Yahya Khan: The Enigmatic Dictator

"Yahya didn’t have a single political bone in him. Maybe this is why Ayub appointed him as Commander-in-Chief in 1966"

Yahya Khan: The Enigmatic Dictator

On one warm afternoon in August 1977, a small crew from Pakistan Television (PTV), visited a house located in a quiet locality of Rawalpindi. There were two policemen guarding it, but both were sound asleep on makeshift bunk beds near the main gate of the house. Here lived General Yahya Khan. From March 1969 till December 1971, the burly general had ruled the country as military dictator after appointing himself as ‘president.’

From 1972, he was lodged in this house as a prisoner by the ZA Bhutto regime. Bhutto became president on 20 December 1971, just days after militant Bengali nationalists and the Indian armed forces defeated the Pakistan army and air force in the erstwhile East Pakistan — a Bengali-majority region which broke away from Pakistan to become Bangladesh. 

By 1974, Yahya’s name and face had receded in the media. And even though he was still under house arrest, he was more or less free to go for short evening walks if he wished. But he never did. No one is sure who else lived in the house with him. Most likely he lived there on his own. In a 2001 column, the famous Dawn columnist late Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote that in 1976 he saw Yahya leaning over a wall of the house to buy vegetables. This means that Yahya was probably also doing all the cooking himself. He was barred from speaking to the media. But the fact is: he had no desire to.

The PTV crew that visited Yahya’s house in August 1977 was being led by late Burhanuddin Hasan, a senior employee of PTV’s station in Rawalpindi. In his 2005 book, Uncensored, Hasan wrote that he had been ordered by the Martial Law regime of General Zia-ul-Haq to interview Yahya and specifically make him speak about Bhutto’s role in the 1971 separation of East Pakistan.

Yahya was the military chief and president during the violent separation of the country’s eastern wing. For a while, he had worked closely with Bhutto in an attempt to defuse tensions between the military establishment and East Pakistan’s Bengali nationalists. The nationalists were led by Shaikh Mujibur Rehman. Mujib’s Awami League (AL) had won majority of the seats in the 1970 election (albeit all in East Pakistan).

1970: Yahya visits Bhutto

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

One of founders of Bhutto’s PPP and a former minister in the 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 triggered the breaking away of East Pakistan, a group of angry army officers forced Yahya to resign and hand over power to Bhutto.

By the way, this is what the now jailed former prime minister Imran Khan was mostly alluding to when in a recent X/Twitter post he asked “everyone” to read 1974’s Hamoodur Rehman Commission report on the “East Pakistan débâcle.” The inquiry commission was formed by the Bhutto regime, but its findings were classified. The report was declassified in December 2000 by the Parvez Musharraf dictatorship. It is alleged that since his ouster from power in April 2022 (through an act of parliament), Imran Khan has been hoping to instigate a rebellion within the military by officers who he believes are sympathetic to him and antagonistic towards the current military chief General Asim Munir. More than Mujib, Khan wants to become Bhutto (circa 1971). 

Yahya was no Islamist –  quite the contrary. But he was convinced to side with JI as a way to neutralise the Bengali nationalist AL and Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ PPP

Anyway, after Bhutto became the new head of state and placed Yahya under house arrest, the house was only thinly guarded. Yet, Yahya was hardly seen or heard from again. One section of the then 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 Bhutto regime was toppled in a military coup engineered by General Zia. Two years earlier in 1975, Mujib was assassinated by a group of Bangladeshi army officers.

Hasan in his book stated that Zia was looking for a reason to entangle Bhutto in a court trial and justify his arrest and this is why he had instructed PTV to interview Yahya. Zia was hoping that Yahya would accuse Bhutto for the separation of East Pakistan and give Zia what he needed to slap a case of ‘treason’ against the toppled PM.

However, according to Hasan, when he finally got to meet Yahya, the latter refused to speak on the subject, telling Hasan that he had already said what he wanted to say to the Hamoodur Rehman Commission. Zia could not get anything from Yahya. Months later, Zia finally managed to launch a murder case against Bhutto, and in 1979, got him executed through a controversial court trial. This was a trial, which, 45 years later, the Supreme Court ruled was ‘unfair.’

