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Profile: General Yahya Khan( 1917-80) and Breakup of Pakistan

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan (4 February 1917 – 10 August 1980), widely known as Yahya Khan, was a Pakistani general who served as the third President of Pakistan, serving in this post from 25 March 1969 until turning over his presidency in December 1971.

Yahya Khan was the president for a very short time in the history of Pakistan but historians have now concluded that it was the most momentous period. Yahya Khan was a man with a secular outlook and also a man with clear-cut ideas but what he lacked was political acumen and he allowed himself to be manipulated by a scheming politician named Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Yahya Khan was born in Chakwal (Punjab)which at that time was part of the British India on 4 February 1917. He belonged to the Karlani Pashtun tribe.

Indian writer Dewan Berindranath in his book Private Life of Yahya Khan (published in 1974), has mentioned that Yahya's father worked in the British Indian Police. He joined as a head constable and retired as a deputy superintendent. Yahya's father was a progressive man and sent the young Yahya to study at the prestigious Col Brown Cambridge School at Dehradun in the United Provinces. The school was set up by Colonel James Brown and his wife who did not have any children to impart quality education to elite Indian families. Yahya's father sent him to study at the school which was more than 1000 miles away from his village. Education at the school had a profound impact on Yahya Khan and he grew up to be an extremely secular person. He subsequently completed his BA from Punjab University at Lahore.

Pakistan army

Yahya was selected to be an officer in the Indian army and was attached to the Baluch Regiment. He took part in the North African campaign as well as the Mediterranean campaign and was taken POW by the Italians. He was part of the famous Red Eagle division that made many raids into Axis areas.

At the end of the war, he was repatriated to India and rejoined duty in Balochistan.

In 1947 when India was granted freedom by the British he had the option to join either the Indian army or the Pakistan army. He toyed with the idea of remaining in the Indian army but then his father prevailed on him to opt for the Pakistan army. This was the time he became close to Ayub Khan who later became the president of Pakistan and a close friendship developed between the two.

Yahya had a remarkable career in the Pakistan army and became the youngest major general. In 1958 he was specially selected by Ayub to help him overthrow the government of Major General Iskander Mirza. It was Yahya who drove to the president's house and put a pistol to the head of Iskander Mirza and threatened him with death if he did not go on the waiting plane to London. Iskander Mirza was then put on the plane to London and told never to come back, so much so that in 1969 when he died his body was also not allowed by Ayub to come to Pakistan and he was buried in a nondescript grave courtesy of the Shah of Iran in Tehran.

In 1966 president Ayub promoted Yahya as the army chief, superseding two senior generals.


Rise to Presidency

In 1965 general Ayub decided that the time had come to take back Kashmir from the control of India and he formulated a plan codenamed Operation Gibraltar. The Pakistani army and leadership read too much into the 1962 defeat of the Indian army by China and concluded that the Indian army would be easy meat for them. Everybody expected an easy victory and the chief of the army staff even told some of his colleagues that he would not mind going to Delhi after the conquest to have a drink at the Chelmsford club.

The Pakistan army with the latest American equipment launched a thrust in the Chamb-Jaurian sector and they were making good progress. At that time Yahya is reported to have met the president of Pakistan and told him that the commander of the front needed to be removed. A stupid decision was taken and general was removed and Yahya given command as Pakistanis expected an easy victory and Yaya wished to corner all the glory.

This change had a very deleterious effect on the rank-and-file of the Pakistan army which could not move forward and subsequently were pushed back by the Indian army and even perhaps there was a danger of losing the city of Lahore. Ayub accepted a cease-fire at the instance of Russia but now the genie had come out of the bottle. The people in East Pakistan were extremely agitated because the economy was not doing well and all the foreign exchange earnings which were mainly from East Pakistan with the export of jute were utilized in West Pakistan. There was resentment all around also because of language, as Urdu had been declared the national language and no place given to Bengali, the language of the Bengali Muslims.

An agitation started in East Pakistan and general Ayub now in poor Health decided to step down. He took a momentous decision and appointed general Yahya who was the commander-in-chief to take over as chief martial law administrator. In the bargain, he also superseded two senior generals of the Pakistan army.

He took over as president of Pakistan and immediately imposed martial law.

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The presidency and break up of Pakistan

Yahya imposed martial law and set about trying to solve the problem of East Pakistan. He proved he had an intelligent head on his shoulders and his first steps were in the right direction. To pacify the people of East Pakistan he first dismantled the one unit concept and declared that all the states of Pakistan would have proportional representation in the Parliament. With this decision, East Pakistan would have the maximum number of members of parliament and they would be in majority.

He took another momentous decision and decided to call for a general election. This was the first time in Pakistan that one man- one vote general election was ever conducted and all credit must go to General Yahya for this. His background of having studied in the cosmopolitan Colonel Brown's academy played a part in it.

In the general election, Shiekh Mujeeb's Awami party won a majority and had the maximum seats in the Pakistan Parliament. By virtue of their population, the Awami party had an absolute majority in parliament and Yahya even went to the extent of calling Shiekh Mujeeb the future Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Yahya's proposals

Yahya had excellent intentions but he was thwarted by politicians in West Pakistan led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He declared he would not allow the Awami party to form the government. Mujib also refused to come to WestPakistan to attend the first meeting of the parliament.

Yahya decided to convene the parliament meeting in East Pakistan but Zulfikar refused to go there and he went about spreading the canard that the Shiekh was a traitor and should not be allowed to be the PM. He began to organize agitations and meetings all over West Pakistan to put pressure on Yahya not to make Mujeeb the Prime Minister. He also repeatedly met him and stressed that under no circumstances power could be handed over to anybody from East Pakistan as that would lead to the break up of the country.

