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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In August 1977, a small crew from Pakistan Television (PTV), visited a house of a former general of the Pakistan Army. The general had also been the country’s president between March 1969 and December 1971. He had

been living in that house since early 1972 and was hardly ever seen in public for over five years. He had been under house arrest.

Apart from this, he had also become a virtual recluse.


Perceptions about the former military dictator are informed entirely by views that accumulated around his silence


The PTV crew was being headed by late Burhanuddin Hasan, a senior employee of PTV’s station in Rawalpindi. The man he went to meet with his cameraman and technicians was Yahya Khan. Hasan in his 2005 book, ‘Uncensored’ wrote that he had been ordered by the Martial Law regime of Gen Zia (which had come into power through a coup in July 1977), to interview Yahya and specifically make him speak about Z.A. Bhutto’s role in the 1971 separation of East Pakistan.

Yahya was the military chief and president during the bloody separation of the country’s eastern wing and, for a while, had worked closely with one of the country’s main opposition leaders, Z.A. Bhutto, in an attempt to defuse tensions between the country’s military establishment and East Pakistan’s Bengali nationalists being led by Shaikh Mujeebur Rehman. Mujeeb’s Awami League (AL) had won majority of the seats in the 1970 election (albeit all in East Pakistan).

When talks between Yahya and Bhutto on the one side and Mujeeb on the other collapsed, and Bhutto — whose party (the PPP) had won a majority in West Pakistan — claimed that Mujeeb would assert Bengali separatism if given power, Yahya placed a ban on the Awami League, arrested Mujeeb and ordered a crackdown in East Pakistan.

Former minister in the Z.A. Bhutto government, Dr Mubashir Hasan, in his 2001 book, ‘The Mirage of Power’ wrote that when a vicious civil war and a subsequent confrontation with India (that was backing Bengali nationalists) triggered the breaking away of East Pakistan, a group of angry army officers forced Yahya to resign and hand over power to Bhutto.

Bhutto became the new head of the state and government and quietly placed Yahya under house arrest, apparently ‘for his own protection.’ The house in which Yahya was placed was only thinly guarded by police.

Yet Yahya was hardly seen or heard from again. One section of the now highly polarised polity accused Yahya’s ‘incompetence’ for the East Pakistan debacle, while the other section put the blame on Bhutto’s ‘arrogance’ and ‘ego’. Five years later, in July 1977, the populist Bhutto regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup engineered by Gen Zia.

Hasan in his book further stated that Zia was looking for an excuse to entangle Bhutto in a trial and justify his arrest and that’s why he had instructed PTV to interview the reclusive former general. Zia believed that Yahya would accuse Bhutto for the separation of East Pakistan and give Zia what he needed to slap a court case against the toppled PM.

However, Hasan says that Yahya refused to speak on the subject, telling Hasan that he had already said what he wanted to say to a commission that was set up by the Bhutto regime to investigate the East Pakistan debacle. Zia could not get anything out of Yahya. However, months later Zia managed to launch a murder case against Bhutto and in 1979 got him hanged through a controversial trial.

Though Zia had released Yahya from house arrest, Yahya remained a recluse. In 1980 he quietly passed away. He was 63. Perceptions of Yahya’s personality are still largely informed by views which accumulated when he went almost entirely silent after his removal in 1971.

During his silence and reclusion, the left accused him of blundering during the East Pakistan commotion and losing a war against India, whereas the right scorned at him for turning the military into a lot of decadent and morally bankrupt men. Such loud and now deeply-ingrained denouncements have sidelined certain acts of his which at the time were rather revolutionary.

Yahya had fought in World War II as a member of the British Indian army and was captured in Italy and sent to a brutal prisoners’ camp being operated by Mussolini’s fascist regime and its German Nazi allies. Yahya joined the Pakistan Army after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Brigadier Samir Battachariya in his 2013 book, ‘Nothing But!’ explains Yahya (in the 1950s) as being a ‘hard-drinking man’ but one who was ‘a thoroughly professional officer.’

In 1965 he was made Major-General by the regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and led an infantry division during the 1965 war against India. In 1966 Ayub made him Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army.

