Bhutto undertook a whirlwind tour of West Pakistan. He attracted crowds especially the young, labourers and peasants. As the people swarmed to hear him, Ayub considered it improper to allow this ‘hostile’ young man to remain free. He was arrested on November 12, 1968 and put in the far off Mianwali jail.
From the last quarter of 1968 to the first quarter of 1969 the opposition made it clear that the people did not want Ayub Khan anymore. In East Pakistan opposition became violent and ‘gherao jalao’ had become rampant. Curfew was frequently defied. Contingents of armed forces sent from West Pakistan to the eastern wing aggravated the situation. Ayub began thinking of promulgating martial law but his advisers, for the first time, told him to desist from such an act.
Bhutto was released in the second week of February 1969 and put under house arrest at Al Murtaza, Larkana. Three days later other leaders were also released. Now Ayub began thinking about some honourable way to bail out of this situation.
Holding of a Round Table Conference (RTC) was already in the air but Ayub, on one or the other pretext, had been defying it; however, now it was the only way out, according to him. On February 21, 1969 he announced that he would not contest the next election. He thought that the announcement would cool down the charged atmosphere.
He wanted to convene the RTC as soon as possible. Various leaders without even waiting for the date for the RTC announced their boycott. This put the conference in jeopardy, but Mujib’s announcement rekindled hope.
To ensure the participation of Shaikh Mujib the case against him and 33 accomplices was withdrawn and the RTC briefly opened on February 26, 1969. In his opening statement, Ayub said: “I had my own ideas and a constitution based on them. May be they were too ambitious or may be I was wrong, but I have failed. Now it is up to you to fix a direction for the nation, and while doing so you should not forget that most of us will not be there and therefore must not evolve a system at the cost of the country’s interests.”
Maulana Bhashani and Z A Bhutto kept away from the conference, with Bhutto terming it a ‘conspiracy against the people of Pakistan’. They even entered into an agreement by which they pledged not to accept any deal with Ayub Khan.
The particpants wanted a recess for Eid, and on March 10 when the RTC began again Shaikh Mujib presented his six-point programme. Mujib wanted complete autonomy for East Pakistan, the capital shifted from Islamabad to Dhaka and a separate currency for the eastern wing. While deliberations continued, Ayub consulted with his aides and finally on March 13, he accepted adult franchise, parliamentary system, but refused to grant autonomy and undo the One Unit.
After the RTC drew to a close, Shaikh Mujib pulled out from the opposition’s alliance, DAC (Democratic Action Committee), Asghar Khan founded his Justice Party and Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan wound up his Pakistan Democratic Party. For what seemed a step towards conciliation, Ayub appointed Yousuf Haroon and Dr N M Huda as governors of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, respectively, both being thought to be friendly with Mujib; however, amity had become a remote possibility.
On March 17, Ayub told Yahya Khan, the then Commander-in-Chief, to take appropriate measures whatever he deemed fit, to which Yahya replied: “ … if he were merely to step aside without a full declaration of martial law the next in line for the presidency would be Speaker of the National Assembly, Abdul Jabbar Khan, a Bengali.” On March 24, Ayub called Yahya and handed over a letter to him saying, “I am left with no option but to step aside and leave it to the armed forces to take full control of the affairs of the country… to save the country from utter chaos and total destruction”. A day later Ayub resigned in a broadcast and Yahya took over as the chief martial law administrator, abrogating the 1962 constitution. Five days later, on March 31, he took oath as the third president of the country.
Quarter of a century after gaining independence Pakistan was without a constitution, democracy and a form of government.