First-hand account of Operation Searchlight
My heart bleeds when I vividly remember the tragic scenario of the fatal night of March 25, 1971. Destiny goaded me into a stormy orbit of the country's journalism. After Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released from jail interned on the charge of the Agartala Conspiracy Case, One day he suddenly stated, "I need an English Language newspaper." Looking at me he said, "Abidur Rahman, you were a journalist in early life, now God has given you enough recourses. You have to start an English Language newspaper for me."
The name of the paper was selected as The People. As per Bangabandhu's desire, his nephew Sheikh Fazlul Haque Moni joined the paper as Assistant Editor. The People appeared as a weekly on August 19, 1969, and as a daily on August 15, 1970. This paper played its fearless role by breaking all traditional norms of journalism. In fact The People made sure to print bombshells for the Martial Law Government of the country every day.
I derived my courage from my early life conviction and commitment regarding the cause of Bengali Nationalism. When a student of Dhaka College in 1954, I was introduced to Bangabandhu by two young leaders, Mr. Abdul Wadud and Mr. Abdul Awal, in connection with the nomination of a candidate from Kasba of Brahmanbaria during the 1954 United Front Election. Since then Bangabandhu's charismatic personality always attracted me and The People practically became the English Language spokes-organ of Bangladesh's liberation struggle.
On March 1, 1971, Eleven Editors of daily newspapers, including myself and Enayetullah Khan, editor of Weekly Holiday, were summoned at the Martial Law H.Q. where Lt. General Sahebjada Yaqub Ali Khan, Zonal Martial Law Administrator, dramatically entered the room, took his seat quietly and after giving an apparently courteous cursory look pronounced the promulgation of a few Martial Law Regulations, such as MLR 117, 119, 124 and 129. He announced in a grim voice, "No news, good or bad, whatsoever about the Army," after which Lt. General Yaqub Ali Khan gave a pungent look at me and said, "Mr. Abidur Rahman, I hope you got the message right."
I instantly replied, "I got your message absolutely right, General." Both of us could decipher the camouflaged inner message of each others statements.
Having majority seats in the National Assembly elected in December, 1970, it had been agreed that the first Assembly Session would be held on March 3, 1971, in Dhaka but on March 1 Pakistan's Chief Martial Law Administrator General, Aga Mohammed Yahya Khan, suddenly cancelled the meeting upon which a mass protest revolted all over Dhaka and during which the Pakistan Army opened fired and even killed a few people.
Upon arriving to Bangabandhu's house later on, I told him the news regarding publishing news about the Army to which he muttered, "Bastards now stopped all avenues for my news to go to the outside world." Gathering courage I asked, "Shall I defy the Martial Law Regulations, leader?" Bangabandhu embraced me and replied, "Go ahead. You have all my blessing with you."
I immediately came back to the office to publish the one-page telegram of The People with the caption: "Three Bengalees killed by Pak Army: Bengalees take up arms."
That night Brigadier Zilani called in to say, "So, Mr. Abidur Rahman, you have violated the Martial Law Regulation!" I immediately replied, "Yes, Brigadier, I have done it. Your General asked me not to publish any news about the Army. My General asked me to do it. Any other question Brigadier?" and I just hung up.
And only half an hour later Bangabandhu called to say, "Brigadier Rao Forman Ali Khan informed me that they are going to arrest you tonight. I said straight away, if you touch Abidur Rahman, you touch me." It was his nature to provide all-out support to those involved in carrying out his instructions.
However, since then I defied Martial Law almost everyday in printing News, Stories, Editorials and Post Editorials in The People with boundless courage. On March 10 that year, I wrote a story titled "No judge available for administering oath taking of new governor" followed by many editorials including "Withdraw 'alien' barbarous Army" on March 19, 1971.
Since the beginning of that month the office of The People became a meeting place of all Nationalist forces. The People on March 23 printed my piece titled "A flag of freedom born with stains of martyrs' blood" with a photo of the Bangladesh flag waving. Many other cartoons mocking Yahya and celebrating Bangladesh Nationalism followed and as a result of which The People and me had to bear a progressively growing grudge against us.
Anonymous telephone calls and threats against my family increased where they finally took their revenge on the night of March 25, 1971.
I often slept in the office during those days but many, including a spiritually gifted well-wisher, advised me to leave early and that I should be especially on guard that night. I followed the advice and around midnight had been informed that "an army tank is moving towards our office." That was the last call received after which all the telephone lines of the city were snapped; turning Dhaka into a Horror Place -- shuddered by the ceaseless sound of firing.
It seemed as if doomsday had arrived. We shut all the doors, windows and grouped together in one large room for hours. Tension heightened as an Army convoy entered Road 22 in Dhanmondi -- they were obviously looking for some nameplate through their "Operation Searchlight." They could not find it but I was sure that given my strained relationship with the Martial Law Government, they were definitely looking for mine. Thank God, I had a conspicuous red and white English nameplate since on February 21 that year some boys had taken away the original one (because it was in English). And so the Army left the area.
The city was under curfew and we only heard and saw gunfire flaming around the city, never sure where it was. The sudden 'Dead City' eclipsed by the horror sounds with the threat for death looming left behind a mirror image of a graveyard -- with it's entire speechless population frozen in fear.
On March 27 morning, the curfew was lifted for four hours. One of the security guards of The People rushed to my place in tears letting me know that the office was under attack by a Tank and how the Army contingent had set it on fire. It was an irony of fate that the high flames of fire the whole city saw on the night of March 25 was the fire rising from my office.
I left within half an hour that morning while my family moved out right after. We later heard that in the next hour the Army located and raided our home and finding no one there, they shot our pet deer instead. I was also informed about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's arrest as well as about the massive genocide all over the country as part of "Operation Searchlight."
I shall fail in my moral duty unless I pay my homage to three great souls who were sacrificed on the altar of The People. One was a worker of the printing press there and two other boys, Esha of Shahbajpur of Brahmanbaria, who cooked our meals, and Fazlu of Barisal, who served them, were shot dead that night.
As I used to publish The People as a weekly from Calcutta during the Liberation War, as a spokes-organ of the Freedom Fighters I returned to Dhaka on December 22, 1971, along with a colleague of mine. We came straight to the ruined and ravaged office and found two broken skeletons lying there. I still have a shocking memory of that day.
It was obvious that out of the fear for vengeance no one had the courage to come near the office.
It was also obvious whose remains these skeletons were -- two great souls, who must have been shot in the room of their 'Beloved Editor' of The People on the night of March 25.