The Ayub regime which had fused together secularism, ‘modernist Islam’, capitalism and a complex strand of democracy (‘basic democracies’) had remained popular in its first six years (1958-65). But the 1965 war had a negative impact on the economy and subsequent ethnic and political tensions triggered a widespread movement against the regime in 1968. Yahya, whose influence within the armed forces had increased, nudged Ayub to resign. Ayub quit in March 1969. Yahya took over as president and imposed the country’s second martial law.

Yahya lessened the curbs imposed on the press, suspended Ayub’s 1962 constitution and assured the political parties that Pakistan was to become a parliamentary democracy. But just as the Urdu tabloids got busy publishing details of the general’s colourful life awash with wine and women, Yahya was also busy doing what was once deemed impossible.

He did away with the much hated ‘One Unit’, a policy which in 1954 had clubbed together Pakistan’s natural ethnically-aligned provinces as a single unit. He then announced the holding of the country’s first election based on adult franchise, and agreed to give East Pakistan more representation in the parliament due to its larger population. All these reforms, though demanded by political parties, were considered treacherous by the ‘establishment.’ But Yahya went ahead in his attempt to rekindle the country’s economy and stabilise its politics.

Though the elections held under Yahya are still considered to be the fairest ever in Pakistan, the results brought the prejudices and tensions between West and East Pakistan out into the open.

Mujeeb’s Bengali nationalist rhetoric became increasingly militant and Bhutto exploited this to the hilt. After failing to get the newly-elected assembly to come together and pen a new constitution, Yahya sided with Bhutto’s narrative and pounced upon East Pakistan.

This pouncing ignited a vicious civil war and then a war against India, none of which Yahya was prepared for. He hung on, stunned, after the 1971 debacle, believing he alone was not responsible for the tragedy. But the mood had swung and an overwhelmed nation was looking for a scapegoat. Yahya became one when he was forced to resign by his own men. After his ouster, he went completely silent.

The colourful dictator who had become the harbinger of parliamentary democracy and provincial autonomy became an elusive, mythical villain who was never heard from again.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 19th, 2017


Comments (75) Closed



Khalid zafar Mar 19, 2017 08:38am

Very Informative!

kaiser Mar 19, 2017 08:44am

Yahya was responsible for most of the consequences that followed, though by and large many sectors loved to blame others somehow. Yahya was the president, usurped power from Ayub Khan, abrogated the constitution, imposed martial law, allowed elections under a flawed intelligence assuming Mujib would not win a majority in East Pakistan,allowing a constituent assembly to be elected which could pass a new constitution with a simple majority, without any pre-conditions.Later tried to secure power for himself , ordering military action,leading to the consequences.

Pak PATRIOT Mar 19, 2017 08:52am

As per Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw interview, the Pakistan Army fought BRAVELY in East Pakistan, the soldiers and young officers, put up a good fight. However they did not have a fighting chance as the Mukhti Bahini was on one side and on the other side was the Indian Army. The Pakistani major who defended Hilli was a VERY BRAVE OFFICER.

MAK Mar 19, 2017 09:34am

A happy go lucky man on whom the power & high offices were thrust upon

Faisal Naqvi Mar 19, 2017 09:36am

Yahya sided with Bhutto's narrative.. This line is the gist of this article. To simplify, it is fair to put blame both equally. However I wonder that Army has always been the most powerful in our nation's history. Why did they let this happen? They have been consistently successful in toppling elected governments without a great fuss. Perhaps incompetence and naivety.

M. Emad Mar 19, 2017 09:35am

The 'tensions' after 1970 general election were created by the establishment with the intention of not giving power to Mujib. Babgladesh consider 1971 war as the 'War of National Liberation' not 'Civil war'.

Masood Mar 19, 2017 09:47am

He was a brace professional officer not meant to be a ruler or statesman Unfortunately, got manipulated by Bhutto and got himself into a ugly irretrievable situation

Raza Mar 19, 2017 09:49am

A balanced perspective here. History is not made of people but events that are shaped by the dialactical forces of opposition, sprouting from economic engines of humanity. Revisiting history for deconstruction is a healthy excercise to get perspective, same goes for beliefs too. The subject of macro history From khuldon to Toynbe teaches us this lesson As they say in America, " follow the money ".

Hamid shafiq Mar 19, 2017 10:04am

his silence is a big crime.

