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Smokers’ corner: Who was Yahya Khan?

March 19, 2017
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