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Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, H.Pk, HJ, S.Pk, psc (February 4, 1917 – August 10, 1980) was the President of Pakistan from 1969 to 1971, following the resignation of Ayub Khan. He has one son, Ali Yahya and one daughter, Yasmeen Khan.

Early life

Yahya Khan was born in Chakwalmarker, Pakistan, in 1917 and traces his ancestry to Persia by way of antiquarian knowledge. His family descended from the elite soldier class of Nader Shah, the Persian ruler who conquered Delhi in the 18th century. According to a number of sources, including Time magazine, Yahya Khan was an ethnic Pathan.

Army career

Yahya Khan, H.Pk, HJ, S.Pk, psc joined the British Army, and served in World War II as an officer in the 4th Infantry Division . He served in Iraqmarker, Italymarker, and North Africa.

Yahya Khan was commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun on 15 July 1939. An infantry officer from the 4/10 Baluch Regiment, Yahya saw action during World War II in North Africa where he was captured by the Axis Forces in June 1942 and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italymarker from where he escaped in the third attempt.

Career before becoming commander-in-chief

In 1947 he was instrumental in not letting the Indian officers shift books from the famous library of the British Indian Staff College at Quettamarker, where Yahya was posted as the only Muslim instructor at the time of partition of India.

Yahya became a brigadier at the age of 34 and commanded the 105 Independent Brigade, which was deployed on the ceasefire line in Kashmir in 1951-52. Later Yahya, as Deputy Chief of General Staff, was selected to head the army’s planning board set up by Ayub to modernise the Pakistan Army in 1954-57. Yahya also performed the duties of Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962 from where he went on to command an infantry division from 1962 to 1965.

Upon the formation of Pakistan, Khan helped set up an officer's school in Quettamarker, and commanded an infantry division during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Immediately after the 1965 war Major General Yahya Khan who had commanded the 7th Division in Operation Grand Slam was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, appointed Deputy Army Commander in Chief and Commander in Chief designate in March 1966. At promotion, Yahya Khan superseded two of his seniors, Lt Gen Altaf Qadir and Lt Gen Bakhtiar Rana.

As commander-in-chief

Yahya energetically started reorganising the Pakistan Army in 1965. The post 1965 situation saw major organisational as well as technical changes in the Pakistan Army. Till 1965 it was thought that divisions could function effectively while getting orders directly from the army’s GHQ. This idea failed miserably in the 1965 war and the need to have intermediate corps headquarters in between the GHQ and the fighting combat divisions was recognised as a foremost operational necessity after the 1965 war. In 1965 war the Pakistan Army had only one corps headquarter (i.e. the 1st Corps Headquarters).

Soon after the war had started the U.S.marker had imposed an embargo on military aid on both Indiamarker and Pakistanmarker. This embargo did not affect the Indian Army but produced major changes in the Pakistan Army’s technical composition. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk well summed it up when he said, "Well if you are going to fight, go ahead and fight, but we’re not going to pay for it".

Pakistan now turned to Chinamarker for military aid and the Chinese tank T-59 started replacing the US M-47/48 tanks as the Pakistan Army’s MBT (Main Battle Tank) from 1966. 80 tanks, the first batch of T-59, a low-grade version of the Russian T-54/55 series were delivered to Pakistan in 1965-66. The first batch was displayed in the Joint Services Day Parade on 23 March 1966. The 1965 War had proved that Pakistan Army’s tank infantry ratio was lopsided and more infantry was required. Three more infantry divisions (9, 16 and 17 Divisions) largely equipped with Chinese equipment and popularly referred to by the rank and file as "The China Divisions" were raised by the beginning of 1968. Two more corps headquarters i.e. 2nd Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and 4th Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised.

President of Pakistan

Ayub Khan was President of Pakistan for most of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade, popular resentment had boiled over against him. Pakistan had fallen into a state of disarray, and he handed over power to Yahya Khan, who immediately imposed martial law. Once Ayub handed over power to Yahya Khan on 25 March 1969 Yahya inherited a two-decade constitutional problem of inter-provincial ethnic rivalry between the Punjabi-Pashtun-Mohajir dominated West Pakistan province and the ethnically Bengali Muslim East Pakistan province. In addition Yahya also inherited an 11 year old problem of transforming an essentially one man ruled country to a democratic country, which was the ideological basis of the anti-Ayub movement of 1968-69. As an Army Chief Yahya had all the capabilities, qualifications and potential. But Yahya inherited an extremely complex problem and was forced to perform the multiple roles of caretaker head of the country, drafter of a provisional constitution, resolving the One Unit question, satisfying the frustrations and the sense of exploitation and discrimination successively created in the East Wing by a series of government policies since 1948. All these were complex problems and the seeds of Pakistan Army’s defeat and humiliation in December 1971 lay in the fact that Yahya Khan blundered unwittingly into the thankless task of fixing the problems of Pakistan’s political and administrative system which had been accumulating for 20 years and had their actual origins in the pre-1947 British policies towards the Bengali Muslims.

