Operation Searchlight as it goes by the name in history, is one of the series of events that forms part of the distorted narrative constructed around the fateful 1971 War and separation of East Pakistan. The political class at no point showed the inclination to sit down and talk things out. The differences could have been sorted out, the allegation was of discrimination; hence, the call was for more equality but the call was not at all for separation. Political leaders’ failure to achieve a negotiated end of an entirely political issue, total mishandling and irresponsible behavior of the political class led to a situation where Shaikh Mujib gave a speech on March 7, 1971 at Ramna Race Course in Dhaka. He proclaimed in his speech that “The struggle this time, is a struggle for our liberty. The struggle this time is a struggle for our independence” and “every house is to turn into a fortress.” Mujib’s call for civil disobedience was in reality a revolt and last nail in the coffin. That was the time when Operation Searchlight became an option to take back control of East Pakistan, launched 25-26 March 1971.
Amidst all the fabrications woven around the actual account of operation, the fact remains that the primary intention of Operation Searchlight was re-establishing writ of the federal government, eradicating militants and taking control of media over which, the federal government had lost its control. What ensued at Dhaka University during the operation which became part of the popular fiction as propagated by Indian and Indian sponsored media is the unilateral military action against the university students. What misses out is the presence of radicalized and armed students at the university and the efforts to neutralize them resulted in a two-pronged escalation. The question arises how come a university students became radicalized and eventually armed with weaponry. The vitriol of the Bengali politicians spurred by Indian sponsored propaganda machinery and arming of students as part of the reality are the pages, usually taken out of the history’s book.
The enchantment of the slogans such as “Brave Bengalis take up arms, make Bangladesh independent” coupled with Bengali nationalists’ furor with the calls for militant defiance, soaring political temperature of the province, in which all the hell broke loose, also need reckoning. The widespread memories of the incident as bloodbath is which Bengalis play the victim against the mighty military is a version that fails to take into account other side of the story; rendering us into an historical omission. Victimhood could have also acted as a founding myth for the birth of a nation – a rationale justifying militant heroism and liberation from the usurpers in popular imagination of the masses that played rightly into the hands of ultra-nationalists.
In short, in the series of events that led up to the 1971 war, starting with political leaders’ myopia, political impasse, Indian media propaganda, India’s indirect involvement via guerrilla training of Bengali separatists to its direct involvement in the final phases of the crisis leading up to the full-fledged war that dismembered Pakistan, one is tempted to side with those playing victims. However, traversing the path of truth calls upon digging out the facts with intellectual honesty of intelligentsia and stakeholders alike – a task ever more complicated in this post truth era.