On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan Government launched Operation Searchlight, the code name for the military crackdown on the Eastern Wing, to suppress Bengali calls for self-determination. In a conference held a month earlier, President Yahya Khan said,“Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of your hands”, thus giving state sanction to the genocide. Over the next nine months, the Pakistan military and supporting militias went on an orgy of killing, rape and loot, which for its sheer brutality is unparalleled. The resistance movement that was developed to fight the forces of repression had to contend with the might of a merciless and well-armed military that had no compunction in killing unarmed civilians. But the Bengali population was unwilling to meekly suffer the indignity and deprivation heaped on them. In what can only be described as a saga of heroism and courage, millions of Bangladeshis resisted what was perhaps one of the most brutal regimes in history. In blatant violation of law, the Pakistan Army, in acts of barbarism rarely seen before, murdered, plundered and raped at will in the desperate attempt to bring a proud people to their knees. Millions of innocent unarmed civilians died in a genocide, which the world largely ignored because the West was supporting the Pakistani regime as part of its larger geo-political goals. A passage from the work of journalist and researcher Afsan Choudhary is especially poignant. “I came out and saw the army. They wanted to go inside. I put my hands up like this and said there was no one inside. They flung me away into the yard and dragged my husband and son outside. They shot them both right there, there. They killed every male in the village, every male. When the army was gone, there was not a single man left to bury the dead. We had to drag the bodies ourselves and bury them.” (The Beswas Village by Afsan Chowdhary)
The bestiality of the Pakistan Army crossed all bounds when they used rape as an instrument of coercion. As per Susan Brownmiller: “Between two to four million women were raped over a period of nine months. Eighty percent of the raped women were Muslims, reflecting the population of Bangladesh, but Hindu and Christian women were not exempt. … Hit-and-run rape of large numbers of Bengali women was brutally simple in terms of logistics as the Pakistani regulars swept through and occupied the tiny, populous land. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted … Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. Some women may have been raped as many as eighty times in a night”.
How many died from this atrocious treatment, and how many more women were murdered as part of the generalised campaign of destruction and slaughter, can only be guessed. The shame of it all was that rape as an instrument of coercion had state sanction. General AAK Niazi, the commanding General in East Pakistan made perhaps the most shameful comment when he said, “You cannot expect a man to live, fight, and die in East Pakistan and go to Jhelum for sex, would you?”
Indeed, the Pakistan Army had descended to its lowest depths. It speaks volumes for the courage of the citizens of Bangladesh that they stood up and opposed this brutality, willing to die rather than accept a subservient status. Hundreds of thousands laid down their lives, many whose names we shall never know. They fought for freedom from oppression, they suffered, but ultimately, they prevailed.
The depravity of the Pakistan Army had, however started even before the crackdown. The refusal of the civil and military clique of West Pakistan to hand power to the legitimately elected Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the popular mass leader and hero of the Bengali-speaking people, had, by the beginning of the year 1971, spurred an uprising across East Pakistan which by March had become a boiling cauldron. On March 7, in a mammoth public rally at Dhaka’s Ramna Race Course Maidan, Sheikh Mujib called upon the Bengali people to prepare for a potential war to achieve the goal of self-rule. “Ebarer Shangram Muktir Shangram, Ebarer Shangram Swadinatar Shangram”, (The struggle today is for freedom. The struggle today is for Independence), he thundered to the massive crowd that had gathered to hear him. His message also went across to countless million others who were listening on the radio. It was a call to action, defined by his next words – “Every house to turn into a fortress”. Thus was the freedom movement of Bangladesh born.
Amongst the millions who listened to Bangabandhu’s rousing speech was Shahed Ali, a poor peasant’s son from the village of Shammanipur. This village in Rangpur district was just five kilometres south of the Rangpur Cantonment, where troops of the Pakistan Army were garrisoned. The personnel from the garrison had no compunction in harassing the people, burning their houses, looting their valuables or simply carrying out raids for cattle, poultry, vegetables and grains. On March 23, 1971, at around 10 am the Pakistan Army moved a column in Shammanipur. Inspired by Bangabandhu’s speech, Shahed decided that time had come to fulfil his duty to defend his village against the Pakistan Army. A slogan spreading like a wildfire in Rangpur was: “Bansher lathi tairi karo, Bangladesh swadhin karo.” Loosely translated, the slogan meant ‘Prepare weapons with bamboo and bring freedom to Bangladesh’. Shahed, with ten of his friends, moved to an adjacent village from where they observed the activities of the Pakistan Army. Shortly after, they got their opportunity when they observed a Pakistani Army jeep approaching the village—hiding in the bushes; they waylaid the jeep carrying five soldiers. The suddenness of the attack caught the soldiers by surprise, and before they could use their weapons, Shahed and his group used sticks and knives to kill them. Amongst the soldiers was Lieutenant Abbas of the 29 Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Rangpur Cantonment, who frequently led raids to steal livestock from villagers and maltreated them in Shammanipur. This perhaps represented the first guerrilla action carried out against the Pakistan Army. Many more would occur in the ensuing months till final freedom was achieved.
