East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) and police, once loyal servant, now killed by Pakistani army

At midnight on 25 March 1971, the Army turned its firepower on the headquarters of the police and East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), ensuring that it brought the peace of the grave to Dhaka.

They simultaneously attacked the EPR's base at Pilkhana (to the west of Dhaka University), the Rajarbagh Police Line, the Gazipur ammunition factory and the arms depot at Rajendrapur.

Officers of East Pakistan

The total number of armed personnel in East Pakistan before 25 March 1971 was about 70,000, composed of approximately 6,000 regulars in the six battalions of East Bengal Regiment (EBR) located in the eastern wing, about 12-15,000 members of the EPR and about 45-50,000 homeguard officers such as the Ansars. In addition to these military and para-military forces, there were about 45,000 police in the country.

The EPR was essentially a border patrol force similar to forces maintained in West Pakistan - the well-known Frontier Scouts on the Afghan border, the Rangers on the Indian border. Their task was to guard the border between India and East Pakistan in times of peace, ensuring its integrity, and to keep a check on the movement of civilians across it.

The East Pakistan Rifles were made up of about 16 wings (of paramilitary force) and on 25 March 1971 consisted of 13,454 men of both West Pakistani and Bengali origin. Both the EPR and the East Bengal Regiment were manned by locals (i.e. Bengalis) and commanded mainly by outsiders (i.e. West Pakistani officers). In Dhaka, the EPR personnel were housed in the President's House, Governor's House and in Mirpur area (north-west of Dhaka).

By early March 1971, before the start of Operation Searchlight, the EPR garrison was reinforced by rapid and secret induction of two divisions from the western wing - though not with its full artillery compliment.

Sudden attack

Since 1 March 1971, there was not a single Pakistani army official who could be seen roaming the streets of Dhaka. They 'slipped into the background' and were confined to the cantonment where they sought protection from the growing public anger. In particular, they avoided the Rajarbagh police area fearing retribution from loyal Bengali police officers.

Though not all armed, their [i.e. East Pakistan's police force] great strength lay in the fact that as in the rest of the country their political motivation had, unlike in the armed forces, been built up during the crises of February and March - and they rose in revolt when the Pakistani killings started. It was the police who suffered most in the initial extermination drive which started on 25 March 1971. In Dhaka and certain other urban centres, the Pakistanis, who had gauged the high degree of nationalistic feeling in the police force during the heady days following Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's election success, attacked many police posts and murdered their occupants en masse.

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Now, suddenly at midnight of 25 March 1971, the Pakistan Army of 22 Baluch Regiment moved to Pilkhana and, without any warning, attacked the personnel of East Pakistan Rifles numbering about 5,000 jawans. This came as a big shock for the jawans who up until then remained neutral on the political upheaval that was engulfing the eastern wing.

Though Sheikh Mujibur Rahman commanded great respect and affection among the Bengali officers, however, as disciplined soldiers, they did not get directly involved in the freedom struggle up to this point.

The fact remains that Bangladeshis were hardly prepared to face the military onslaught on night 25th March 1971. It was a handful of Bengali members of the Armed Forces, EPR (East Pakistan Rifles) and Police who took up arms to initiate the war of liberation and provide space for politicians to render political support. Major General KM Shafiullah substantiated the fact when he spoke at the TV talk show. Major General KM Shafiullah, categorically stated that they remained loyal to Pakistan Army till the army he was part of launched murderous attacks on unarmed Bengalis. It was sheer patriotism of Bengalis that motivated them, not necessarily under any particular ideology.

It was a people's struggle. And struggle continues to achieve excellence as a forward-looking nation in the world community.

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Now, hugely outnumbered and poorly equipped compared to their attackers, the Bengali officers were forced to put up a resistance. Fierce fighting took place for couple of hours between the jawans and the heavily armed Pakistani soldiers. Elsewhere, Bengali policemen fought their best with their outdated 303 rifles and lathis (batons or sticks) against the superior mortars, tanks and automatic weapons of their attackers. Minutes earlier, having obtained warning of impending Pakistani attacks, scores of policemen - some in T-shirt, some in khakis, some in lungi and half shirts - were on the street urging everyone to seek shelter and return to safety. They were desperate to send people home, reminding them of the high risk of getting killed.

We assure you that until the last bullet is exhausted, we are going to fight back.

A Bengali policeman's patriotic vow to the crowd ,

Tanks opened fire first. Then troops moved in and levelled the men's sleeping quarters, firing incendiary rounds into the buildings.

Pakistani tracer bullets lit up the sky from west side of the Rajarbagh Police Station, and firing of mortar shell silenced momentarily the bing bing of the Bengali bullets. Another Pakistani army column attacked from Shantinagar, on the other side.

