Operation Searchlight: History and Significance in Liberation War

 What is Operation Searchlight?

Operation Searchlight was a planned military operation carried out by the Pakistani army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in the erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971 which the Pakistani state justified on the basis of anti Bihari violence by Bengalis in early March.

Operation Searchlight: History and Significance in Liberation War

Aims of Operation Searchlight

  • Operation to be launched simultaneously all across East Pakistan.
  • Maximum number of political and student leaders, and those among cultural organizations and teaching staff to be arrested.
  • Operation must achieve 100% success in Dhaka. Dhaka University would be occupied and searched.
  • Free and greater use of fire authorized for securing cantonments.
  • All internal and international communications to be cut off, including telephone, television, radio and telegraph.
  • All East Pakistani (Bengali) troops to be neutralized by seizing weapons and ammunition.
  • To deceive the Awami League, President Yahiya Khan to pretend to continue dialogue, even if Mr. Bhutto disagrees, and to agree to Awami League demands.

Planning of Operation Searchlight

Planner of Operation Searchlight

On 17th March 1971, under the direction of President Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan and Abdul Hamid Khan instructed Khadim Hossain Raja and Rao Farman Ali to plan a military operation in East Pakistan.

 On 18th March, Khadim Hossain Raja and Rao Farman Ali finalized the plan of violence in East Pakistan and named it 'Operation Searchlight'.

Operation Searchlight design in blue paper

Operation Searchlight design in blue paper

On a light blue paper, General Rao Farman Ali wrote the plan of ‘Operation Searchlight’. There were sixteen paragraphs in the plan within five pages.


After the Awami League had won a decisive majority (capturing 167 out of 313 seats) in the 1970 Pakistan parliamentary elections, the Bengali population expected a swift transfer of power to the Awami League based on the Six Point Programme.

On 28 February 1971, Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, postponed the national assembly meeting scheduled for March. The Pakistan Peoples Party had already started lobbying to weaken the stand of Sheikh Mujib, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was heard saying that he wanted the Bengalis to stay away.

The Awami League, in response to the postponement, launched a program of non-co-operation (largely outlined in the 7 March Awami League rally) which was so successful that the authority of the Pakistan government became limited to the cantonments and government institutions in East Pakistan.

Unwilling to transfer power to East Pakistan as demanded by Awami League fearing a transfer of power would weaken or destroy the federation.

After the convening of the National Assembly was postponed by Yahya Khan on 1 March, ethnic Biharis in East Pakistan, who supported West Pakistan, were targeted.

The Government of Pakistan used the 'Bihari massacre' to justify its military intervention in East Pakistan on 25 March,when it initiated Operation Searchlight.

The mission's leaders

The mission had been led by Rao Farman Ali inside Dhaka. And for outside the Dhaka, Khadim Hossain Raja and Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan had been present at the 31 Field Command to monitor the progress of the operation.

Military tools for the mission by West Pakistan

Air Force:

  • F- 86(20)
  • T- 33(3)
  • Fighter Helicopter(8)
  • C- 130 Hercules Plane (1)


  • Gunboat(4)
  • Petrol Boat(1)
  • Destroyer(1)
  • Flagship(1)

Morning of 25th March 1971

On the morning of March 25, 1971, Yahya and Bhutto met in secret at the Presidential Palace in East Pakistan. ‘Operation Searchlight’ was ordered by Yahya Khan in a secret meeting with senior army officers, including Tikka Khan. The main leaders and activists of East Pakistan gathered to Sheikh Mujib's house after hearing the coming terrifying signal. Sheikh Mujib gave instructions to his political allies and advised major leaders, including Taj Uddin Ahmed, to go into hiding.

Morning of 25th March 1971

On the night of 25th March, over 11,000 soldiers divided into four infantry brigades attacked innocent Bengalis around the entire Bangladesh especially in the major cities which include Dhaka, Cumilla, Jessore and Rangpur , committing the most heinous massacre in history.

Beginning of the attack

On the midnight of 25th March at around 11.30 pm, the Pakistani army came out of the Dhaka Cantonment with about seven armored vehicles with light and heavy weapons for the 'Operation Searchlight'.  At 11.45 pm, the first action of Pakistan army started in Farmgate area.  Because there the freedom seeking people cut down the trees and blocked the road and started protesting with the slogan 'Joy Bangla'.

Beginning of the attack

Dhaka University attack

The 22nd Beluz and the 16th and 32nd Punjab Regiment surrounded Dhaka University at 12.05 am. On Nilkhet and Fuller Road, they went to the teachers' residence and killed many teachers including Safarat Ali, Govinda Chandra Dev, Abdul Muktadir.  In Jahrul Haque hall, they killed about 200 students because it was the center of the  ‘Asahyog Andolan’. They set fire to the Rokeya hall and shooted the female students. Due to this around 300 female students were killed.

Dhaka University attack

Attack at North Dhaka

At 12.30 am, the 31st Field Regiment committed massacres at Mirpur and Muhammadpur.

Pilkhana and Rajarbagh Police lines attack

At 1.25am armored vehicles from the 32nd Punjab Regiment attacked Rajarbagh Police Lines with heavy weapons. At at 1.25am they attacked pilkhana  too.

Pilkhana and Rajarbagh Police lines attack

Old Dhaka and Nawabpur attack

The 18th Punjub regiment attacked Old Dhaka and Nawabpur. Hindu majority areas were burned with gunpowder and heavy weapons. The dead bodies were thrown in Buriganga.

Arresting Sheikh Mujib at 1.25 am.

Sheikh Mujib was arrested from his Dhanmondi residence at 1.30 am. A team of Pakistan army led by Colonel Z A Khan made the arrest. But before the arrest at around 12.20 am , Sheikh Mujib declared the independence of Bangladesh.

Arresting Sheikh Mujib at 1.25 am.

After the declaration of independence from Sheikh Mujib, the brave Bengalis fought for nine months and made Bangladesh independent. On 16th December 1971 Bangladesh won the war costing the lifes of about 30 lakhs Bengalis.


'Operation Searchlight' was Ordered by the central government in West Pakistan. Operation searchlight was started in the midnight of 25th march of 1971. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major Bengali-held town in mid-May 1971.The widespread violence resulting from Pakistan's Operation Searchlight ultimately led to the Bangladesh Liberation War. Although Bangladesh got independence, it was one of the darkest chapter in the history of Bangladesh.


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