Soon after the military operation ‘Searchlight’ began in former East Pakistan on March 25, 1971, the uprising became the subject of discussion all over the world. Chained by censorship, West Pakistan newspapers did not give a single word to their readers about what was happening in the Eastern wing; hence only foreign news radio was heard and believed. BBC’s were the most popular broadcasts.
March and April saw the worst. Roads were literally littered with garbage and bodies. The latter included Bengalis and non-Bengalis, Muslims and Hindus, without discrimination. In the absence of evidence it is still a bitter controversy as to who did most of the killing. The estimate of deaths swing between 300,000 to three million.
Reports say that some 220,000 girls and women were raped and after gaining independence a UN team was sent to help them. Some foreign agencies reported that more than 10 million refugees fled to India. Confirmed reports could not be obtained owing to the fact that in the absence of independent sources the information remained murky at best. However, most writers believe that there were over three million deaths between March 1971 and December 1971.
Repression by the Pakistan armed forces had begun from the moment the announcement of establishing Bangladesh was made. Due to the situation, the country faced acute shortage of food and medicines. Atrocities continued making headlines in the international media. Many reported ghastly nature of killings; some said that many women were mutilated before they were killed.
Mukti Bahini activists helped by India did not hide their identity in committing inhuman deeds either, but they were quickly countered by a number of civilian volunteer groups who were armed by the army to get organised and stage encounters. History will record with disgust the role of such organisations which undertook arson, looting and dishonouring not only of pro-Awami League people but also of innocent Bengalis.
They included members and supporters of the right-wing parties, led by Jamat-i-Islami. They had been routed by Awami League in 1970 elections and now wanted to take full revenge by calling the AL anti-Islam. The most active were three armed groups, Al Shams, Al Badar and the Razakar. These and other similar groups were accused of working as thunder squads, looting and disgracing Bengalis who were labelled as non-Muslim. Reports said that before action, these groups used to prepare plans and lists of those who were to be taken to task.
Bengali nationalist armed groups responded by unleashing their fury on Beharis and other non-Bengalis.
It is hard to understand why Yahya Khan seemed so confident about the success of his Operation Searchlight and thought that peace had been restored as thousands succumbed to death. In the beginning of April 1971 he was told by his cronies that the situation had improved.
Generals Hamid, M Pirzada, Omar and Rao Farman Ali even told him that the issue of East Pakistan had been resolved.
Banking on their advice former judge Justice Corneillius was asked to prepare a constitution for the country which should grant maximum provincial autonomy to East Pakistan while remaining a part of Pakistan. In fact the situation had gone contrary to all that. Politicking continued in West Pakistan. Bhutto kept meeting Yahya and his men, however Yahya appeared to be losing the reins. On May 24, at a press conference in Karachi, Yahya painted a very gloomy picture of the country’s affairs and said that the economy had fallen to the lowest ebb.
His answers to newsmen were irrelevant and sometimes off the subject.
His approach towards the East Pakistan crisis seemed to have changed, and he appeared to evolve some positive solution. What made Yahya Khan change his stance is anybody’s guess, but on June 28, he announced the appointment of a team of experts to form a constitution and pledged that transfer of power would take place in four months. He had the misconception that holding by-elections and making the Assembly functional would cool down the people.
While Mujib languished in Mianwali jail, Bhutto continued to meet Yahya. He visited Iran and wanted to visit Afghanistan with the aim of impressing upon Yahya that he was still popular with these countries. However during his visit to Iran Bhutto gave an interview to BBC in which he said that the crisis had not risen due to Mujib, but then quickly denied having said that. Perhaps he had second thoughts leading him to a new proposition.