How many Bengalis were massacred during Operation Searchlight?

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

The exact figure for the number of Bengalis killed during Operation Searchlight is not known.

Some report that 7,000 were killed in Dhaka within a single night. British journalist Simon Dring and French photojournalist Michel Laurent who were present in Dhaka during those fateful days also estimated that Pakistan Army killed 7,000 in Dhaka and 15,000 more in other areas such as Comilla, Jessore, Chittagong, etc.

Other estimate include 10,000, 30,000 or even more than 50,000 men, women and children were killed in Dhaka, Chittagong, Jessore, Mymensingh, Kushtia and other cities within the first three days of the genocide beginning from 25 March 1971. The eventual civilian death toll of the war might have been as high as 3 million.

Regarding the Dhaka University massacre, the Bengalis estimate that more than 100 students were slaughtered in Iqball Hall and 150 students and teachers were killed in Jagannath Hall - these include 9 professors. In addition, 26 other employees were killed. Many of these dead bodies were removed by the soldiers. However, two days after the massacre 30 bodies were still found lying in the university. The secret videotape filmed by Prof. Nurul Ullah, whose residence was directly opposite the student dormitories, is widely used to corroborate the brutality of the Pakistani massacre.

I don't have the words to express the bestiality and barbarity that was perpetrated on the Dhaka University area, especially Iqbal Hall, Jagannath Hall, and adjoining residential areas, for a period of 36 hours from the night of the 25th till the 26th night. What transpired around Iqbal Hall, I saw with my own eyes. Raging infernos everywhere; the slum was burning, the cars parked around the residences were burning. The heaped bodies of the dead from the slum were also set on fire near the Nilkhet rail gate petrol pump. The sound of shells bursting and guns firing, the smoke and fire, the smell of gun-powder and the stench of the burning corpses all transformed the area into a fiery hell. Every so often our building was being peppered with bullets. In the midst of this, we, our families, the students and bearers from the Halls, the slum-dwellers, had given up all hope for life, and were waiting for the hour of death.


At Rokeya Hall, between 45-50 people were killed. The Provost of Rokeya Hall, Akhtar Imam, named 7 staff members of the hall (gatemen, bearers, gardeners, and a liftman) as having been killed along with wives, children, friends and relatives of such staff were killed in their quarters.

One rape is one too many. One child killed, one starving refugee is one too many. One is where our awareness starts. And when we let one become a callous, uncounted death, we create an atmosphere where Genocide can explode and obliterate a people. And in these festering atmospheres, ethnic cleansing, targeted mass killings thrive.

Susan Brownmiller, author of "Against Our Will, Men, Women and Rape" (1975), who was in Bangladesh in 1972

There are huge anomalies between the Pakistani estimates. According to Brigadier (Lt. Col.) Taj who commanded the 32 Punjab regiment and was by his own description in overall charge of the units in operation on Dhaka on the 25 March night, only 12 people were killed at Iqbal Hall, including two ladies of 'dubious purpose', and 32 at Jagannath Hall - making a total figure of 44 dead from the two main halls. However, Brigadier Basharat who commanded 18 Punjab and was tasked with securing Dhaka University declared 300 were killed. Perhaps this latter value (of 300) accounts for the 'outsiders' who had come to the university to take military training, or was merely a 'bloated' figure of their 'accomplishment'. Such tactic of exaggerating or altering a death toll is common practise amongst both attackers and victims alike in order to build world sympathy.

The Muktijuddho Jadughar (Liberation War Museum), Dhaka has a tape recording of some of the radio communications among Pakistani officers during the military action in Dhaka on the night of 25-26 March 1971. The tape recording is credited to M. M. Hussain of the Atomic Energy Centre, Dhaka, who is said to have made the recording at B-174 Khilgaon Chowdhury Para, Dhaka, from around 1.30 am to 9 am on 26 March 1971. A Pakistani commanding officer is heard telling his Brigade Commander in the control room that 300 people were killed in the university.

Brigade Commander at Control: '...What do you think would be the approximate number of casualties of the University? Just give me an approximate number, in your view. What will be the number killed, or wounded, or captured? Just give me a rough figure. Over.'
Commanding Officer from 88 unit: '...approximately 300. Over.'
Control: 'Well done. 300 killed? Anybody wounded, captured? Over.'
Officer: 'I believe only in one thing: it's 300 killed. Over.'
Control: '88, yes, I agree with you, that's much easier, you know, nothing asked, nothing done, you don't have to explain anything. Well, once again, well done...'


Prof. Meghna Guhathakurta, daughter of the massacred Prof. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta and an academic who taught international relations at Dhaka University, also cited 300 as the casualty figure.

