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Yahya Khan: A Profile (1917-1980)

Yahya Khan was the second Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan. Ayub Khan, his predecessor, at the time of his fall in 1969 gave him that status. After six days of assuming power as the CMLA, Yahya Khan became the President of Pakistan on 31 March 1969 and kept that position till 6 December 1971.


He was born on 4 February 1917 in Chakwal in a Qizlibash tribe of Peshawar. He was educated at Punjab University, Lahore and after joining Indian army he fought on many fronts. At the age of 34 he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. Being close to the Chief of the Army Staff of Pakistan, Ayub Khan, he was an active participant at the time of the first martial law in 1958. He was also the head of the commission that planned the new capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. During the war of 1965 he served as the commander of the armed forces in Kashmir. In 1966 he was promoted to the rank of the Chief of the Army Staff. He was well known to be highly addicted to women and wine and one may find many examples of this characteristic of his in various books on history.


During the political crisis in Pakistan at the end of Ayub Khan’s reign, Yahya Khan thought of taking over the Ayub regime but never really “planned” to become the head of the state. In fact, before becoming the president of the country he was under the assumption that the politics were more or less like military matters but it was only when he came face to face with politics he realized his grave mistake of assuming such things. Thus his reign is marked by his extreme dependency on the so-called experts of various fields.


A distinct feature of his reign was that he was highly dependent on his military fellow men and almost all the civil administrative seats were occupied by military officials. For instance, after becoming the Chief Martial Law Administrator, Yahya Khan founded a Council of Administration. There were four members in all. He himself was the head of that council while the rest of the three were military officials.  It was only later in August 1969 that a Council of Ministers replaced the Council of Administration to give civilian look to the regime. Ironically, only two members of the new council were civilians.


Another aspect of his personality, being the head of the Pakistan state, was that he was not very interested in handling the matters personally and usually leave the matters to the people concerned. It was that very lack of devotion and interest that brought severe consequences for Pakistan in the form of its dismemberment. Since his reign was very short he could not bring drastic or lasting changes. Few of the reforms that he tried to bring were that his regime tried to reform administrative machinery and thus after a little inquiry 303 government servants were suspended. They were trialed by the army tribunals and were either dismissed or retired. His government also tried to put restrictions on the trade unions that did not prove fruitful and unlike his predecessor Ayub Khan his sway in power did not witness radical industrial or agricultural reforms.

His political reign was marked by these significant features:

a: Legal Framework Order 1970

b: Dissolution of One-Unit

c: Holding of Pakistan’s first free elections on adult franchise

d: Success of Pakistan Peoples Party in West Pakistan and of Awami League in East Pakistan that confirmed the drastic political differences between the two wings of the country.

e: The war of 1971 and the division of Pakistan into two independent states.


After becoming the President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan declared that he aimed to restore law and order in the country, form a new constitution and return to the barracks. That’s why he announced to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible. The elections, though, were not held “as soon as possible” as announced for several reasons. But one of the major reasons of delay was President’s obvious lack of interest. The One-Unit scheme was a bone of contention among the West Pakistan provinces and that was the reason that the people around the president kept on insisting him to dissolve it. So finally in early 1970 Yahya Khan announced the Legal Framework Order to determine principles for the new would be constitution of Pakistan. It also announced that the One-Unit would end on 1st July and the government will held free elections on adult franchise. As promised the One-Unit dissolved on the promised date. The elections were postponed for some reasons including floods and cyclone in the East Pakistan. When finally held in December 1970, they were indeed free and fair and were held in a peaceful manner.


It was the weakness of Yahya Khan and his lack of political farsightedness that he did not settle the issue of provincial autonomy before the elections. The Awami League and Mujib were insisting to accept their Six-Point Formula while Bhutto and his party were not willing to accept. The President met Mujib and tried to convince him to compromise on certain points for which he promised. Again Yahya did not perceive the intentions of Mujib and his party and did not see the trouble coming. Thus after the elections Mujib backed out and refused to discuss or amend the Six-Points at any cost.


Yahya asked Mujib twice to come to West Pakistan for negotiations to resolve the matters that were causing growing gap between the two wings but Mujib refused and said if someone wanted to talk to him he should come to Bengal. Thus the President himself had to go to a politician on 11-14 January 1971 and literally requested Mujib that if he was not willing to visit Islamabad he could at least meet Bhutto and discuss matters with him. Mujib finally agreed and then the President had to go to Larkana to convince Bhutto this time to visit Dhaka.


Then again when the political situation in the country came to a deadlock due to the failure of  negotiations between PPP and AL, Yahya Khan thought it best to postpone the meeting of the National Assembly not realizing the would be impact of this postponement. Thus the East Pakistanis came on the streets to protest against this decision of his. Then again instead of finding a peaceful solution to that problem and planning himself he acted on his fellow military men’s advice and took to military action. That again led to more riots. Similarly when the situation grew worse in Bengal, Yahya again listened to army and under Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, who was well-known for his repute of violence, he authorized the military to do whatever it takes to restore law and order in the region.  As we all know that this decision led to severe consequences and resulted in the division of the country.


Yahya regime, thus, is accused for being one of the major causes of the division of Pakistan but we cannot suspect his intentions, for, although, during his time the Bengalism reached its peak due to economic disparities between the two wings of the country, he really tried to reduce the grievances of the Bengalis. During his very short reign, for the first time, a Bengali was appointed as the Chief Secretary of East Pakistan. He also doubled the recruitment of Bengalis in the Pakistan army. The budget was also molded to help reduce economic disparities between the two wings of the country. But all these efforts could not make the Bengalis satisfied and thus their strong intention to be free and Yahya’s weakness in handling the affairs fairly led to the dismemberment Pakistan.


After the end of the 1971 war and separation of Bengal, people of the “remaining” Pakistan came out on the streets declaring Yahya and his fellows, traitors and asked for his removal from his designation. So under strong public pressure he resigned and asked Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, president of the PPP to from government. Yahya Khan died on 10 August 1980 in Rawalpindi.


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