Zia released Yahya from house arrest, but 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 silent after his removal in 1971. During his silence, he was accused of compounding the situation in East Pakistan, and for losing a war against India. His more right-wing critics, on the other hand, scorned at him for turning the military into a decadent and morally bankrupt institution.

Ironically, though, in 1969, when a delegation of the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) met Yahya, it told the media that Yahya was nothing like the former dictator Ayub Khan (1958-69), who had banned the JI in 1964, and “undermined Islam in Pakistan.” The delegation, led by the founder of JI, Abu’l Ala Maududi, stated that Yahya had agreed to “work for Islam.”

But just two years after the general’s fall, JI was calling him an alcoholic and a womaniser. Another right-wing Islamist, Shah Ahmad Noorani, too, had met Yahya when he was in power. Noorani expressed his satisfaction that the dictator had taken Noorani’s claims about an ‘Ahmadiyya plot in East Pakistan,’ seriously, even though Yahya never spoke of this.

So, who was Yahya? He had fought in World War II as a member of the British-Indian army. He was captured in Italy and sent to a brutal POW camp operated by Mussolini’s fascist regime and its German Nazi allies. Yahya survived the ordeal and 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. Yahya led an infantry division during the 1965 war against India that ended in a stalemate. In 1966, impressed by his performance in the war, Ayub made him Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army. The Ayub dictatorship had remained somewhat popular in its first six years, especially in the erstwhile West Pakistan. But the 1965 war had a negative impact on the economy, and subsequent ethnic and political tensions triggered by the war saw the eruption of 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.

He 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. He also folded the much-hated ‘One Unit’ — a policy which, in 1954-55, had clubbed together Pakistan’s ethnically-aligned provinces as a single unit (apparently to discourage ‘provincialism’).

March, 1969: Yahya comes to power

Yahya then announced the holding of the country’s first proper parliamentary elections based on adult franchise. He also agreed to give East Pakistan more representation in the parliament due to its larger population. All these reforms were once considered ‘treacherous,’ especially by the Ayub regime. But Yahya went ahead in his attempt to stabilise the country’s politics.

The elections, held under the Yahya regime in 1970, are still considered to be perhaps the fairest ever in Pakistan. However, the results that they produced further fuelled the already existing tensions between West and East Pakistan. Mujib’s Bengali nationalist rhetoric became increasingly militant and Bhutto constantly critiqued it for being ‘dangerous.’ Bhutto feared that Mujib was planning to break East Pakistan away from rest of the country. 

Yahya was initially willing to ‘allow’ Mujib’s party to form the government, but then suddenly dismissed the plan when Mujib began to openly talk about using the parliament to grant East Pakistan, autonomy. After failing to get the newly-elected assembly to come together and pen a new constitution, Yahya pounced on East Pakistan.

This ignited a vicious civil war in East Pakistan, and then a war with India, none of which Yahya was truly prepared for. He was pinning his hopes on the country’s two main allies, the United States and China. US President Richard Nixon was not very discreet about his dislike of Indian PM Indira Gandhi. Nixon’s plan to arm Pakistan was thwarted by the US Congress, so his government used shipments from Iran, Turkey and Jordan to equip the Pakistani armed forces. Nixon also sent an aircraft carrier and a naval task force in the Bay of Bengal. But by then, the war was almost over. China only provided moral and verbal support.

The war begins: militant Bengali nationalists take up arms

When questioned by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, Yahya insisted that he alone was not responsible for the loss of East Pakistan. But the mood in West Pakistan (which, of course, became the only Pakistan), had swung and a shocked polity began to look for scapegoats. Yahya was forced to resign by his own men. The colourful dictator who was seen as the harbinger of parliamentary democracy and provincial autonomy in Pakistan became an elusive, almost mythical villain, who was never heard from again.

The final findings of the Hamoodur Rehman report speak of atrocities committed by the Pakistan military in East Pakistan in 1971. However, the report explained these actions as a response to the violence of militant Bengali nationalists against non-Bengalis in East Pakistan. The 2011 book Dead Reckoning by the Indian-American journalist Sarmila Bose takes a similar position. Nevertheless, neither the Commission’s report nor Bose’s own findings downplay the genocidal violence that took place in East Pakistan. However, like the report, Bose too provides evidence that atrocities were committed by both sides and the conflict’s roots lay in the manner in which the West Pakistan ruling elites undermined East Pakistan’s Bengali majority.

