned to work and trade resumed, and Pakistanis could claim the country was almost “normal”. On the surface, Operation Searchlight had achieved most of its goals. Pakistani military leadership were satisfied with the results, even General Gul Hasan, no admirer of the Pakistani operation in East Pakistan in General and of Gen. Niazi in particular, praised the efforts of Pakistani troops and their achievements in April 1971.
The capture of Sheikh Mujib might have been a big blow for the resistance had Tajuddin Ahmad failed to rally support for his leadership from the other Awami League senior members and create the Bangladesh government in exile. The Pakistanis failed to capture the Awami League political leaders during the operation, which was a crucial part of the plan. Out of the 167 elected Members of National Assembly and 299 members of Provential Assembly from Awami League, Pakistinis managed to kill 4, 4 surrendered themselves while 2 were captured. The rest moved to India, and using their networks and popular support in Bangladesh, effectively organized the insurgency and joined the Bangladesh government in Exile in various capacity.
The survival of the Awami League political apparatus permitted India to channel aid through a structured organization, rather than dealing with various resistance groups competing for their support. The Awami League included elected members of parliament who claimed to be legitimate representatives of the people, thus enhancing the credibility of the organization in international circles. Bengali army officers worked under civilian leaders, so there was no serious struggle for power in the resistance. While civilian leadership ran the administration and coordinated logistics, army personnel fought the war and trained freedom fighters.
Pakistani planners assumed that if the political leadership was captured, the Bengali armed units disarmed, and the civilians sufficiently terrorized, after a month no organized resistance would remain in East Pakistan. Their assumptions were proven wrong in the long run. The political leadership escaped to organize the resistance and lobby for international support, Bengali soldiers formed the core of the armed resistance, and civilians, despite the terror campaign, supported the insurgency with logistics, intelligence and volunteers for the irregular warfare.
Operation Searchlight included no follow-up plan. Anticipating a relatively quick success, Pakistani planners did not plan for a long irregular war or the eventual involvement of India. Pakistan had no regular troops to spare after stationing 4 divisions in Bangladesh by November 1971 since they needed to maintain parity with the Indian army in the west. With the EPR and police defecting, a large number of para military units were needed to police the country. Siddique Salik estimated that Pakistan needed at least 250,000 to 300,000 troops, but even after organizing the Razakars (estimated strength 40,000), Pakistan could field only 150,000 (45,000 regular army, rest paramilitary units) soldiers in Bangladesh.
The eventual strain of combating the insurgency caused Pakistan to attack India on the December 3, 1971, with the objective to stop Indian support for the Mukti Bahini. This attack initiated the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which concluded with the unconditional surrender of Pakistan forces on 16 December.