However, there's a memorial at Dhaka University which list the number of people killed as half that amount. At 'Shirishtola' in Dhaka University there is a memorial to all those belonging to the university who lost their lives during 1971. The total, including all faculty, students and staff killed during the whole year is 149. Some of the faculty and students named were killed at other times in other places, so the number of those who were killed during Operation Searchlight would be lower than 149.

The failure to carry out a scientific exhumation at such a specific site, in the capital city, of such a well-publicized incident has damaged Bangladesh's claims of massacre and mass burials at the University. It is possible that a dig would reveal fewer bodies than the numbers claimed by the Bangladeshis. It is also possible that the identification might reveal that some of the dead were not students of the university. That would dent parts of the nationalist mythology, but be truer to history.

Bose , questions why mass grave outside Jagganath Hall has never been exhumed

Foreign observers, such as British journalist Simon Dring and American Counsel General Archer Blood who were present in Dhaka during the massacre, and legendary American spymaster David Henry Blee, who was in charge of CIA's Soviet Division in 1971, have confirmed that a 'large number' of people were massacred during those two days. This add weight to the argument that the death toll was much higher than estimated.

In the Senior Review Group meeting at the Western White House in San Clemente, California, on 31 March 1971, Henry Kissinger enquires, "Did they kill Professor Razak? He was one of my students". David Blee of the CIA replies, "I think so. They killed a lot of people at the university". Henry Kissinger then remarks "They [presumably Muslim rulers of India] didn't dominate 400 million Indians all those years by being gentle".

Conversation between American Henry Kissinger and top Central Intelligence Agency's official on Dhaka University's massacre,

After the war, the Pakistani army denied any cold blooded killings at the university, however, the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission, which was set up by the Pakistani government themselves to investigate the war findings, concluded that overwhelming force was used at the university.

Top Pakistani military officials also expressed shock at the brutality of the Bengali killings led by General Tikka.

General Niazi, who became the head of Pakistan's Eastern Commant, compared the action taken in Dhaka on 25-26 March 1971 to the Jallianwalabagh massacre of civilians by the British at Amritsar in the Punjab in 1919. His criticism was not that military action did not need to be taken, but that it should have been conducted differently. His view was that General Tikka deviated from the given mission of disarming Bengali personnel and arresting 'secessionist' leaders, and caused needless bloodshed among civilians. For example, instead of wholesale attack, the "rebels' so-called strong points" might have been smoked out by surrounding them and cutting off electricity, water and supplies. General Niazi reckoned they would have surrendered in a couple of days.

Pakistan's Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, who arrived in April as commander of the Eastern Command, condemned Operation Searchlight "as a violation of the mission and equivalent to the Jallianwalabagh massacre in the Punjab by the British in 1919". Apparently Niazi also complained that the operation had provoked "widespread mutiny among Bengali officers and men" and made "virtually the entire population hostile". Yet the massacres continued. When asked the reason for the extent of the killing, General Tikka Khan reportedly replied "I am not concerned with the people. I am concerned with the land".


According to Pakistani lieutenant general Kamal Matinuddin, the commanding officer of the attack on Dhaka, Brigadier Jehanzeb Arbab, later admitted "over-reaction and over-kill by the troops under his command".

Within the various parts of Puran Dhaka, including Hindu majority mohallas such as Shankhari Patti and Tanti Bazar, hundreds of inmates were believed to be gunned down.

The lead unit was followed by soldiers carrying cans of gasoline. Those who tried to escape were shot. Those who stayed were burnt alive. About 700 men, women and children died there that day between noon and 2 pm, I was told.

In the Hindu area of the old town, the soldiers reportedly made the people come out of their houses and shot them in groups. The area, too, was eventually razed.

The troops stayed on in force in the old city until about 11pm on the night of Friday, 26 March, around with local Bengali informers. The soldiers would fire a flare and the informer would point out the houses of [staunch] Awami League supporters. The house would then be destroyed - either with direct fire from tanks or recoilless rifles or with a can of gasoline, witness said.

Simon Dring on how the military operation on the Bengalis was organised to kill the supporters of the Awami League

Anthony Mascarenhas, a prominent Pakistani journalist who went on a government-sponsored tour of journalists to East Pakistan in April 1971 and later fled to England and wrote his 'Genocide' expose in the Sunday Times, had estimated that 8,000 men, women and children were killed in Shankharipatti alone when the Pakistani army, 'having blocked both ends of the winding street, hunted them down house by house'. However, one critic believes this to be an exaggerated figure since Mascarenhas had not cited any source and received the information second hand. They believe that the number of victims was only 16, and the Pakistani soldiers entered only one house and shot a few residents whilst other residents remained inside their homes and survived the onslaught.

But two contemporary testimonies by American citizens who visited the area immediately after the attacks suggest a much larger scale of destruction. Both reported shelling and the use of heavy armament thus the figure of 16 killed is seen as a feeble attempt to underplay the enormity of the incident.

