When Ayub Khan stepped down and asked Gen Yahya Khan to take over, first by promulgating martial law and then as president, it was a reflection of Ayub’s self-generated perception that as “… commander-in-chief’s legal and constitutional responsibility (was) not only to defend the country against external aggression but also to save it from internal disorder and chaos”. How Ayub Khan justified handing over the fate of 120 million people (at that time) to a uniformed general anticipating that he would take care and bring back ‘sanity’, was an open-ended question. Who had delegated such power to Ayub Khan? In fact, it was a deep-rooted idea which Ayub had cultivated from the moment he had decided to overthrow Iskander Mirza much before October 1958; he ruled the country in collusion with a microscopic minority that had virtually become master of the country.
Ayub did not have a constituency, nor had he created one after legalising himself as the president. His only fountainhead of power was a disciplined army, a faithful bureaucracy, a gluttonous feudal class and a group of entrepreneurs, who did not look beyond the then West Pakistan. To them a strong Centre as envisioned by Ayub was Pakistan. Twenty-two families were the ruling clique.
Unjustifiable distribution of power between the two wings, indiscriminate service structure, lopsided establishment of industries and a host of irregularities contributed towards creating a wedge between the two peoples. A long-practised policy of prejudice had created a deep sense of despondency which bred alienation in the former East Pakistan.
Yahya, although he was misguided by Ayub’s old gaurd and asked to follow the policy of harassment, was cognisant of one fact: In March 1969 the entry of army in political administration was in a different situation from one in October 1958. This time the people had not only witnessed but had suffered failures of the past 11 years and did not want to endure anymore. Yahya wanted to mend the fences and prove otherwise.
Disposing of some initial work he decided to talk. He met a number of politicians first in Lahore and then in Dhaka. They included Mumtaz Daultana, Maulana Maudoodi, Sardar Shaukat Hayat, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, Nurul Amin, Hamidul Haq Chaudhry, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, etc. Since the same issues and arguments were presented at the meetings that were also discussed with Ayub Khan, no tangible results came out. This led Yahya to make a firm pledge to hold elections as early as possible and leave.
During the intervening period Yahya made efforts to create some sort of affability in the political atmosphere but none from either wing seemed to budge. In a fresh bid he flew to East Pakistan and held talks with Bengali leaders without much avail and on July 28 he made headway by appointing a Bengali jurist Justice Abdus Sattar as Chief Election Commissioner, hinting that the country was moving towards elections.
Yahya did not want to leave any doubt to make Pakistanis believe that elections on the basis of universal adult franchise were being held. Perhaps he remembered the situation created by Ayub Khan who turned the country’s political life a mess and left a bad impression about the army. In making his intentions clear Yahya ordered the Election Commission to get the electoral rolls prepared by end of June the following year, so that the nation could go to the polls by December 1970.
To express honesty in fulfilling his promise about the restoration of democracy and meeting the demands of the people Yahya flew to East Pakistan on September 29, 1969 and announced that he would meet all political leaders and would try to settle the disputed issues with the consensus of the people. On November 28, 1969 in his speech he broke up One Unit and abolished the so-called parity which had been evolved to artificially create parity between the two wings of the country despite numerical majority of East Pakistan.
Political activities were allowed from January 1970 to facilitate political parties in holding general elections on one-man, one-vote basis. Similarly, parliament was to redraft a constitution within four months from the date of commencement of the house. Electioneering which was still not allowed, became a possibility under Political Activities Regulation enacted on December 21, 1969.
The parties in both the wings were relieved to discuss the country’s thorny issues openly. The abolition of One Unit that had been irritating the people of three West Pakistani units rolled into one became a source of satisfaction for them, although the restoration of older provinces in their original positions ensued many small debates, especially the reallocation of funds, seniority of employees absorbed in the West Pakistan government over the preceding 16 years; however, it appeared that a workable formula was being evolved.