General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, last President and Chief Martial Law Administrator of pre-1971 Pakistan, arrived for the final time in the country's restive province of East Pakistan on 15 March 1971. He flew out of it, never to return, ten days later, on 25 March, after having instructed his military officers in Dhaka to go into action against the Bengali political movement for democracy once he had landed back in Karachi. The Pakistan army, having first made sure that the military ruler was safely back in West Pakistan, went into murderous action through what it euphemistically and misleadingly called Operation Searchlight.
On the evening of 26 March, with not a soul in West Pakistan or around the world aware of the massacres the army was busy carrying out in East Pakistan, which had meanwhile been declared an independent state by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the early minutes of the day before he was taken under arrest by the soldiers, General Yahya Khan went on the networks to deliver an address that was to lead Pakistan speedily down the road to disaster. Where Pakistanis in both wings of the country expected him to announce a solution to the crisis that had put politics under severe strain since mid February, with Pakistan People's Party chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's refusal to attend the National Assembly session in Dhaka, Yahya did the exact opposite. He made it clear that the talks in Dhaka had collapsed, that he was outlawing the majority party, the Awami League, that he had ordered the military to restore normalcy. At one stroke, Yahya destroyed every chance of leaving a positive legacy for himself through repudiating the results of the December 1970 elections. He accused Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man whom he had only in December referred to as Pakistan's incoming prime minister, of treason. He vowed that the Bengali leader's 'crime' would not go unpunished.
Yahya Khan was on his way to destroying the state that Mohammad Ali Jinnah had built.
The rest, of course, is history.
Yahya Khan has been dead for close to thirty six years. Children born in Pakistan after 1971 have sketchy ideas of him. That is a picture radically different from the way Bengalis, young and aged, remember him --- as a man who pushed millions of Bengalis to their deaths in the name of a preservation of Pakistan's integrity. Historical texts in Bangladesh have never failed to depict him as the monstrosity he was in the nine months of the Bengali armed struggle for freedom. The demonic poster image drawn of him during the course of the war is enduring testimony to the genocide he initiated and presided over in a province of his own country, enough to have the province hit back furiously and make its fiery way out of the Pakistani state.
In what remains of Pakistan, men and women in their sixties remember Yahya Khan but do not speak of him. The reason is simple. For these Pakistanis, Yahya remains an embodiment of shame, not because he murdered Bengalis but because he could not keep Pakistan in one piece. The Bengali question is an area where a sense of collective guilt pervades the ageing generation of Pakistan. A very huge part of this generation knew, despite their later protestations to the contrary, what the soldiers were doing in Bangladesh between March and December 1971. They raised no voices of protest. But when Pakistan collapsed, the convenient thing, and quite rightly too, was for these Pakistanis to pin the blame on Yahya Khan for the loss of East Pakistan. Before the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, set up to examine the causes of Pakistan's military defeat in Bangladesh, Bhutto pointed the finger for the tragedy at Yahya. That was sheer dishonesty, seeing that it was Bhutto's chicanery which fuelled the crisis in 1971. His was the provocation. Yahya's was the crude response. In the end, it was a combination of bad politics and terrible military judgment that left Pakistan burning into ashes through military defeat in Bangladesh.
On the afternoon when General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi signed the instruments of surrender in Dhaka, Yahya Khan did not inform Pakistanis that half their country was gone, had indeed become the new, independent state of Bangladesh. The whole world was abuzz with news of the Bengali battlefield triumph, and yet Yahya Khan, having earlier promised to crush India, said not a word. Those who knew him at the time, indeed were close to him, were subsequently to report that on 16 December 1971, Yahya Khan was too inebriated to speak to his country about the collapse of East Pakistan. But, yes, television images in the evening of Niazi and his men capitulating in Dhaka brought home to Pakistanis for the first time that an army which had boasted of marching all the way to Delhi had fallen flat on its face in Dhaka. The images were not to be carried for long, though. They were pulled as fury mounted all over the country. The military would not have shame pile on it with revelations of the tale of its humiliation in Bangladesh. And General Yahya Khan would not part from his bottle. In his unreal world, the reality of what he had done to his country went missing.
