The Pakistan Army’s Operations in East Pakistan Were Brutal and Ruthless

A reporter’s eyewitness account of what he saw in 1971 in and around Dhaka.

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.

On March 24, 1971  negotiations on a new  constitution for Pakistan collapsed. The negotiators were the President, General Yahya Khan, trying to hold the two wings of Pakistan together, the leader of the eastern wing Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, demanding autonomy little short of independence, and the leader of the western wing, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, insisting vehemently on a  centrist constitution.  

Tajuddin Ahmed, the secretary of Mujib’s party, the Awami League, announced that his party had submitted its final proposals and had nothing to add or negotiate. Bhutto’s  advisers and aides started leaving Dhaka and the same evening Yahya Khan left secretly for Islamabad.

During the ten days Yahya Khan had been in Dhaka security in the city had deteriorated so far that the city was effectively in the hands of Mujib’s Awami League and the army was confined to the cantonment.  

The day after he left, Yahya broadcast to the nation. Ignoring the conciliatory speech which had been drafted for him by Major General Rao Farman Ali who was advisor to the Governor of East Pakistan, Yahya declared war on Mujib, claiming that he had committed treason by running  a parallel government, and promising he would not go unpunished.  By the time he broadcast the punishment had already started. 

Also read: 1971: The Year India Felt Good About Itself

Around midnight army units had moved out of the cantonment and in brutal assaults captured key points in  the city. Sheikh Mujib had been arrested. After the crack-down Bhutto was escorted to the airport where, before boarding the plane, in a typically bombastic statement that was to prove so wrong he said, “Thank God Pakistan has been saved.” 

At that time I was in London writing commentaries for  the Eastern Service of the BBC World Service. They were broadcast  in Hindu, Urdu,  Bengali, Tamil and English. 

Although the Bangladeshi media was blacked-out and foreign correspondents had been rounded up and flown out of Dhaka, we were kept informed by our two stringers, the Bengali freelance journalists Ataus Samad and Nizamuddin. But their movements were limited by curfews and they had to be circumspect. Sadly Nizamuddin was eventually killed by Razakars when they discovered he was providing information for the BBC. Razakars were pro-Pakistan volunteers, almost entirely non-Bengalis, raised by the army to augment their strength. 

It wasn’t until five days after the crack-down that we got a more detailed account of its severity from  a report in the London Daily Telegraph by its correspondent  Simon Dring. When foreign correspondents were rounded up, he had hidden in Dhaka’s Intercontinental Hotel with the help of its  Bengali staff. He later managed to get to  the University, the old city and the police barracks and document the massacres that had taken place there. He counted thirty bodies in the University.

Dring’s report was invaluable but we were still not able to give our listeners much information about what had happened and was happening in other cities and towns of Bangladesh, and in the countryside too.

Then a bombshell hit the Pakistan army’s public relations effort, a bombshell the army never recovered from. It was an extensive eyewitness expose of the brutality of the Pakistan army’s crackdown. The report was written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Karachi journalist. The Pakistan government had taken a party of West Pakistani journalists, including Mascarenhas, to the eastern wing. 

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Their reports were subject to strict censorship and so gave the impression that the brutality of the army crackdown had been grossly exaggerated and normalcy had been restored throughout the province. Mascarenhas was so shocked by what he saw and heard that he felt it was his duty to reveal the truth about the situation. He went to London to meet Harold Evans, the  renowned editor of the Sunday Times, who agreed to publish his report once he had managed to get his family out of Pakistan. This Mascarenhas did with some difficulty, his report appearing in the Sunday Times on June 13, 1971. 

The report described seeing the army ‘“hunting” for Hindus. In the night Mascarenhas had heard screaming coming from the Circuit House in Comilla where men were being bludgeoned to death. He found the riverside port of Chandpur almost totally deserted. In army messes, officers boasted to him of the number of Bengalis they had personally shot and the number of houses they had burnt. They spoke of “kill and burn missions” conducted under cover of darkness and of “the final solution” to the problem of Bengal. A Divisional Commander, Major General Shaukat Raza told Mascarenhas, ”We are going to complete the job. We are not going to hand it over half-finished to politicians so that they can mess it up again.”  

As well as reporting the brutality of the Pakistan army, Mascarenhas also reported the massacre of non-Bengalis by Bengali soldiers and policemen who had mutinied. He wrote of their “atrocious savagery”.

Mascarenhas’ revelations had a huge international impact. We earned the wrath of the government of Pakistan by broadcasting news of the report extensively, so we were surprised when we were invited to send a reporter to join a party of the first foreign journalists to be allowed to visit East Pakistan, travel freely in the Province, and report without any censorship. The BBC put my name forward.

Mark Tully in what was then East Pakistan. Photo: Author provided.

It’s fifty years now since I landed in Dhaka for my first visit to East Pakistan. I deeply regret that throughout my BBC career I didn’t keep a diary, nor did I keep my notes or copies of my despatches, so I have to depend on my memory, which is inevitably not entirely fresh, to recall that visit.   

I can’t remember the exact date of our visit but it was not long after the Pakistani army secured the last two towns, Cox’s Bazar on April 28 and Maulvi Hatia on May 11. We were allowed a limited time to be in the province, I think about two weeks. 

We worked individually but sometimes met in the evenings to share notes. Major General Rao Farman Ali, advisor to the formidable governor of East Pakistan Lt General Tikka Khan briefed us and answered our questions patiently and politely. After the departure of the scholarly Martial Law Administrator, Lt General Sahabzada Yakub Khan, Rao Farman Ali became the brains of the high command in Dhaka. He was called on to draw up the first  part of the plan for Operation Searchlight, the code name for the crackdown. 

