December and August every year are the months of reflection and recollection for the Pakistanis: the former about the creation and the later about the disintegration of the country. The person who was at the helm of affairs when the country broke up was President General Yahya Khan. He is condemned and vilified for his role in the sordid affair. Much has been written about the various aspects of the “Dacca Debacle”, hardly any serious research has been conducted about the lead character—Yahya Khan.
Was he a coup-maker with well thought-out long term political ambitions? Like most military rulers who promise a greater degree of democratic involvement to the people after the takeover, did he live up to this promise? The promise of restoration of democracy required the holding of general elections and the transfer of power. How did he fare on this count? A bulk of criticism points finger at his personal characteristics. Did these affect his policy and decision making abilities while ececuting domestic and diplomatic affairs of the state? A unique investigation taking into account such and other related aspects of Yahya has been undertaken by Sarmila Bose, who is an academic and senior researcher.
Prior to Yahya’s takeover, there was a constitution in force, a legislature in place and a government under field marshal Ayub Khan was functioning. By the imposition of martial law, Yahya wound up the entire system and banned political activity. The core question is: was his seizure of power fired by personal ambition or the maelstrom of circumstances thrust him to take such action? The considered opinion of his colleagues, scholars and historians is that he was an apolitical general who was forced by the prevailing situation to take this action.
Historian Ian Talbot says that Yahya “took over the reins of power at Ayub’s invitation.” Richard Sisson and Leo Rose, the professors of the University of California opine after a thorough research that “an order from Ayub in his capacity as the field marshal was delivered to Yahya, as the Commander-in-Chief of the senior armed service, requesting that he impose martial law and assume power.” The political scientist Stephen P Cohen of the University of Illinois while concurring with the Californian professors states “when ill and out of favour he [Ayub] handed over power to General Yahya Khan” and adds that those military men whose takeover is calculated and have long term political ambitions usually try to re-engineer the entire political system according to their vision but Yahya’s assumption of power was “the most atypical military intervention” as it was devoid of all such trappings. A noted Pakistani scholar G W Choudhry, who worked in the governments of both Ayub and Yahya testifies that the move to take over was not initiated by Yahya but was requested by Ayub. Choudhry further states that he was informed by both Ayub and Yahya that the former’s farewell speech was written without any external pressure and this corroborates with Ayub’s diaries published a few decades after the separation of East Pakistan in which he admits that he voluntarily handed over power to Yahya keeping in view the deteriorating law and order situation in the country. Lieutenant General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, who knew Yahya from the early days in the army and who first served under him as the Commander of the Eastern Command and later on resigned caps the argument by saying that Yahya “was not a coup-maker as such” and would not have taken over had Ayub’s health and law and order situation not seriously deteriorated.
Once in power, like the military rulers before and after him, Yahya too, promised to restore democracy by holding free and fair elections and transfer power to the elected representatives. Unlike the martial law regimes before and after him, neither did he banish the politicians and the political parties nor did he try to create a system by the exclusion of the major political players. In fact, the transition to democracy was comparatively most swift under him. Within five months of the takeover, he replaced the initial council of ministers consisting of military officers with a civilian cabinet. Moreover within a year, he lifted the ban on the political activities. Next, he successfully convinced the politicians in the opposition to end the public unrest. In addition, he developed a broad consensus with the politicians about the modalities of elections and the framing of the new constitution.
Despite allegations of official patronage to certain political groups; the severest critics of Yahya acknowledge that the general elections held under him have the most free and fair; however, the outcome though quite clear was perplexingly divisive. Even now, political analysts are divided as to what should have Yahya done with regard to the transfer of power. One group thinks that as Yahya himself had referred to Sheikh Mujib of Awami League as the “future prime minister”, therefore, without getting bogged down into torturous negotiations with Z A Bhutto of PPP and Mujib, he should have convened the session of the National Assembly and let the politicians do the rest. The other group argues that could the Awami League which had literally no representation in one of the two wings of the country and had a secessionist manifesto be considered as the legitimate authority at the federal level. The case of Bhutto was quite curious because the election results had mandated him to lead the opposition whereas he was staking claim for the prime ministership. Yahya desired a power arrangement that could be acceptable to both the wings. He took about three months after the elections to find a negotiated solution to the political deadlock before resorting to the military action in March 1971.
