NEW DELHI – It is exactly 40 years since the Pakistani military regime of Yahya Khan initiated “Operation Searchlight” in March 1971. That military expedition was but the latest in a series of pogroms carried out to intimidate the restive population of what was then called East Pakistan – today’s independent Bangladesh. What followed was one of the worst massacres in human history, now all but forgotten by the international community.
Pakistan was created by the partition of British India in 1947, but its territory was divided into two enclaves separated by hundreds of miles. While they shared a religion, Islam, there were major cultural and linguistic differences between East and West Pakistan.
In the east, there was a strong sense of being Bengali, and a sizeable Hindu minority continued to live in the province. There was, moreover, strong resentment that political power lay in the hands of western-based politicians and generals who were blatantly insensitive to Bengali demands. It seemed to many that, with the creation of Pakistan, East Pakistan had merely exchanged one form of colonialism for another. And, as Bengali demands for autonomy gained momentum, the response became more repressive.
In November 1970, tropical cyclone “Bhola” struck East Pakistan, killing between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Bhola is still considered one of the worst natural disasters on record, and the military dictatorship’s lukewarm relief efforts incensed the Bengali population.