M Jamal Mar 19, 2017 10:11am

@Raza Good directives to learn from history.

Alam Mar 19, 2017 10:15am

This just has to be one of the most objective and empathetic account of Yahya's rule. Very well put.

TKHAN Mar 19, 2017 10:36am

"Yahya sided with Bhutto’s narrative and pounced upon East Pakistan." Perhaps Mr. Bhutto had enough material to blackmail General Yahya. And General couldn't afford to go through another embarrassment specially knowing that East Pakistan was a lost cause. One thing for sure Yahya alone was not responsible for East Pakistan's debacle as it was an international plot effectively executed by India. None of the super powers of that time came to aid Pakistan or initiated a cease fire.

dr.arshad Mar 19, 2017 10:39am

Again another insightful article by NFP. I remember having read "deliberate debacle". I think no body is to blame for the break up of Pakistan in 1971. 1-Pakistani establishment never thought of Eastern wing as the part of Pakistan in the light of Allama Iqbal's vision of Pakistan. They merely treated it as an appendage and colony. 2- No substantial military infrastructure was built till 1971. 3-No development was initiated and carried out in eastern wing. That gave rise to resentment in eastern wing which was natural.Pakistani establishment wanted this resentment to grow so as to get rid of over populated wing. 4-So how can we blame individuals like Yahya khan etc. ?

Jayagor Mar 19, 2017 10:42am

Finally the truth- a gentleman and a soldier. It was not Yahya who sided with Bhutto's narrative- it was Gul Hassan.

silver Mar 19, 2017 10:43am

yahya was buried with full military honors by zia while zia accused bhutto of separation!

baakhlaq Mar 19, 2017 10:47am

informative for the youngsters.

aamir Mar 19, 2017 11:07am

Ayub, Yahya and then Muharraf, dictators exit meted out with gradually increased disgrace. First one was forced to retire, second house arrest third once complete arrest and gone into exile. Zia was exception as his exit was materialized with unnatural death.

muSTAFA Mar 19, 2017 11:05am

true

KAZIM REZA Mar 19, 2017 11:11am

Yahyah's precious silence couldn't save him or Bhutto,both of them were running top position's of the state.They and the ruling elite of the then United Pakistan had presided over their country's destruction.The two sovereign countries one being victor and the other vanquished have been still suffering the trauma, blood and agony ! Why Pakistan government still hidden the trial paper of Sheikh Mujib? Does it carry some bitter truth if found light may unearth some institutional crime of a very powerful quarter!

kamal Mar 19, 2017 11:15am

i always get confused' when people refered pervaiz as a former president ,but the rest as militery dictactors.the all wr the same with almost no difference.

Muhammad sijjad Mar 19, 2017 11:15am

The tension in East Pakistan ( Bengal) was created long ago in the Ayub regime, and it finally erupted in Yahya regime. One cannot blame only Yahya for separation of East Pakistan.....

Nida Mar 19, 2017 11:34am

I won't be surprised if even Bhutto turns out to be scapegoat.

Asghar Ali Mar 19, 2017 11:44am

@Hamid shafiq Even bigger crime is that PPP, led by Z.A.Bhutto, forced majority party, National Awami party, in the general elections of Pakistan to derail democracy. Just like forces against present day democracy! By the way, democracy is of the people, by the people, and most importantly for the peoples. Not to derailed by any individual by using State public servants, whatever uniform is worn by these employees or servants of the Islamic Republic of the Pakistan.

Mustafa Mar 19, 2017 11:51am

Only the winner stands tall!

Sama Ansari Mar 19, 2017 11:53am

What a powerful and accurate summation by Paracha Sahib.

""The colourful dictator who had become the harbinger of parliamentary democracy and provincial autonomy became an elusive, mythical villain who was never heard from again.""

Poignant.

Abdul Rehman Mar 19, 2017 11:54am

He assumed that the support provided by USA, UK, China, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Jordan etc was going to win him the war in 1971.

SajiD Mar 19, 2017 12:16pm

@aamir In an interview with BBC, Zia had described Bhutto's fall as "The higher you go, the harder you fall". It turned out that by saying so, he had predicted his own end! He was the one who had the hardest fall.

iftikhaR bhutta Mar 19, 2017 12:27pm

Good story developed .

