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Many people who, as young men and women, took part in the widespread protest movement against the military rule of Ayub Khan in the late 1960s suggest that Ayub relinquished power after he was told what some of the protesters had started to call him. In 1968 at the height of the movement against him, young protesters in Karachi and Lahore began describing him as a dog (Ayub Khan Kutta!).

This was a time when politicians and rulers in Pakistan hardly ever used any derogatory language against their opponents, so Ayub was supposedly shocked when he heard that some of his ‘children’ (the term he used to describe his subjects), had called him a dog.

Ayub had come to power in 1958 on the back of a popular military coup (Pakistan’s first), and had enjoyed a significant run of admiration from a majority of Pakistanis in the first four years of his dictatorship.

Vowing to make Pakistan a powerful and influential military-industrial state, Ayub encouraged and facilitated an unprecedented growth in the process of industrialisation in the country. He also initiated the introduction of technical innovations in agriculture and brought Pakistan closer to the United States, thus benefitting from the military and financial aid that came with the enhanced relationship.

By 1961 the Ayub regime had largely restored the country’s economy that had begun to weaken from the mid-1950s onwards, mainly due to the political chaos that prevailed in the country, as various factions of Pakistan’s first ruling party, the Muslim League, indulged in constant infighting and intrigues, and were unable to address the growing disenchantment and cynicism exhibited towards politicians by those who were kept out from the political process dominated by the country’s political-bureaucratic elite.

Ayub was at the height of his power and popularity when he decided to lift Martial Law in 1962 and restore at least a semblance of political activity by the parties that had been banned in 1958.

He became the president and handpicked an assembly through a complex electoral system that he called ‘Basic Democracy’. After discarding the 1956 Constitution, his assembly passed a brand new constitution that enshrined Ayub’s idea of ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’.

It revolved around the construction of a strong military-industrial state, propped-up by state-backed capitalism, free enterprise, agricultural reforms and a ‘progressive interpretation of Islam that was compatible with science, technology and modernity.’

Ayub detested politicians, from both the left as well as the right. His regime came down hard on left-wing parties and then went on to also ban parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) — though the ban was overturned by the courts.

Leftists accused him of encouraging crony capitalism, the exploitation of workers and the suppression of the rights and ethnic-nationalism of the Bengalis (in East Pakistan), Sindhis, the Baloch and the Pakhtun, and of dislodging the Urdu-speaking (the Mohajirs) from important state and government institutions that they had helped build after Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a crowd of his supporters
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a crowd of his supporters

The religious right denounced him of being overtly secular and undermining ‘Pakistan’s Islamic culture and traditions’.

Ayub easily glided through the many periodical protests that took place against him after 1962 and then won a second term as president in a controversial presidential race in 1965.

Buoyed by his victory and his status as a ‘benevolent dictator’, Ayub then made an uncharacteristic mistake by allowing himself to be convinced by the hawks in his cabinet (led by his young foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), to crown his economic and political achievements with a military triumph against India.

India had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese army in 1964 and Bhutto and his supporters in the cabinet were convinced that the Pakistan army would be able to crush the weakened Indian armed forces.

Though the Pakistani armed forces made rapid gains in the initial period of the 1965 war, the conflict soon turned into a stalemate. Ayub settled for a ceasefire, apparently sending Bhutto into a rage.

Ayub eased out Bhutto from the government but the damage was done. The war had drained the country’s resources and the economy began to slide.

Ayub’s opponents accused him of ‘losing the war on the negotiation table’. Bhutto went on to form the PPP, and along with the already established left-wing groups, such as the National Awami Party (NAP) and the National Students Federation (NSF), he became the most prominent face of left-wing opposition in West Pakistan.

In East Pakistan, Shiekh Mujeebur Rehman’s Awami League (AL), upped the ante against the regime and accused it of leaving East Pakistan open to an Indian attack during the 1965 war.

As the Bengali nationalist movement led by AL and by various militant/Maoist Bengali nationalist groups in East Pakistan gathered pace, in West Pakistan, Ayub was suddenly faced by a spontaneous students’ movement when in October 1968, a large contingent from the NSF gate-crashed a ceremony being held by the government at Lahore’s Fortress Stadium (to celebrate the government’s ‘Decade of Progress’).

The students began to chant anti-Ayub slogans and clashed with the police. They accused the regime of enriching a handful of cronies and letting everyone else suffer unemployment and economic hardship. Then in November 1968, police opened fire on a left-wing student rally in Rawalpindi, killing three protesters.

In response, students formed a Students Action Committee and announced that students across Pakistan would begin a concentrated protest movement against the regime.

As the students began their campaign (with most of the student groups demanding a socialist system and parliamentary democracy), Bhutto’s PPP joined the fray along with NAP and their entry brought with it the participation in the movement of the radical trade and labour unions that were associated with these parties.

By late 1968 the movement had spread beyond Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar and reached the smaller cities and towns of Punjab and Sindh. Meanwhile in East Pakistan, AL and other Bengali nationalist groups began to demand complete provincial autonomy for East Pakistan.

Schools, colleges and universities stopped functioning; workers went on strike and closed down a number of factories, and white-collar professionals refused to attend office, further crippling an already deteriorating political and economic order.

After failing to quell the protests (through police action and wide-scale arrests), Ayub invited opposition parties to hold a dialogue with the government. But the PPP and NAP boycotted the negotiations that were largely attended by religious parties and some moderate right-wing parties. However, Mujeeb’s AL did participate, but the talks ultimately broke down.

By early 1969 the movement had also been joined by peasant committees and organisations in the country’s rural areas. In March 1969 a group of senior military men advised Ayub to step down, fearing the eruption of a full-scale civil war in East Pakistan and political and social anarchy in the country’s west wing.

A weakened and tired Ayub finally decided to throw-in the towel and resigned, handing over power to General Yahya Khan who immediately imposed the country’s second martial law.

He promised to hold the country’s first general election based on adult franchise and to relinquish power after introducing parliamentary democracy in Pakistan. With this announcement, the movement came to a halt.

Elections were held in 1970. In East Pakistan the AL won 98 per cent of the allotted national and provincial assembly seats, whereas in West Pakistan, the PPP swept the polls in the region’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh. NAP performed well in the former NWFP and Balochistan. Most of the ‘status quo parties’ (such as the many Muslim League factions) and most religious outfits (except Jamiat Ulema Islam) were decimated.

However, a three-way deadlock between AL, PPP and the Yahya regime (over a power-sharing formula) regime triggered a crisis that finally saw the feared eruption of a civil war in East Pakistan and then India’s entry into the conflict.

After that disastrous conflict, a group of military officers (most of them Bhutto sympathisers), forced Yahya to resign and then invited Bhutto and his party to form the country’s first parliamentary government.

Ayub, who had gone into seclusion, died in 1974.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014