The American author Ziring observed that, "Yahya Khan has been widely portrayed as a ruthless uncompromising insensitive and grossly inept leader...While Yahya cannot escape responsibility for these tragic events, it is also on record that he did not act alone...All the major actors of the period were creatures of a historic legacy and a psycho-political milieu which did not lend itself to accommodation and compromise, to bargaining and a reasonable settlement. Nurtured on conspiracy theories, they were all conditioned to act in a manner that neglected agreeable solutions and promoted violent judgements”.

Yahya Khan attempted to solve Pakistan’s constitutional and inter-provincial/regional rivalry problems once he took over power from Ayub Khan in March 1969. The tragedy of the whole affair was the fact that all actions that Yahya took, although correct in principle, were too late in timing, and served only to further intensify the political polarisation between the East and West wings.

  • He dissolved the one unit restoring the pre-1955 provinces of West Pakistan
  • Promised free direct, one man one vote, fair elections on adult franchise, a basic human right which had been denied to the Pakistani people since the pre-independence 1946 elections by political inefficiency, double play and intrigue, by civilian governments, from 1947 to 1958 and by Ayub’s one man rule from 1958 to 1969.

However dissolution of one unit did not lead to the positive results that it might have led to in case "One Unit" was dissolved earlier. Yahya also made an attempt to accommodate the East Pakistanis by abolishing the principle of parity, thereby hoping that greater share in the assembly would redress their wounded ethnic regional pride and ensure the integrity of Pakistan. Instead of satisfying the Bengalis it intensified their separatism, since they felt that the west wing had politically suppressed them since 1958. Thus the rise of anti West Wing sentiment in the East Wing.

The last days of Pakistani East Bengal

Yahya announced in his broadcast to the nation on 28 July 1969, his firm intention to redress Bengali grievances, the first major step in this direction being, the doubling of Bengali quota in the defence services. At this time there were just Seven infantry battalions of the East Pakistanis. Yahya’s announcement was late by about twenty years. Yahya’s intention to raise more pure Bengali battalions was opposed by Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, the General Officer Commanding 14 Division in East Pakistan suggesting that the Bengalis were "too meek".

Within a year he had set up a framework for elections that were held in December 1970. The results of the elections saw Pakistan split into its Eastern and Western halves. In East Pakistan, the Awami League (led by Mujibur Rahman) held almost all of the seats, but none in West Pakistan. In West Pakistan, the Pakistan Peoples Party (led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) won the lion's share of the seats, but none in East Pakistan. Though AL had 162 seats in the National Assembly against 88 of PPP, this led to a situation where one of the leaders of the two parties would have to give up power and allow the other to be Prime Minister of Pakistan. The situation also increased agitation, especially in East Pakistan as it became apparent that Sheikh Mujib was being denied of his legitimate claim to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Yahya Khan could not reach a compromise, and instead cracked down on the political agitation in East Pakistan with a massive campaign of genocide named by "Operation Searchlight" which began on 25 March, 1971, targeting, among others, Muslims, Hindus, Bengali intellectuals, students and political activists. 3 million people in the east Pakistan were killed in the next few months along with another 400,000 women who were raped. Khan also arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman upon Bhutto's insistence and appointed Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan (later General) to preside over a special tribunal dealing with Mujib's case. Rahimuddin awarded Mujib the death sentence, and President Yahya put the verdict into abeyance. Yahya's crackdown, however, had led to a civil war within Pakistan, and eventually drew Indiamarker into what would extend into the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The end result was the establishment of Bangladeshmarker as an independent republic, and this was to lead Khan to step down. After Pakistan was defeated in 1971, most of the blame was heaped on Yahya. Despite overlooking and ordering numerous acts of genocide against the Bengali people, General Khan was never tried for crimes against humanity.

As President Khan helped to establish the communication channel between the United Statesmarker and the People's Republic of Chinamarker, which would be used to set up the Nixon trip in 1972.

Fall from power

Later overwhelming public anger over Pakistan's defeat by Indiamarker and the division of Pakistan into two parts boiled into street demonstrations throughout Pakistanmarker, rumours of an impending coup d'état by younger army officers against the government of President Mohammed Agha Yahya Khan swept the country. Yahya became the highest-ranking casualty of the war: to forestall further unrest, on December 20, 1971 he surrendered to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, age 43, the ambitious leader of West Pakistan's powerful People's Party.

Shortly after Yahya stepped down, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reversed Rahimuddin Khan's verdict, released Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and saw him off to Londonmarker. Pakistanimarker President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a supreme irony, ordered the house arrest of his predecessor, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, the man who imprisoned Mujib in the first place. Both actions produced headlines round the world.


Yahya Khan died in August 1980, in Rawalpindimarker.


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