Haider Mar 19, 2017 12:34pm

Zia was the reason for 1971 defeat or else we could have won.

72v Mar 19, 2017 12:43pm

Nice article. The media miss informed everyone. Till the last day it was claimed that Pakistan has won and crushed the opponents pale and pink.

Muhammad Mashhood qasmi Mar 19, 2017 12:48pm

The Yaha's act was only the last nail in the coffin. The act of separation had begun when only Urdu was declared as national language. Creation of one unit, rule of parity to undermine the majority of bengalies , shifting of capital from Karachi to Islamabad, an engineered defeat of Fatima Jinah by Ayub regime in elections, are some of the reasons which have already cooked an extreme hatred in East Pakistani peoples. Pointing a finger towards Yaha or Bhutto is only to cover up the crime of other powerful corridor of then West Pakistan.

Muhammad Shafiq Mar 19, 2017 01:19pm

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was more charismatic civil elite who snatched power from Yahya Khan morally corrupt military dictator by inspiring military establishment despite his big role in disintegration of Pakistan. Along with Indian factor, there is no doubt that the troika i.e. Yahyah Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rehman and ZA Bhutto played their part in the fall of Dacca, a tragedy that is hunting us even today.

Make Pakistan great Mar 19, 2017 01:35pm

@MAK

Power was not thrust upon Yahya. He schemed to usurp it following Ayub's weakening grip on power after he was overtaken by ill health. This is history.

Nadeem Mar 19, 2017 02:46pm

For 13 years straight, 1958-71, and without a break of one single day, two generals ruled the country with 100% control and zero accountability. At the end of these 13 long years the country broke up. Who's responsible? Certainly not the two clowns who had 100% dictatorial power for 13 years, but their peon or gardener or driver.....anyone but these two and the Army high command. Makes ample sense.

Parvez Mar 19, 2017 03:01pm

Another excellent read...incidentally I am presently reading your book ' The Pakistan Anti-Hero ' that deals with topics like this starting at the beginning.....a rather slow read, but a very engrossing one. On this topic what came to mind was...Ayub - disgraced, Yahya - disgraced and the person who was very prominent with both - ZAB. Of course we we all know how that ended.

Ahmed Raza Mar 19, 2017 03:20pm

In his book "The last days of United Pakistan" GW Choudry claimed that among the two P's of Pakistan and power Bhutto preferred later one

Mirza Mahmud Askari, Dhaka Mar 19, 2017 04:03pm

@Muhammad sijjad: Right, brother

Khalifa Mar 19, 2017 04:28pm

It will be good to pursue the publication of 'The Yahya Khan Papers'. His son is reported to possess its manuscript. The historians may explore and get them published.

FACTS & FINDINGS Mar 19, 2017 04:36pm

@Muhammad Mashhood qasmi Bengalis and West Pakistanis who were not in favour of making Urdu as the national language should have made this thing clear before August 14, 1947.

Nasir, London Mar 19, 2017 04:54pm

A sad episode in the history of Pakistan. No leader came out as a winner but villains.

Nasir, London Mar 19, 2017 05:01pm

@Make Pakistan great: Ayub's ill health and weakening of grip on power was coupled by Gohar Ayub's Kandhara Industries not forgetting the Kristine Keller UK affair.

Masood Hussain Mar 19, 2017 05:35pm

Vert painful to go through the story once again.

Feroz Mar 19, 2017 07:00pm

Gen Yahya, the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither a hero nor a villain, just a victim of circumstances.

Umar KHITAB Mar 19, 2017 07:43pm

Ironically the greatest gift of General Yahya still surviving is the Steel Mill, which was lost due to incompetence of all the governments. NFP you are dot on target, Yahya have been scape goated for all the follies that were committed before him. As for those who misused his party habits, they or their next generations are still partying with the bruised image and latent potential of the country. I was expecting the smokers corner would expose them but alas they have been given a clean chit.

Farrah Mar 19, 2017 09:04pm

@ NADEEM and @MA QASMI

I largely agree with both of you.

FACTS & FINDINGS Mar 19, 2017 11:47pm

@TKHAN Yes, the trio Mr. Bhutto, Mujib ur Rahman, and Indira Gandhi were part of that International Plan.