The story of the Mukti Bahini is a saga of raw courage and guts. Who were these young men and women from the then East Pakistan who formed the Mukti Bahini? Some were just poor peasants like Shahed Ali. Most had never even seen a gun. They rose up from amongst the people, ordinary villagers, housewives, students, farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, indeed from every segment of society, with just one thought in mind. The Motherland had to be defended. Some trained in East Pakistan, others crossed the border to India for training before returning to fight their oppressors. In a sense, the story of Major General AK Mohammad Ali Sikder shows why the common citizens rose up as one to fight oppression. He was just 16-years-old and studying in Class XI when the crackdown took place. In the third week of May, he witnessed first-hand the slaughter of innocent villagers by the Pakistan Army. He was sitting by the riverfront with some friends when they saw a motorboat heading their way. It stopped at an embankment overlooking the marketplace, which was teeming with people. The soldiers got out and took up positions with their guns pointed at the crowds in the market. And then Sikder and his friends watched with total shock and disbelief as the troops opened fire on the unarmed civilians, littering the area with their corpses, blood splattered all across the marketplace.
“After witnessing such carnage, I could no longer continue my studies in college”, wrote General Sikder many years later. “We had to fight back. Across the border on the Indian side, the Border Security Force had begun training the Mukti Bahini in basic military skills like field craft, firing of weapons and the use of explosives. My friends and I decided that we too must fight for our Motherland. For seven days, we walked through villages, paddy fields, mud and water. Through day and night, under rain and scorching sun, we crossed the frontier and landed in Bangaon. Four weeks later, in mid-July, an innocent teen turned guerrilla crossed back into Bangladesh, to fight the Liberation War”. Stories such as these were repeated in their thousand all across the length and breadth of East Pakistan. Thus was the Mukti Bahini was created.
The Mukti Bahini proved to be more than a handful for the Pakistan Army. Not strong enough to take on the Army headlong, they were nevertheless a thorn in the side of the Pakistani soldiers who found that they could not move without being sniped at from some corner. Consequently, the Army remained largely confined to their bases, venturing out only in large groups. Huge resources had to be spent on guarding their rear areas, as no place was considered safe. This worked to the advantage of the Indian Army when it moved in to support the freedom struggle on December 3. Working closely with the Mukti Bahini, Pakistani opposition was overcome in a swift campaign lasting just 13 days and forcing the surrender of over 93,000 soldiers of the Pakistan Army. The support provided by the Mukti Bahini and the local population was invaluable. It came largely in the form of intelligence and logistic support and was vital for the swift conduct of operations. Even the Tangail landings were made possible only through the support of the Mukti Bahini. A young Indian officer, Captain PK Ghosh, was infiltrated behind the enemy lines and he got in touch with Tiger Siddiqui, a legend among the Mukti Bahini. Through their efforts, the landing ground was secured, which enabled the para drop to take place. The role played by the Mukti Bahini indeed forms a glorious and proud chapter in the history of Bangladesh. They rose from amongst the common people of the land to fight oppression and won their freedom.
For India, the victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war changed the geostrategic equation in the subcontinent. Pakistan, which had missed an ideal moment to capture Kashmir in October 1962, during the Sino Indian conflict, failed again to do so in the 1965 war against India. Post the humiliating defeat of Pakistan in 1971, its hopes of grabbing Kashmir by force were dashed. As Kashmir was now out of reach for Pakistan through the force of arms, it changed its strategy and started an asymmetric war against India, using terrorists to destabilise the country. Such tactics were successfully used to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and in Pakistani perception, if a superpower could be defeated, then so could India. Thus, the Pakistani strategy, enunciated by Zia-ul-Haq in the late nineteen eighties, of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. The asymmetric war it has been waging against India over the last nearly three decades has been executed with minimal cost to Pakistan, but India has been forced to pay a heavy price to defend its territory.
India’s policy options against Pakistan have for long remained defensive, with the focus being on attack prevention, but little was done to punish Pakistan for its intransigence. This defensive mindset is slowly yielding to a more pro-active policy wherein Pakistan is being held accountable for its support to terrorist groups. This is becoming increasingly visible on the political, diplomatic and military front. How it pans out in future remains to be seen, but peace in the sub-continent is unlikely in the near future.