Bhutto viewed Yahya as unfit to rule a country that was plunging into political chaos and a serious existentialist crises. Bhutto was correct to assume that Yahya’s understanding of politics was weak. Bhutto often complained that Yahya had lost all sense of reality and continued to depend on him (Bhutto) to save his skin on numerous occasions. During the war, Yahya wanted to execute Mujib, but in Mujib’s own words, Bhutto stopped him from doing this.

No breakthrough: Bhutto meets Mujib

Yahya didn’t have a single political bone in him. Maybe this is why Ayub appointed him as Commander-in-Chief in 1966. But there is every likelihood that Yahya began to fancy himself as Ayub’s successor, especially when the Ayub regime was greatly cornered in 1968 by a nationwide movement. In fact, there are historians who suggest that Yahya compelled Ayub to resign. Once in power, Yahya began well by succeeding to appease all anti-Ayub forces by agreeing to do away with One Unit and promising to hold a parliamentary election.

He wanted to look better than what Ayub had become. Yahya’s intelligence agencies informed him that no single party would be able to win an outright majority. This meant that Yahya would be able to play the role of kingmaker and remain president. Bhutto flew into a rage when Yahya tried to play some clever politics. This he did by quietly supporting the JI, a party that was arresting itself to get in the good books of the military establishment after being continuously bludgeoned by the Ayub regime.

Mujib’s statement in the New York Times, 1972. 

Yahya was no Islamist –  quite the contrary. But he was convinced by his intelligence agencies, and by bureaucrats and industrialists who were once close to the ‘modernist’ Ayub dictatorship, to side with JI as a way to neutralise the Bengali nationalist AL and Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ PPP. But just what supporting the JI meant is not clear. Maybe it was only about the hope that JI will be able to win the largest number of seats because it also had significant support in East Pakistan, and was a party that was more-than-willing to work with Yahya.

But AL swept the elections in East Pakistan, and the PPP won huge majorities in West Pakistan’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh. JI and many other Islamist parties were routed. This is when Yahya began to lose the plot. A devastating cyclone in East Pakistan didn’t help his cause either. Whereas Bhutto was the kind of man whose politics sharpened with the onset of a crisis, Yahya’s gradually turned into jelly.

Ousted: 20 December 1971

There is only so much that is available about Yahya. A military man who loved his uniform. An officer who had distinguished himself on the battlefield in World War 2, and then during the 1965 war against India. A ‘non-political’ officer who eventually saw himself replacing a military dictator by becoming one himself. A dictator who restored the country’s provinces and successfully held its first major parliamentary elections. A dictator who became a bridge between the US and China, but then began to crumble as matters in East Pakistan started to deteriorate.

He began to drink more than ever, and found solace in the company of beautiful, but strong-minded women. He sat alone in his office, disoriented and unable to draw a cohesive strategy during the war in the East, mindlessly nodding his head when ‘advised’ to ‘crush the Bengalis.’

Yahya is often portrayed as a man who suddenly appeared from a brief void to become all this. There is never any mention of the fact that he actually had a wife and two sons. Nobody knows his wife’s name. In fact, there are also those who insist that he never married. This is not true. Ardeshir Cowasjee knew Yahya’s family well. Yahya had a son and a daughter. Cowasjee was friends with Yahya’s son, Ali. Moreover, Cowasjee, who was known for his candid personality, and for his advocacy against corruption, wrote in 2000 that one can criticise Yahya for numerous things, but “no one can accuse him of robbing the country.” Actually, Cowasjee held similar views about ZA Bhutto as well, despite the fact that the latter had briefly jailed him in the mid-1970s. 

In the late 1990s, one of Yahya’s sons handed over to Cowasjee an incomplete manuscript of an autobiography that Yahya was writing before passing away. The son wanted Cowasjee to edit and publish the manuscript. Cowasjee never got around to doing that. But in a series of columns, he did use some of the text written by Yahya during his house arrest. The text reproduced by Cowasjee shows a man who believed that he had been turned into a scapegoat for things that so many others were equally responsible.

He comes across as a Sad Sac character: resigned to the fact that he will leave behind a tarnished legacy, but not entirely of his own making.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.