Around 2.30 am the Rajarbagh went up in flames. Except for the main building office, the police barrack had bamboo woven walls, tin roof and pucca floors. As such, within minutes the fire was burning fast and the heat became unbearable. The fire lasted for couple of hours by which time the police barracks were in ashes. Pilkhana too was tainted with blood. Not many are believed to have escaped. Police stations throughout the city were also targets for attacks. Hundreds of police and police recruits were killed.

Mission accomplished, the Pakistanis were no longer firing from their big guns, nor were there any more shelling from canons or tanks.

At dawn, announcement in Urdu could be heard from city streets, asking everyone to stay at home as curfew was imposed. Shoot at sight was read out.

Fleeing for their lives

The gallant effort of the Bengali officers was eventually crumpled. About 800 officers of EPR at Pilkhana, the Rajarbagh Police Line and Ansar Headquarters at Khilgaon were detained. Many of them were brutally killed.

In simultaneous moves, troops also entered Pilkhana, the Moghul stables for elephants, where the mainly Bengali-manned East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) paramilitary force was headquartered. According to foreign observers, among the riflemen present at the time '700 were killed, 200 overpowered, and 100 escaped'. Pakistani troops also attacked the police headquarters and lines at Rajarbagh, and Reserve (armed) Police barracks in central Dhaka. An estimated 1,800 policemen were killed. Pakistani army units mounted similar assaults on EPR and police barracks elsewhere across the province. Attacks on Bengali soldiers of the army's East Bengal Regiment (EBR), six of whose battalions were stationed in penny-packets across the country, followed.

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A police inspector was reported as saying on the morning of 27 March, 'I am looking for my constables. I have 240 in my district and so far I have only found 30 of them, all dead'. Even the guard at the President's House, who until then had apparently been thought sufficiently loyal to protect President Yahya Khan, were wiped out to a man.

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Those few hundred who were lucky enough to escape the Pakistani onslaught retreated to local residential homes. People such as Professor Rafiqul Islam and student Aly Zaker of Dhaka University provided shelter to those helpless men, whilst others such as cultural activist and Amar-Bhai'er-Ekushey-February singer Altaf Mahmood provided officers with old clothes so they could flee in disguise. Altaf Mahmood was later killed in September 1971 as continuation of the systematic "elitocide" that the Pakistani Army and its collaborators started with the massacre of Dhaka University's professors on 25 March 1971.

At about 3.30 am, there was another knock on the door. Chill went down their spine. It must be Pakistani army, they thought. Onus was on two younger guys. They came down the stairs.

"Apnara ke?" (who is there?) they asked, trembling.
"Amra police, bhai" (we are the police, brother) was the answer.
Opening the door, they saw two men in the half darkness, both wearing lungi and a rifle in hand.
"We ran out of bullets. Many of our comrades died. If we continue to stay there, we will die too". Their voice was thick with sadness.

They came with request to hide the rifles somewhere as they could not move with those. Someday they would come back, collect the rifles and liberate the country.
"If you can, spread it around that the police have not let you (countrymen) down." And they left.

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The army then set fire across the slums and Nilkhet to burn out the retreating officers, though many managed to escape to safety.

"Abar ashbo phire - desh swadhin koribo, Inshallah!"

The surprising nature and scale of Pakistani massacres on men until recently seen as loyal members of the state's armed bureaucracies ensured the 'mutiny' of the East Bengal Regiment (EBR) under Major Ziaur Rahman. However, the initial Bengali resistance was patchy and imbalanced with the few survivors fleeing to disappear among an angry but fearful populace. Most of them joined the nucleus of the national resistance which were forged by the remnants of the EBR's 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th and 10th (National Service) battalions. The escaped and defecting officers of the East Bengal Regiment and East Pakistan Rifles formed a force called the Mukti Fauj (Freedom Army) which later evolved to the Mukti Bahini. The movement for an independent Bangladesh engulfed the entire territory of East Pakistan after the army crackdown, kick-starting the Bangladesh Liberation War on 26 March 1971.

Following the rebellion of the Bengali officers, the Government of Pakistan had totally dismantled the Ansar organization, and renamed the East Pakistan Rifles as 'East Pakistan Civil Armed Force'. Thereafter the build-up continued until in October 1971 four infantry divisions (totalling some 42 battalions) in Bangladesh as well as 20,000 or more West Punjab Rangers, had been inducted to replace the EPR.

After the independence of Bangladesh, on 3 March 1972 'East Pakistan Rifles' was renamed as 'Bangladesh Rifles' (BDR). Eight years later, on 3 March 1980, the Government granted 'National Flag' for the force in recognition of its activities. In 2008, the force was awarded the prestigious Swadhinata Purushkar (Independence Day Award) for its outstanding contribution to the Bangladesh Liberation War. It was the same year that Professor Govinda Chandra Dev who was killed during Operation Searchlight was also awarded the Swadhinata Purushkar.

On 23 January 2010, Bangladesh Rifles was renamed to 'Border Guard Bangladesh' (BGB) with its base still in Pilkhana, Dhaka.

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