In addition to those killed, another 3,000 Bengalis - including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - were also reported to be arrested during those two days and night.

The army's campaign against the cities and towns not only led to massive civilian casualties but also drove possibly 30 million people out of the cities into the countryside.



Operation Searchlight was only the beginning. Within a week, half the population of Dhaka had fled, and at least 30,000 people had been killed. Chittagong, too, had lost half its population. All over East Pakistan people were taking flight, and it was estimated that in April some 30 million people were wandering helplessly across East Pakistan to escape the grasp of the military.


Relishing their role as 'masters of East Pakistan', the trigger-happy military was let loose to crush what they perceived as a political rebellion and Hindu-backed attempt to divide Pakistan.



"These bugger men, " said one Punjabi lieutenant, "could not kill us if they tried".

"Things are much better now," said another officer. "Nobody can speak out or come out. If they do we will kill them - they have spoken enough - they are traitors, and we are not. We are fighting in the name of God and an united Pakistan".

In the name of God and an united Pakistan, genocide had just begun.

Simon Dring on how Pakistan soldiers bragged about their invincibility after having massacred 15,000 unarmed civilians in a single day

The Bengali political leaders had not prepared the people for this onslaught - at least, not such menace. The struggle now erupted between the Bengali liberation forces and the armed might of the West Pakistani capital.

Operation Searchlight was brutal, but ineffective. Killing students and intellectuals did not lead to quick and clear victory sought by the Pakistani generals. Instead of taming the free-spirited Bengalis it only made them stronger and gave them yet another reason to fight for a independent nation.

But the will of the Bengali people was not broken on the night of 25 March 1971. On the contrary, while Dhaka burned, so did the illusion of a united Pakistan.


'Butcher of Bengal'

General Tikka Khan earned the nickname 'Butcher of Bengal' due to the widespread atrocities he committed.

On the night between 25/26 March 1971 General Tikka struck. Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying and burning. General Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy, not dealing with his own misguided and misled people.

The military action was a display of stark cruelty more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Chengiz Khan and Halaku Khan... General Tikka resorted to the killing of civilians and a scorched earth policy.

His orders to his troops were: 'I want the land not the people...'

General A.A.K. Niazi commenting on the brutality with which General Tikka operated in Bangladesh

Green land of East Pakistan will be painted red.

Major General Rao Farman Ali wrote in his table diary

The shobuj (green) land of Bangladesh was certainly painted red - by Bengali blood.

Curfew announced after 'a job well done'

Curfew were announced at 9am by the Pakistani Army via Dhaka Betar Kendro - which was renamed to 'Radio Pakistan Dhaka' soon after the army took over in the early hours.

At 10am, a series of stiff martial law orders were announced to the people of East Pakistan.

Within 72 hours of the military action, the Pakistani Government announced that the situation had been brought under control and life was "fast returning to normal". Reality, however, was different.

The operation destroyed the last chance of an amicable political resolution of power transfer between the east (Awami League) and the west (PPP) and also killed any lingering hope for an united Pakistan. The Pakistani brutality also changed Bengali nationalism from an 'elite phenomenon to a mass one'. What was up until then confined to political and intellectual circles was now brought to the streets of Bangladesh.

On the morning of 26 March, as the chief of Pakistan's inter-services intelligence, Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi was to recall, Tikka Khan, Hamid Khan, Mitha Khan and the civilian Roedad Khan happily breakfasted in the Dhaka cantonment. Roedad told Siddiqi: "Yaar, iman taaza ho giya (Pal, faith has been revived)". It was an understatement. Outside the breakfast room, Pakistan was in its death throes. But it yet would groan on, until the death of three million Bengalis came to pass.


The [Pakistani] officers chatted in the officers' mess with a visible air of relaxation. Peeling an orange, Captain Chaudhury said, 'The Bengalis have been sorted out well and proper - at least for a generation'. Major Malik added, 'Yes, they only know the language of force. Their history says so'.

Siddiq Salik, author of 'Witness to Surrender', recounts conversation between senior army personnel after Operation Searchlight massacre

Censorship by Government of Pakistan

Due to strict media and press censorship applied by Government of Pakistan, news of this action (i.e. Operation Searchlight) was blacked out in the rest of the world for some time.

Strict censorship kept West Pakistanis largely in the dark about the actions carried out in the name of national unity.

'Those of us who were serving in East Pakistan', Hasan Zaheer records, 'on our visits to the West found its Press and people totally out of touch with the ground realities in the East Wing and apparently they could not have cared less. No one questioned the aims and objectives of the army action'.

As in other instances of state terrorism in South Asia, the violence was totally counterproductive. The Bengali population's desire for self-determination was reinforced rather than diminished.


It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.

TIME Magazine quoting an US official