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Mohammed Yahya Khan
President of Pakistan who presided over the country's first popular elections and the independence of Bangladesh
Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan was born in Chakwal, Punjab, British India, on February 4, 1917. After graduating first in his class from Punjab University, he entered the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, from which he was commissioned into the British Army in 1938. He subsequently served as an officer in the 4th Infantry Division (India) during World War II, seeing action in Iraq, Italy and North Africa; he was taken prisoner in June 1942, but managed to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp on his third attempt.
After Pakistan gained its independence in 1947, Yahya Khan became an officer in the Pakistani Army and helped establish the Pakistan Staff College at Quetta. He became a Brigadier General in 1951, commanded the 106 Infantry Brigade on the Kashmir front line from 1951 to 1952, and headed the Army Planning Board established by Army Commander-in-Chief General Ayub Khan to modernize the Pakistan Army from 1954 to 1957. He was promoted to full General and appointed Army Chief-of-Staff in 1957.
On October 27, 1958, Ayub Khan was appointed Prime Minister by President Iskander Mirza. That same day, Ayub Khan ousted Mirza and sent him into exile. Ayub Khan's actions were supported by Yahya Khan, who subsequently performed the duties of Chief of General Staff until 1962. He commanded an infantry division during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, and was promoted from Major General to Lieutenant General in 1966.
The 1965 war with India had made the many deficiencies in the Pakistani Army very apparent, and in March 1966 Yahya Khan was appointed Deputy Army Commander-in-Chief and Commander-in-Chief designate with orders to do whatever was necessary to increase the army's efficacy. Under his direction, the command structure of the Army was reorganized, newer weapons were added to its arsenal, three infantry divisions were created, and the military structure in East Pakistan was strengthened. Yahya Khan became Chief of the Army Staff on September 18, 1966, and served in that position until December 20, 1971.
On March 25, 1969, President Ayub Khan resigned amidst growing popular resentment against his rule, and turned the government over to General Yahya Khan, who immediately imposed martial law, terminated the Constitution, and dissolved the National and Provincial Assemblies.
Unlike most other military men who assume control over a national government, Yahya Khan had no desire to become a life-long ruler. He promised to address the long-standing ethnic rivalry between West and East Pakistan, and to transform Pakistan into a democratic nation. To those ends, he increased East Pakistan's representation in the National Assembly and promised to hold free direct, one man-one vote elections in the very near future. On March 29, 1970, he presented an interim constitution which outlined exactly how those elections would be organized and held.
The first popular elections in Pakistani history were held on December 7, 1970. Although they were supposed to represent the first steps in Pakistan becoming a true democracy, the elections proved to be the beginning of Yahya Khan's downfall. In the elections, the East Pakistani Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman won 160 of East Pakistan's 162 seats in the 313-seat National Assembly, but failed to garner a single seat in West Pakistan. Meanwhile, West Pakistan's People's Party, led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, won 81 seats, but failed to win any seats in East Pakistan. Although the Awami League had technically garnered a majority in the Assembly, Bhutto would not agree to Rahman's accession to the Prime Ministry, leaving Yahya Khan to make the final decision as to who was become Prime Minister of Pakistan, and he ultimately gave the position to Bhutto.
Not surprisingly, Yahya Khan's decision did not set well with the people of East Pakistan, and violence erupted. On February 21, 1971, Yahya Khan dissolved his civilian Cabinet, and suspended the opening of the National Assembly. The civil unrest led to violent military incursions, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The internal conflict led to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which in turn resulted in the establishment of the independent Republic of Bangladesh.
The conflict over East Pakistan and the losses incurred during the Indo-Pakistani War led to widespread popular unrest within Pakistan. To help quell that unrest, and to stave off a military coup, Yahya Khan stepped down as President on December 20, 1971. He was placed under house arrest in 1972, and remained so until 1979.
Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan died in Rawalpindi on August 10, 1980. Despite the difficulties of his presidency, he was honored by his nation with a full military burial.
This page was last updated on January 26, 2017.