Until the next day, 17 December, when in a rambling radio address, he vowed to fight on until every aggressor had been routed. He made references to Islam, to the holy war which Pakistan would soon win in its battle against the enemy. The enemy, meanwhile, had penetrated deep into what remained of Pakistan. Frantic appeals by the Nixon administration in Washington to the Soviet leadership in Moscow to have Indira Gandhi stop her soldiers from making a havoc of West Pakistan helped. A shrunken Pakistan was saved from further degradation. Three days later, on 20 December, Yahya Khan handed over the keys of the country's presidency to Bhutto. The new leader, arriving at power by default, then lost no time in placing Yahya and his soldier friends under house arrest. Not until Bhutto's fall from power would the disgraced dictator be freed of his fetters. He died in 1980, General Ziaul Haq making sure that the man was given a decent funeral.
It was a pathetic end to the career of a man who could have given a new dimension to politics in Pakistan. When in March 1969 Yahya seized power from Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan and promised to guide Pakistan to democracy, citizens were enthused to no end. He put an end to the One Unit in West Pakistan in July 1970 and restored the old provinces. He assured Pakistanis that towards the end of 1970 the first-ever general election in the country would be held, on the basis of one-man one-vote, to elect a National Assembly and thereby inaugurate democracy in the country. He issued a Legal Framework Order stipulating the framing of a new constitution for Pakistan within a span of a hundred and twenty days. He made sure that the five provinces of the country would send representatives to parliament on the basis of proportional representation. For a large number of people, in both wings of the country, Yahya Khan was lauded for his commitment to democracy. On his watch, it was reasoned, Pakistan was about to graduate to meaningful democracy.
By March 1971, Yahya Khan was no more a symbol of hope. He had mutated into a macabre image of death and destruction. His soldiers killed Bengalis, raped Bengali women and burned Bengali villages and towns. He was now in the mood for war, for bloodletting in the interest of his ambitions and his country's survival. He put Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on trial, and went ahead with sham by-elections in occupied Bangladesh. Mujib, for him, was a traitor who deserved to die. Indira Gandhi was 'that woman' who needed to be taught a lesson. Ten million Bengalis crossed over into India, but Yahya said such reports were false. By late November, he had Mujib sentenced to death even as he looked for excuses to expand the conflict in Bangladesh to a larger war, with India. Early in December, in the tradition of Jinnah in 1948 and Ayub in 1965, he launched a military strike against India. His army had been killing Bengalis for nine months. Now, ironically, it was about to be mauled by the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army. It would be comeuppance.
Yahya Khan kept notes, of a desultory sort, in his days under house arrest. In the glib manner of every Pakistani involved in the murder of Bengalis, he blamed everyone but himself for the cataclysm of 1971. He refuted Bhutto's assertions that he had, before handing over power to the PPP leader, asked that Mujib be hanged before the political change. The reality, in Yahya's words, was quite something else. It was Bhutto who, in autumn 1971, as Yahya prepared to fly to Tehran to be part of the royal extravaganza put up by the Shah of Iran, asked him to order the Bengali leader's execution before leaving the country. It was a case of crooks committing criminality and then pointing the finger at each other for everything that had gone wrong.
General Yahya Khan was the man who pointed a gun at President Iskandar Mirza in October 1958, forcing him to quit office and leave General Ayub Khan free to exercise dictatorial rule in the country. In March 1969, Yahya would not let Ayub Khan stay on or let the presidency pass into the hands of the Speaker of the National Assembly. He would take over from the embattled president. And he did.
The last president of united Pakistan was never to return to East Pakistan in the final months of his country's collapse into chaos. He sent his brother to Ayub Khan, in April 1971, to seek advice on dealing with East Pakistan, where the army was already busy killing and raping. The fallen dictator's message to his successor was simple: end the military operations and bring the army back to West Pakistan. Yahya ignored the advice. In the event, though, the army did go back home, in the shape of newly-freed prisoners of war, from India in 1974.
Yahya Khan had a life-long affair with drinking, to a point where he invariably got raucously tipsy. His affairs with women were legion. In the Bhutto years, he was often spotted leaning across the low boundary of his home in Rawalpindi buying vegetables from a vendor. Not many were inclined to converse with him.
The mass murderer died unsung,
unlamented in August 1980.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer.
E-mail: [email protected]