On 25th March 1969, fifty years ago, President Ayub Khan, beset with street agitations in both wings of the country mostly led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, handed power over to Gen. Yahya Khan, the then Army Chief. Ayub did that transfer of power through a formal letter; which, in retrospect, was a huge favour to the historian and to the future generations of Pakistan.
Now when all characters of that era – Ayub, Bhutto, Bhashani, Mujib, Moudoodi, Mufti Mahemood and others – are gone, done and dusted we can calmly assess their motives, understandings and wisdom if any. Fifty years later, we have the unfair advantage of hindsight and it is always 20/20.
Pakistan had inherited its share of armed forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – from battle-hardened and experienced British Indian Armed Forces at the time of independence soon after the conclusion of Second World War. Those assets provided a sound base to raise the national defense for the new state of Pakistan. The role of the military in any modern state is to defend the state and the system from external and internal threats.
On 25th March 1969, fifty years ago, President Ayub Khan, beset with street agitations in both wings of the country mostly led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, handed power over to Gen. Yahya Khan.
The military is ‘one’ element of the state ‘Establishment’ and works under the government; the other elements being the parliament, judiciary and civil bureaucracy. As an institution the ‘military’ keeps the government abreast with its input on national security by carrying out threat assessment and response; a continuous process for governments to take required decisions
While the question of a ‘civil-military relationship’ should not come up in normal conditions; however, in Pakistan’s peculiar circumstances – unstable political situation and repeated interventions by the military – this question becomes relevant and demands to be addressed. Pakistan’s first decade of independence saw rapid political transitions.
Read more: Who are the ‘aliens’ in Pakistani politics?
With the untimely demise of Quaid-e-Azam, founder of the new nation state, in 1948 and assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951, a process of instability set in. Powerful bureaucrats like Ghulam Muhammad, Mohammad Ali and Iskandar Mirza took over reins of the state in a fashion reminiscent of Umayyad era palace coups.
The Army Chief was inducted in the cabinet as Defense Minister to seek legitimacy and stability. There was no elected government during all this period. After about nine years of infighting, confusions and deliberations the first constitution was finally adopted in 1956. But within two years, President Iskandar Ali Mirza, a civilian, imposed his civilian Martial Law and made Army Chief Ayub Khan as Chief Martial Law Administrator.
Ayub soon got rid of a redundant Mirza and continued to rule Pakistan for about ten years, giving the country a new constitution in 1962 and introducing the Presidential form of Government.
The role of the military in any modern state is to defend the state and the system from external and internal threats.
More interventions had to come – Gen. Yahya removing Ayub in 1969, Gen. Zia ul Haq removing Z A Bhutto in 1977 and General Musharraf removing Nawaz Sharif in 1999 – and some of these may have been intertwined with external factors; international interests placing their men to further their regional agendas. The role of intelligence agencies is mostly confused with ‘military’.
Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency the ISI works directly under the Chief Executive of the country, the Prime Minister or the President as the case may be. It must be emphasized that ‘ISI’ is not ‘military’ just as the CIA is not Pentagon and RAW is not Indian GHQ.
Pakistan military as an impersonal institution – where men and leaders keep changing – has played its assigned role reacting to the changing demands of the times. Military interventions have always taken place to fill the void or situation created by the governments – be it civilian or military-led. It is in this context that fifty-year-old letter of Field Marshall, President Ayub Khan to General Yahya Khan should be read.
This historical document written 25th March 1969, covers most if not all aspects of civil and military relationship. General Yahya Khan, disobeying the spirit of the letter from Field Marshall, again abrogated the constitution of 1962, instead of giving the power to Speaker National Assembly. Rest is history.
Letter from: Field Marshall Muhammad Ayub Khan, N.Pk., H.J.
25 March 1969
My Dear General Yahya,
It is with profound regret that I have come to the conclusion that all civil administration and constitutional authority in the country has become ineffective. If the situation continues to deteriorate at the present alarming rate all economic life, indeed, civilized existence will become impossible.
I am left with no option but to step aside and leave it to the Defence Forces of Pakistan, which today represent the only effective and legal instrument, to take full control of the country. They are by the grace of God in a position to retrieve the situation and to save the country from utter chaos and total destruction.
They alone can restore sanity and put the country back on the road to progress in a civil and constitutional manner. The restoration and maintenance of full democracy according to the fundamental principles of our faith and the needs of our people must remain our ultimate goal. In that lies the salvation of our people who are blessed with the highest qualities of dedication and vision and who are destined to play a glorious role in the world.
Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency the ISI works directly under the Chief Executive of the country, the Prime Minister or the President as the case may be.
It is most tragic that while we were well on our way to a happy and prosperous future, we were plunged into an abyss of senseless agitation. Whatever may have been used to glorify it, time will show that this turmoil was deliberately created by well-tutored and well-backed elements.
They made it impossible for the government to maintain any semblance of law and order, to protect the civil liberties, life and property of the people. Every single instrument of administration and every medium of expression of saner public expression was subjected to ruthless public criticism and blackmail. The result is that all social and ethical norms have been destroyed and instruments of government have become inoperative and ineffective.
The economic life of the country has all but collapsed. Workers and labourers are being incited and urged to commit acts of lawlessness and brutality. While demands for higher wages, salaries and amenities are being extracted under threat of violence, production is going down. There has been a serious fall in exports and I am afraid the country may find itself soon in the grip of serious inflation.
All this is the result of the reckless conduct of those who, acting under cover of a mass movement, struck blow after blow at the very root of the country during the last few months. The pity is that a large number of innocent but gullible people became victims to their innocent designs. I have served my people to the best of my ability under all circumstances.
The restoration and maintenance of full democracy according to the fundamental principles of our faith and the needs of our people must remain our ultimate goal.
Mistakes there must have been but what has been achieved and accomplished is not negligible. There are some who would like to undo all that I have done and even that which was done by the governments before me. But the most tragic and heart-rending thought is that there was elements at work that would like to undo even what the Quaid-i-Azam had done namely the creation of Pakistan.
I have exhausted all possible civil and constitutional means to resolve the present crisis. I offered to meet all those regarded as the leaders of the people. Many of them came to a conference recently but after I had fulfilled all their pre-conditions. Some declined to come for reasons best known to them. I asked these people to evolve an agreed formula.
They failed to do so in spite of days of deliberations. They finally agreed on two points and I accepted both of them. I then offered that the un-agreed issues should be referred to the representatives of the people after they had been elected on the basis of direct adult franchise.
My argument was that the delegates in the conference who had not been elected by the people could not arrogate to themselves the authority to decide all civil and constitutional issues including those on which even they are not agreed among themselves. I thought that I would call the national assembly to consider the two agreed points but it soon became obvious that this would be an exercise in futility.
The members of the assembly are no longer free agents and there is no likelihood of the agreed two points being faithfully adopted. Indeed members are being threatened and compelled either to boycott the session or to move such amendments as would liquidate the central government, make the maintenance of the armed forces impossible, divide the economy of the country and break up Pakistan into little bits and pieces.
Calling the assembly in such chaotic conditions can only aggravate the situation. How can anyone deliberate coolly and dispassionately on fundamental problems under threat of instant violence? It is beyond the capacity of the civil government to deal with the present complex situation and the Defense forces must step in.
It is your legal and constitutional responsibility to defend the country not only against external aggression but also to save it from internal disorder and chaos. The nation expects you to discharge this responsibility to preserve the security and integrity of the country and to restore normal, social, economic and administrative life.
The most tragic and heart-rending thought is that there was elements at work that would like to undo even what the Quaid-i-Azam had done namely the creation of Pakistan.
Let peace and happiness be brought back to this anguished land of 120 million people. I believe you have the capacity, patriotism, dedication and imagination to deal with the formidable problems facing the country. You are the leader of the force which enjoys the respect and admiration of the whole world.
Your colleagues in the Pakistan Air Force and in the Pakistan Navy are men of honour and I know that you will always have their full support. Together the armed forces of Pakistan must save Pakistan from disintegration. I should be grateful if you would convey to every soldier, sailor and airman that I shall always be proud of having been associated with them as their Supreme Commander.
Each one of them must know that in this grave hour they have to act as the custodians of Pakistan. Their conduct and actions must be inspired by the principles of Islam and by the conviction that they are serving the interests of their people. It has been a great honour to have served the valiant and inspired people of Pakistan for so long a period.
May God guide them to move toward greater prosperity and glory. I must also record my great appreciation of your unswerving loyalty. I know that patriotism has been a constant source of inspiration for you all your life. I pray for your success and for the welfare and happiness of my people.
General A. M. Yahya Khan
H.Pk., H.J., C-in-C (Army)
General Headquarters, Rawalpindi.
Kanwar Dilshad, former Secretary to the Election Commission of Pakistan, worked in the constitutional institution for over 30 years. He is currently the chairperson for the National Democratic Foundation; the foundation’s work is to grow and strengthen democracy in Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.