Muhammad Salahuddin Khan Mar 20, 2017 12:12am

Yahya was trapped and influenced by ZAB in by ignoring the role of Sheikh mujeed ur Rehman which led te debacle of East Wing of Pakista,

yet another Indian Sri1 Mar 20, 2017 12:28am

@kaiser "Yahya was responsible for most of the consequences that followed" Destiny. This was all preordained. As we call it in India, Karmic and what goes around comes around. The trajectories of two nations, we can see the hand of destiny clearly, where unlimited potential, population density, strategic position, resources can all count for naught.

gheuntaak Mar 20, 2017 12:39am

@TKHAN... "international plot effectively executed by India"... see by saying that you diminish the egregious things and policies that were forced upon the then east pakistanis... the racist attitude of west pakistan played a major role in the break up...

Goga NALAIK Mar 20, 2017 01:29am

Thanks NFP for this factual recap... full of information as usual.

Rashid Mar 20, 2017 01:54am

When we Pakistani grow up and instead of putting blame on a single person start taking the collective responsibility as a nation.

FIDA Khan Mar 20, 2017 01:53am

Not thirst quenching book could it be as the writer is short in vision. Mentioning the out come of election results he says Mujib took the lead in East Pakistan while Bhutto in West Pakistan. but that west was now 4 provinces and PPP had majority in two of the 4 provinces. Yahya khan can not be held responsible for the fall of East Pakistan as it was entirely handed over to Gen. Niazi for Indian air and sea blockade had cut Islamabad touch with East Pakistan. Defaming Yahya would serve no body as all tasks in his career he did up to the mark building Islamabad and even Tarbela dam ...he was patriot in essence but politicians soil all by dismantling One Unit which was achieved with long politicking providing for 2 wings federation with 50:50 representation. A great solution and big sacrifice by Bengalis who in fact had moved Pak resolution 23 March 1940

Saleem Khan Mar 20, 2017 01:59am

I remember meeting General Yahya Khan during early 1973 in Abbottabad where he was under house Arrest. Chenab Rangers were deputed at the House. I had this opportunity as Medical Officer of Chenab Rangers I stayed approximately thirty minutes in his room. He did not utter a single word about Bhutto Regime or even say anything about East Pakistan Debacle. He talked few pleasantries and constantly kept patting his Big German Sheperd Dog. He was an honorable Professional soldier. He was the pioneer of First Independent Election in both, West and East Pakistan. A reality, which has not taken place in Pakistan, ever since.

Ayub Mar 20, 2017 06:03am

Yahya Khan was not as bad as has been portrayed in the record. The East & West was an unnatural alliance which was bound to break up one day. However, Sheikh Mujeeb, ZA Bhutto, Yahya Khan and some other sped up the breakage.

Khurram Mar 20, 2017 07:51am

Enjoyed reading it. Nice article.

Afridi Mar 20, 2017 08:35am

silence isn't remediation for treachery and treason!

ENIGMA Mar 20, 2017 08:36am

NFP wisely gives credit where credit is due. One always wondered about how history treats some of our leaders, and Yahya Khan had some genuinely heroic periods in his military career about which we know very little of and should have learned more. So thank you NFP for this illuminating info.

FYI, it would have been interesting for NFP to comment on Henry Kissinger who played quite a stealth role in the break up of East Pakistan. He was very much behind the scenes with Z.A. Bhutto calling the shots in this tragic war where many innocent Pakistani professionals and their families posted in Dacca by various Pakistani and multi-national corporations were captured, tortured and brutally killed by Indian and Mukthi Bahini militants. This is a serious narrative which has yet to be told.

History hurts Mar 20, 2017 08:59am

Kudos to Nadeem! Looking back at history helps us avoid repeating mistakes. Practicing fairness and justice is for ones own good. Hope articles like these promote fairness and prevent mistakes being repeated.

imdadali Mar 20, 2017 12:03pm

I always found column by fareed parach completed and concluded. None is incorporated own ideas in the article by writer that is best quality and ever is felt. Man of discussion is given importance on merit base. True and honest based events concerned to the character is highlighted. very nice.

scientist Mar 21, 2017 04:47am

Answer: The guy who helped make east Pakistan to "Bangladesh" lol

Omair Mar 21, 2017 10:42am

All generals who come to power and bring martial law pose as saviors of the nation from the corrupt politicians. Promising a quick fix solution to the country's problems and giving hope of early elections, they end up staying power for years. They weaken the country's institutions, and when they are either killed, forced to resign or flee, you realize they have left the country in a worse state than it was before.

