Yahya Khan was the president of Pakistan and chief of army staff from 1969 to 1971, following the resignation of Mohammad Ayub Khan. As soon as he rose to power, Yahya Khan declared martial law to quell the widespread riots caused by discontent in the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
Yahya Khan also dissolved the National Assembly and terminated the constitution. His two years as president were marked by strong tensions in East Pakistan, leading to the Bangladesh Liberation War and the eventual secession of Bangladesh in 1971.
Yahya was born in Chakwal on February 4, 1917, into a family of Persian origins, descended from the military elite. He attended Punjab University and graduated first in his class from the Indian Military Academy. Yahya joined the British army, and during World War II he served in Iraq, Italy, and North Africa.
After the partition of India, he became the youngest brigadier general in the Pakistani army, commander in chief of the army in 1966, and when President Ayub Khan resigned, he turned to his faithful aide Yahya Khan to maintain order in the country.
Yahya was resolute in his restoration of order in the country. To make this suspension of political and civil liberties more palatable, he also started a large-scale renovation of the country’s civil service personnel. He also announced restrictions on economic monopolies and a more equal distribution of wealth.
Yet Yahya’s reforms and his government were swept away by the conflict that erupted in 1971 between East and West Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, launched a campaign for the creation of a federation in which East Pakistan would enjoy great autonomy.
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The League performed extremely well in the 1970 election, winning 160 out of 162 seats in East Pakistan. However the party did not get a single seat in western constituencies, which overwhelmingly went to Zulfikar Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.
Since neither Bhutto nor Mujibur would support the other as prime minister, Yahya decided to solve the political impasse by sending the army to East Pakistan to crush the Awami League. The acts of brutality committed by the army caused millions to flee to India for Indian intervention, forcing the West Pakistani army to surrender.
East Pakistan declared its independence, establishing the state of Bangladesh in 1972. Yahya Khan’s only option was to hand power to Zulfikar Bhutto, who put him under arrest. He spent his later years far from the political scene.