During his briefings, Rao Farman Ali attempted to convince us that life was returning to normal in Pakistan and that miscreants trained in India were responsible for what trouble there was. He arranged for us to meet jawans and officers in the field. All of them were extremely hostile to India. One jawan actually said to me, “We will show them that one Muslim is equal to ten Hindus.”  

 The change in media policy which led to our visit was the brainchild of a remarkable Public Relations Officer Major Siddiq Salik. He was in the army’s  headquarters in Dhaka throughout 1971 and was taken prisoner of war after the army surrendered. In 1977  Salik published a book called Witness to Surrender, a highly critical account of the army’s role in the last days of East Pakistan.  Nevertheless he went on to be promoted and become General Ziaul Haq’s public relations officer when he seized power. Saliq died when a case of mangoes exploded in the aeroplane he and General Zia were travelling in. 

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with then President of Pakistan, General Zia-Ul-Haq on December 17, 1985. Photo: KKK/December, 1985, M32RG/A63(9)

Salik realised the importance of BBC broadcasts and although I was never officially followed while in Dhaka, he somehow managed to turn up almost everywhere I went. There developed between us one of those strange relationships which do sometimes develop between journalists and PR officials, a sort of love-hate relationship. Salik signed my copy of his book “To Mark, my dear!” signifying, I think, our peculiar relationship.   

One place in Dhaka, Salik didn’t show up at was the deserted Hindu area, Shakhara Bazaar. I was preoccupied, taking photos of burnt or boarded up shops when my arm was grabbed by a six-foot plus burly Punjabi policeman, one of the 5,000 West Pakistani policemen sent to the eastern wing because the Bengali force was no longer trustworthy. The Punjabi marched me to a police station and, speaking in Hindustani, ordered the  SHO to arrest me. When the SHO realised I was a journalist with official permission to do my job, he rounded on the Punjabi saying, “You people come here. You don’t even know our language, and you start giving us orders. Get out.”

Over the inevitable cup of tea that followed the Punjabi officer’s departure, I asked the SHO  about the crackdown. He replied, “You can see with your eyes what has happened.” 

I did see evidence of the random firing that had taken place in the old city, I saw the burnt out dormitories of Rajabargh Police Lines, and the damage caused by mortars fired at Iqbal and Jaganath Halls in the University. All the Hindu areas I visited were  deserted and there was evidence of random firing. 

I contacted our two stringers on the phone but we didn’t meet because that would have endangered them. They informed me that the army was creating terror searching for rebels or insurgents as they called the Mukti Bahini. Young men were being taken off the streets to be interrogated in  what was being called “the torture chamber” situated in  the Second Capital. Many middle class citizens had left to stay with upcountry relatives or crossed the border into India. The Punjabi policemen on the streets were a constant reminder that Dhaka was an occupied city. 

Also read: For Indian Diplomats in Pakistan, the Run up To the 1971 War Was a Very Tense Time

It was arranged for me to meet the sector commander of the Mukti Bahini, Nasiruddin Yusuf Bachchi. He claimed that his “boys” were even active in the capital and told me that they had recently blown up an electricity transformer and a bridge. I remember being able to confirm the damage of the bridge and reporting it. Not surprisingly, the sector commander denied getting any help from India. 

I also met leaders of the Bihari community, non-Bengalis who had come to East Pakistan from Bihar and other parts of India at partition. Because of the atrocities inflicted on their community by Bengalis they welcomed the army presence and were hostile to me because they regarded BBC as anti-Pakistani. 

When I travelled outside Dhaka I got an impression of the extent of the army’s crackdown. For mile after mile, I passed deserted villages with huts burnt to cinders. Small towns were  deserted too. On the ferry crossing the mighty Padma river, I heard two army officers making disparaging remarks in Urdu about the manifest poverty of many of the passengers. On the other side of the river there was no sign of life. The army hadn’t even bothered to establish check posts, presumably because there was virtually no traffic to check. I wasn’t able to drive as far as I planned because the condition of the road was deplorable – evidence of the government’s neglect of the eastern wing of the country.  

Also read: Revisiting the Battle of Garibpur, a Precursor to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

In his book, Siddiq Salik described witnessing one of the “clearing missions” which wrought the devastation I saw outside Dhaka.   Searching for Mukti Bahini, the column he travelled with was even accompanied by field artillery which fired at suitable intervals in what Salik called “the general direction of the move”. The infantry travelled in trucks with machine guns mounted on them and “opened up on the slightest pretext or suspicion. A stir in a branch of trees or a little rustle…was enough to evoke a burst of automatic fire or at least a rifle shot.”  

Salik saw the soldiers setting thatched huts on fire. In the deserted small town of Karatea they burnt down the bazar and some kerosene drums.  

In  one  village an argument broke out between soldiers and an old Bengali, so poor he was only clad in a dirty loincloth. Salik found him sitting under a banana tree and asked him what had happened. He replied, “I am a poor fellow. I don’t know what to do. A little earlier they (the Mukti Bahini) were here. They threatened to put me to death if I told anyone about them. Now you confront me with an equally dreadful end if I don’t tell you about them.”

For Salik, “That summed up the dilemma of the common Bengali.” For me, Salik’s summary is  an admission by a Pakistani officer that the army declared war on the civilian population. That was the impression I left East Pakistan with. 

I spent the rest of that year back in London writing commentaries for the BBC Eastern Service on all the developments in East Pakistan. I returned after the war between Pakistan and India, to be among the first foreign journalists to interview Sheikh Mujib after he came back from imprisonment in Pakistan.