According to Lt. General A. A. K. Niazi, who was in charge of Pakistan's Eastern Command when it surrendered to the joint Bangladesh-India forces on December 16, 1971 in Dhaka, “The 1971 imbroglio was the outcome of an unabated struggle for power between Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto. Yahya wanted to retain power while Bhutto wanted to attain it. This was despite the fact that Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League had emerged victorious and he should have been handed over the government. Bhutto’s fiery speeches were not mere rhetoric, but the actions of a desperate man vying for power at any cost. Had power been transferred to Mujib, Pakistan would have remained united.” [Interview with Amir Mir, India Abroad, www.rediff.com in December, 2001.]
Instead of transferring power to Sheikh Mujib, the military government of General Yahya Khan concocted a sinister plan - Operation Searchlight, which called for a brutal military solution to the constitutional crisis in East Pakistan. The plan called for neutralizing all East Pakistani (Bengali) troops by seizing weapons and ammunition, and disarming of the 15,000-strong EPR, armed police (numbering 23,606 out of a total of 33,995) and other para-military formations in East Pakistan on the zero-hour. Its objectives were to eliminate the Awami League (AL) apparatus and any civilians and personnel of the armed forces supporting the Awami League movement in defiance of the martial law.
At the zero hour, the operation was to be launched simultaneously all across East Pakistan with the objectives of arresting maximum number of political and student leaders, and those among cultural organizations and teaching staff; the operation was to achieve 100% success in Dhaka; Dhaka University – the center of Bangladeshi nationalism - would be occupied and searched; free and greater use of fire was authorized for securing cantonments; all internal and international communications were to be cut off, including telephone, television, radio and telegraph.
As planned, in those early days of March 1971, the fly-in of troops into Dhaka from West Pakistan continued. PIA’s fleet of Boeings flew the troops in. Ammunition was also delivered by ship to the southern port city of Chittagong. The Army was mobilized to unload those arms carrying ships. And all these preparations continued while Yahya Khan continued his dialogue with Mujib in March 1971 until the zero-hour came.
Before putting the plan into action, senior Pakistani officers in East Pakistan who were unwilling to support the military operation on civilians were relieved of their duties. Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, the Martial Law Administrator and Governor of East Pakistan, was absolutely against any military action, and he resigned weeks before the zero-hour. Lt. General Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, Chief of General Staff, Commander Eastern Command, who briefly served as the Governor of East Pakistan after Vice Admiral Ahsan’s resignation, was also removed from East Pakistan. Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan (known as the ‘Butcher of Baluchistan’) was chosen to become the new Governor and GOC of East Pakistan. He had arrived quietly at Dhaka airport on March 7, 1971 at 4 p.m., accompanied by Major General Rao Farman. Chief Justice B.A. Siddiqui of East Pakistan High Court refused to swear him in, and only did so after the zero hour.
Although the Plan did not specify the time needed to subdue East Pakistan, it was assumed that after the arrest of the political leadership, which included arresting Sheikh Mujib and 15 top AL leaders, and disarming of the Bengali military and paramilitary units, civilians could be terrorized into submitting to martial law within a week. Lt. General Tikka Khan estimated that no resistance would remain after April 10.
The zero hour came in the night of March 25, 1971. Mujib and his legal advisor Dr. Kamal Hossain were arrested. However, the other top AL leaders managed to escape to India where they eventually formed the Bangladesh Government in exile. As already noted, many Bengali troops, EPR, Ansar and Police forces fought valiantly against Pakistan military and set up resistance groups from within the local civilian population, until being pushed out to India.
According to the New York Times, probably 35,000 people got killed in Dhaka during the Operation Searchlight.
The ordinary Pakistani soldiers brought from West Pakistan were ordered by Generals Tikka Khan and Rao Forman Ali to set an example by killing as many Bengalis as possible since they have proven to be unreliable and unpatriotic. It did not matter that 90% of their targeted victims were Muslims who read the same Qur’an and prayed in the same direction of the Ka’bah.
Most of the atrocities committed in East Pakistan by the Pakistani military happened in the first two months of the crackdown - March and April of 1971. By the dawn of 10 April, Pakistani forces had gained control of Dhaka, Rangpur, Saidpur, Comilla, Chittagong, and Khulna. All able-bodied young men were suspected of being actual or potential freedom fighters. Thousands were arrested, tortured, and killed. Sweeps were conducted of young men who were never seen again. Bodies of youths would be found in fields, floating down rivers, or near army camps. As noted by Professor Rounaq Jahan of Dhaka University, “Eventually cities and towns became bereft of young males who either took refuge in India or joined the liberation war.”
News of such atrocities led to the exodus of millions of East Pakistanis to India, who mostly lived as refugees in the Indian states bordering East Pakistan. Many of the young recruits to the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters for Bangladesh) came from these refugees. A great majority of them were trained by the Bengali-speaking East Pakistani soldiers and officers, who had fled to India, and set up training camps along the borders. With the arms and ammunition brought in by them and/or captured from Pakistan military, they were able to train the Mukti Bahini and lead guerilla operations inside East Pakistan against an enemy enjoying superiority in number of trained men, firepower, and complete air superiority. In those early months of the war, the Indian government of Indira Gandhi refused to provide material support to the Mukti Bahini, which arguably could have liberated Bangladesh without any Indian intervention.
Lt. General A. A. K. Niazi, who took command of Pakistan forces in East Pakistan on April 11, 1971 from the outgoing GOC, Major Gen. Khadim Hussain Raja focused his strategy around defeating the Mukti Bahini, which included combing operations 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 while the Bangladesh government-in-exile sought diplomatic recognition.
By late April, all the major cities in East Pakistan had fallen to Pakistan military. By mid-May all major towns had been captured by the Pakistan military and by mid-June the battered remnants of the Bengali fighters had been driven across the border into India. The Mukti Bahini, suffering from a lack of trained men, proper logistics and coordination, plus timely material support from India, had lost the conventional battle against the much superior Pakistani forces.
A few thousand people sought refuge during April and May, mostly the resistance fighters, in India. However, as Pakistani army operations spread throughout the province, refugees fleeing to India increased. Ultimately, approximately ten 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 states of India.