Breakup of Pakistan

This was the time Yahya should've stood his ground but he was now losing his mind and was mostly inebriated. He allowed himself to be persuaded by Bhutto and made the last visit to East Pakistan in March 1971. During these meetings with Mujeeb, he realized that Mujeeb wanted complete independence from Pakistan and he came back and agreed with Bhutto that a military crackdown was essential.

"Operation Searchlight" the crackdown on East Pakistan was launched and this was the most stupid thing that could've been done because now the clock has been set for the division of Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was arrested and put on trial and sentenced to death.

General Ayub advised that the army be withdrawn and martial law suspended. He also advised that the Prime Minister should be offered to Shiekh Mujib. Yahya was egged on by Bhutto, who was confident that the Pakistan army will very soon teach the Bengalis a lesson they would remember all their life

The Pakistani army now began a crackdown and mass shootings and killings. The army also recruited the paramilitary force "Razakars" numbering nearly 200,000. They and the army went around raping young girls. These are all documented.( Bengalis then started a guerrilla war against the Pakistan army.

With the going tough in East Pakistan, Bhutto persuaded Yahya to attack in the west and occupy areas of India in Punjab. He was confident the Pakistan army could do it and he stated 'we can have a bargain with the Indians to withdraw from Punjab and they withdraw from East Pakistan.'

Bhutto was a poor strategist and did not know anything and the general now more addicted to drinking readily agreed. On 3 December 1971, the Pakistan Air Force launched the attack on 7 Indian airfields; this was again a very stupid decision because it gave an excuse to the Indian Prime Minister Indira to launch an invasion of East Pakistan.

In a matter of 13 days, the Pakistan army surrendered in East Pakistan. I will not go into details of that battle that has been discussed by so many writers and available on the net. Suffice that Yahya invoked the mutual defense treaty with the United States but the USA was not going to attack India because India had also signed a defense pact with Russia and the USA embroiled in Vietnam only made some noise.

When the news that almost 300,000 Pakistani regular soldiers and Razakars had surrendered the people in West Pakistan realized that they had been fooled. Zulfikar took the opportunity and blamed Yahya for the disaster. He was the main culprit who had egged on the General to launch operations searchlight. Yahya resigned as president and was immediately put under house arrest and Bhutto became president.

Last word

Yahya remained under house arrest till 1978. It was a sad moment for him as he was not allowed to go out and he spent all his time drinking away. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown the new Pakistan president General Zia released him from house arrest in 78 but he died shortly after in 1980. He was however given a decent funeral.

In hindsight, one can see that Yahya Khan was not entirely to blame for what happened in East Pakistan and much of the blame goes to the politicians in West Pakistan led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He took the right decisions but did not implement them properly and for that, he paid a terrible price. We must give credit to Yahya that he had realized the real issue and he tried to solve it but his weakness for the bottle and lack of will proved his doom. Nobody wants to discuss him in Pakistan now and hardly anybody remembers him but he is a page in Pakistan history that cannot be obliterated.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 23, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, I must read the book I missed it.

Tom on April 23, 2021:

Adnan Sami s father Arshad Sami served as yahyasadc, he wrote the book with three president's

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 23, 2021:

Thank you, Pamela, your comment is welcome as most will feel this a dry subject.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 23, 2021:

This is a very well-written, good account of General Yahya Khan. I learned several things I didn't know. Thanks for this excellent article, MG.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 23, 2021:

Tom, thanks, Ahmediya's are greatly persecuted especially after Bhutto brought in the 1973 act.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Tom, thanks, I have read the gist of the report and it is a sad commentary of the Pakistan army. I still cannot imagine how a force of 300,000 including a hundred thousand regular troops can surrender within 13 days without giving a proper fight. I had an email from Rabwah in Pakistan who informed me that one of the reasons general Akhtar was removed in 1965 was that he was an Ahmeddyah. Was he AHMEDDYAH? There is some talk going on in Pakistan now and manny are accusing the present Army chief Bajwa of being Ahmeddyah.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Thank you, Tom, yes all 3 were posted in GHQ Delhi in 1947. That is the time he opted for Pak

Tom on April 22, 2021:

Humdoor rehman report in internet

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Thanks Tom, Sam became Army Chief and probably he understood Yahya very well and planned the Indian strategy very well.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, I didn't know about the Motorcycle part that Sam manackshaw sold him his bike. I have heard that the daughter of the keep of Yahya popularly called general Rani had the present Chief Minister of Punjab Amrinder sIngh as a lover. Its so damm complicated.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Tom yes Yahya was a womanizer but in this article, I have not focussed on his personal life. The fact he was fond of young women and the bottle, a deadly concoction, and even the good ideas he had gone to seed. General Rani was actually a madam of a brothel and yes he dated the legendary Noor Jehan in 1971. The Humdoor Rehman report is not publicized. It dammed the Pak army. Yahya reportedly made the statement, kill one million Bengalis and all will fall in line. He never understood the spirit of freedom, but sadly he was egged on by Bhutto who paid for his crime of breaking up Pakistan by being hanged like a common murderer, which he was not.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on April 22, 2021:

Thank you Modi for a descriptive comment. Yes, the Pak army did commit many atrocities but they were defeated and you are right the march of history cannot be stopped.

Hormuz Modi on April 22, 2021:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and rekindle the memories of the invasion of East Pakistan I was part of the infantry division that moved in the assault on Dhaka. The Pakistani army had lost the will to fight and they were surrendering and many were being shot but however scared to surrender to the Mukti Bahini who would bayonet them to death. There is also no doubt that they committed tremendous atrocities on the Bengalis in particular the girls and many Sikh soldiers would pick up the naked girls and cover them with their jackets. Historically Yahya was a buffoon and had he been saner a division of Pakistan would not have taken place but it is an event in the march of history and led to the rise of India, this is inevitable.

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