Sadam Hussain Mar 21, 2017 10:44am

Thank you sir Nadeem F Paracha. You have persented a precious info history.

Shah Mar 21, 2017 12:26pm

@FACTS & FINDINGS Please note how these three families end up, they all had brutal endings.

Jawaid Mar 21, 2017 01:17pm

A brilliant general but a lousy President, who presided over the 1971 catastrophe despite being responsible for holding the first election in the country based on adult franchise. Another feather can be added to his cap. He did not make money using his position.

i2i Mar 21, 2017 01:55pm

It was destined to happen. We should have abandoned East Pakistan long before. The problems started right from the beginning and we should had quit East Pakistan in 60's. So instead of blaming each other we must confess that there was no political will in the west Pakistan to go along with its Eastern wing.

CH. K. A. Nye Mar 21, 2017 02:01pm

@aamir... Indeed Aamir sb., and all these dictators were succeeded by elected civilians who, without exception, looted the country, embarked on personal vendettas, tried and sometimes succeeded in doing away with opponents, corrupted the judiciary... The list is endless... So much for democracy...

Love Your Country Mar 21, 2017 04:21pm

@i2i - your comments are far far from the truth. People from both parts loved each other. The problem was with the politicians (and those who held power and did not want to give it away). Personally, ZAB and YK both were to be blamed for. A fair power sharing structure would have kept the country together, but who wants to share 'power' when they could hold on to 100%. History tells us (but who will accept it) that democratic institutions were non-existent.

Malik Mar 21, 2017 05:59pm

What is wrong in making election party winner candidate a prime minister, Mujeeb even if he is bengally had won the election with being as single majority oarty should hv been given PM slot it was very unfair on Bhutto n Yahya to deny him that right, Pakistanis will never forgive both Bhutto n Yahya and even Mujeeb of this crime and loss of so many innocent lives and also we could be together today stronger and big force, shame our leaders do not have bigger vision. I vow to get PTI a turn as Imran Khan is more Pakistani then anyone else in Pakistan and being sportsmen he considers merit may be he can undo few things and make Pak strong again. Vote to PTI

Max Mar 21, 2017 08:45pm

Every country gets the government it deserves, not the one it needs. People chose their leaders and the leaders plan and execute the countries policies. So when you select weak and corrupt leaders its not hard to guess what the future of the country is going to be.

Hippo64 Mar 22, 2017 03:03am

Personally, i remember Yahya Khan's rule, the most liberal time ever in Pakistan generally and Karachi particularly, because those were our college days. That time will never be repeated again.

sunny Mar 22, 2017 03:05pm

Thank you for this article.

Ather Qureshi Mar 22, 2017 08:37pm

@dr.arshad , How can you claim no development was done in East Pakistan, PAkistan's first paper Mill, Steel Mills and Jute Industry was firmly established. PIDC gave loans to the people in the East on much leaner terms, and most of the Loans were never recovered. Please Read factual history

NMG Mar 22, 2017 08:38pm

Yahya Khan was the only general not interested in sticking to the power. After his big gift to Pakistan of first fair democratic election, his mistake was to side with the leader of political party leader with 81 seats instead of Mujib, the leader of the party with 161 seats. He played in the hands of ZAB. ZAB was the one who said that he will break the legs of any west leader that will go to Dhaka for preliminary meeting of the general assembly. When you treat the majority population like this what do you expect. Yahya's suspension of Ayub’s 1962 constitution and assuring the political parties that Pakistan was to become a parliamentary democracy and then holding Pakistan's fairest election was a big achievement for our country. If after the election the was rightly transferred to the majority party in the election, ZAB would not get the power.

Ather Qureshi Mar 22, 2017 08:44pm

@aamir And Yet the most corrupt President in the History of Pakistan walks away with accolades from people like yourself. If we like this, we should not be complaining against corruption, we deserve it.

Ather Qureshi Mar 22, 2017 08:46pm

@Haider could you please expalin how?