The Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight between 11:30 pm and midnight on March 25, 1971. Armoured vehicles, tanks and trucks carrying soldiers rolled out of the cantonment and made their way to targets designated earlier. A very large group of soldiers moved towards the campus of Dhaka University and brought the residential Jagannath Hall of the university as well as the teachers' quarters under assault. Squads of soldiers swiftly blasted the Kali Mandir, the Hindu temple in the centre of the Race Course, and the Central Shaheed Minar, the monument to the martyrs of the language movement of February 1952, into rubble. Two other groups moved fast to take hold of Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television Dhaka centres, while another group swooped on the offices of The People newspaper in Shahbagh directly opposite the Intercontinental hotel. The army marched into the Intercontinental looking for foreign journalists, a substantial number of whom had come from Europe and the United States. All except the young British reporter Simon Dring, who concealed himself in the pantry of the hotel with the cooperation of the employees there, were rounded up, bundled on to army trucks, taken to the airport and put on a plane. A couple of days later, Dring would finally be spotted and packed off to Bangkok, from where he would file the first detailed report of the pogrom launched by the Pakistan army in Dhaka. A truckload of soldiers went to the buildings housing the Bengali language newspapers Ittefaq and Sangbad, both of which had worked as mouthpieces for the Awami League in the recent past.
The army simply set
fire to the buildings. An especially large contingent of the army travelled at lightning speed to the Peelkhana headquarters of the East Pakistan Rifles, whose members were all Bengalis, and mowed down anyone and anything that moved. More terrible was the carnage let loose at Rajarbagh police lines, where sleeping members of the provincial police force were murdered in cold blood. Back at the university, the soldiers broke open the gates of Jagannath Hall, where Hindu students of the university resided, and went on a rampage. In separate groups, students were collected on the open spaces before the hall building and shot. The killings went on till dawn, with the soldiers forcing the students they had so far spared to dig a mass grave on the open ground and dump the bodies of their comrades in it. Once the macabre job was done, the army killed those very students and kicked their bodies into the mass grave. By early morning, army bulldozers would flatten the grave, leaving little sign of the bodies squashed beneath the earth. At the teachers' quarters, the soldiers moved around with lists of the names of particular academics to kill. In one of their first operations, they broke down the gate of the residence of the respected elderly professor of philosophy, Govinda Chandra Dev, and shouting obscenities went up to find him lying on a couch. They murdered him and then turned on the husband of his adopted daughter, shooting him in the head.
In a nearby building, another band of soldiers looking for Professor Maniruzzaman of the Bengali Department of the university mistakenly attacked the residence of his namesake who taught mathematics. He was killed, along with two relatives, and their bodies were dragged down the stairs and left on the open spaces of Jagannath Hall, where innumerable bodies of dead students had already been collected. The soldiers then attacked the quarters of Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta of the Department of English and shot him in the neck. Believing him to be dead, they left him and went looking for other teachers to kill. As dawn broke, Guhathakurta's wife managed to take him to the Dhaka Medical College, where bullet-riddled Bengalis from other parts of the city were being brought in as well. The academic struggled for life for six days before breathing his last on March 31. His body was then stolen by the army, never to be recovered by his family. In the old part of the city, soldiers in armoured cars came upon a group of rickshaw pullers asleep in their three-wheeled bicycle carriages and pumped bullets into them. At Iqbal Hall of Dhaka University, residents were called out from their rooms and dormitories, lined up on the ground floor auditorium and shot. On Elephant Road, the soldiers stormed into the residence of Lieutenant Commander Moazzam Hossain, a former accused in the Agartala case, dragged him out on the road in front of the building and shot him in cold blood. On the university campus, Nurul Ula, an academic, watched from behind the curtains on his window as the soldiers lined up students on the grounds at Jagannath Hall before shooting them down. With his movie camera, Ula recorded the images, which were later shown around the world.
A little after 1:00am on March 26 an elite force of the army rumbled down Dhanmondi Road 32, where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman waited. Once they approached the gates of his residence, the soldiers began firing indiscriminately at the building, shooting holes in the gate and the walls and killing the Awami League leader's security men on the spot. At one point, during what was obviously a lull in the shooting, an officer using a loudspeaker demanded that the Awami League leader come down and surrender to the army. It was then that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went out on the balcony, to tell the soldiers to stop shooting. 'What do you want?' he demanded. The officer, already in the compound of the residence, told him that he was under arrest and would need to go with him and his forces. A few minutes later, having briefly consoled his petrified family, Mujib walked downstairs where the soldiers, some pushing him with the butts of the guns they carried, escorted him to a jeep and drove away. About half a mile away, as Mujib heard gunfire pounding the city and saw flares thrown up by the army lighting up the skies, the jeep stopped near the steps of the under-construction national assembly building. The building dated back to the years of Ayub Khan, who in his decision to declare Dhaka as Pakistan's second capital had actually meant for it to be the legislative capital of the country. The edifice of the parliament building was an offshoot of that decision.
Tonight, as the military spread terror all across the city, Bangabandhu was escorted out of the jeep and made to sit on the steps. Clearly, some instructions needed to be received by the soldiers who had arrested him on what was to be done next. The officer who had taken the Bengali leader under arrest sent out a terse message on his walkie talkie, 'Big bird in cage. Small birds have flown.' The big bird was of course Mujib. The little ones that had flown were his colleagues in the Awami League. Apparently the officer was at that point in conversation with General Tikka Khan, the martial law administrator now leading the operation against the Bengalis. Would he like Mujib to be brought before him? The general snapped, 'I don't want to see his face.' A few minutes later, Mujib boarded the jeep again, this time to be taken to Adamjee College in the cantonment, where he would be lodged under foolproof security for the next few days until he could be flown to West Pakistan. The army was not ready to make the mistake of keeping him in Dhaka, where he could turn into a focal point of Bengali resistance to the government's suppression of the nationalist movement.
Dhaka burned that night. It burned the next day. The genocide was under way.