The Bengalis demonize him but he had no personal prejudices against them. Not only did he appoint a Bengali as the Chief Election Commissioner; five of his cabinet members were also Bengalis. By abolishing the principle of ‘parity’ introduced under the One Unit Scheme and allowing universal suffrage in the elections, the Bengalis were guaranteed a majority in the National Assembly. When Mujib refused to come to West Pakistan for negotiations, without making an issue of prestige, not only did he proceed to East Pakistan but also prevailed upon Bhutto to join the talks in Dacca. Conjecturing aside, there is no hard historical evidence available to explain as to why the talks failed about which most people were hopeful.
The failure of the military action and the subsequent defeat in the war with India overshadow all his earlier achievements. Many people try to explain these failures by referring to Yahya’s personal characteristics including the indulgence in drinking without realizing that the personal life of a public figure can only become debatable if it impairs judgement while taking policy decisions. If his personal life had been such a serious issue, he would not have held such important positions in the first place. One officer who served at a leading position in his government stated that Yahya “was never drunk in cabinet meetings” while another one who served in an equally key capacity attested that “Yahya’s personal habits did not affect his policy decisions” whereas another one is on the record to have said that Yahya “lived without pretence” and the charge of drunkenness was “an unfair assessment of the man.” Actually some of his colleagues and seniors had a high opinion of him. For example, Sam Manekshaw, who was Yahya’s superior in 1947 and later on became India’s Chief of Staff, found Yahya “an excellent, hard working officer who had a logical mind and could think clearly.” General Gracey, the Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan felt that Yahya was “an outstanding all round officer.”
Only a person of sound and not impaired judgement can alter the course of international relations by acting as a bridge between the two sworn enemies—the capitalist US and the communist China at the height of the Cold War and that too at a critical time inside his own country. How skillfully, efficiently and successfully Yahya and his government managed this challenge is history, now. While the governments of Poland, France, Cambodia and Romania, to whom the US government had approached from time to time in the past to help establish friendly relations with China failed; Yahya remained successful. The American National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger was afraid to undertake the secret trip to Beijing on his own and requested Yahya to accompany him to whom the latter replied: “I told him that I’d send one of my generals along, if he wanted moral support but I personally could not go. Chou En-lai had given me his word that he would look after him.”
Kissinger thought that the opening to China was “the most important communication that has come to an American President since World War II.” The US President Nixon was overwhelmed and through a hand written personal letter to Yahya, wrote: “…without your personal assistance this profound breakthrough in relations between the USA and PRC would never have been accomplished….Those who want a more peaceful world in the generations to come will forever be in your debt.” That is why the White House refrained from any arm twisting of Yahya when he launched the military operation in the eastern wing. Even when twenty officers of the US Foreign Service, the USAID and the US Information Service based in her Dacca Consulate virtually rebelled against their government’s policy with regard to East Pakistan through the famous “Blood Telegram” sent by the Dacca Consul General Archer Blood, the White House refused to confront Yahya because both Nixon and Kissinger felt that Yahya was “a decent and reasonable man” if “not always smart politically” whereas the Indian Premier Indira Gandhi was looked upon as deceitful and anti-American.
Despite a visible ‘tilt’ towards Yahya, Pakistan could not secure any substantial assistance from the Americans when the Indians attacked except them writing letters to Moscow or making the symbolic gesture of sending the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal. Though Nixon outrightly rejected the pro-India recommendations of his ambassador in Delhi by asserting that “the Indians are no goddamn good” yet he did not try to bail out Yahya because the US policy about the Pak-India war was primarily strategized in the context of her global Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union: the idea being not to get directly involved in that conflict. The US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Alexis Johnson summed up this policy by stating, “There is a case to be made for massive inaction,” whereas the CIA Director, Richard Helms argued, “We don’t want to get involved in a family fight.”