1971: Gen. Yahya Khan, an Ignominy We Ignore

Posted on March 22, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, History, People, Politics
Total Views: 42777

Adil Najam

This post continues our series on the events of 1971. The previous three parts of the series can be read here, here, here and here.

It has always surprised me that in all our discussions of the traumas of 1971 the name of Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan much less frequently than it perhaps should given his role. He presided over the beginnings of a military campaign against what were (then) his own people, what escalated into a full-fledged civil war, eventually an international war, and finally the breakup of the country.

Indeed the complexities were great, there were many other individuals involved, and the roots of all that happened went much further and deeper than just the events of 1971. Yet, Gen. Yahya Khan was in command – of military as well as civilian operations – in those moments of ignominy. But still, for some reason his mentions tend to be fleeting. Although never flattering, there is a sense that we want to move away from the topic of Gen. Yahya Khan as soon as we can; possibly to get to that perennial favorite topic: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In watching this video (from July 31, 1971) this thought struck me again. I realized that at least I had never before seen a recording of him speaking at length. This particularly interview was particularly disturbing also for its content. The arrogance that he was known for and the sense that he as indeed out of touch with what was happening in the country are all too evidently on display:

“If a Head of State is out of touch with any part of his country, I don’t think he has any damn right to remain Head of the State… the moment I find I am out of touch – out of touch with my people – I shall quit… I know East Pakistan more than East Pakistanis know themselves… I am not out of touch. I know exactly hat is happening.”

Equally disturbing is the bit where towards the end he rants about Ireland. This is more disturbing because this is a commentary not only on 1971 but on today. It is all too often that when confronted with evidence of problems within our own polity and society our gut instinct is to (a) highlight how “we are not alone in doing whatever is being condemned” and (b) to argue that since others do it too, therefore it must not really be that bad!

Such discourse has always disturbed me because on the one hand it holds ourselves to the lowest possible standards and on the other hand it it comes across as a sign of being in denial. I hope readers will hear this part of the video (at the end) with care and think hard about how we ourselves sound exactly the same when we make similar arguments about denial!

33 responses to “1971: Gen. Yahya Khan, an Ignominy We Ignore”

  1. FA says:


    The army is not trained in any kind of analysis or political thought. Their major focus is on having a chain of command and following orders. Therefore, I’m not surprised they don’t have much of an insight into the country’s problems. Pakistanis place the army at a status high above everyone, giving a perception of superiority in all matters. Thus, they are disappointed when these ‘jawans’ are not really the problem solvers we had imagined them to be.

  2. Jamshed says:

    He was a very bad ruler,no doubt.But there seems to be a sad inevitablility to the events of 1971.Two wings of a country which were not geographically contiguous.Enemy territory in between.A history of mistrust between Pakistan’s various provinces.A hostile neighbour determined to settle the scores of partition.A badly equipped army cut off from its supply base and facing a hostile local population.

  3. Meengla says:

    1) Oh, the arrogance! Yahya knew more about E. Pakistan then the inhabitants of E. Pakistan themsleves because Yahya had been to places where they couldn’t be.
    2) To be fair to Yahya, the fall of E. Pakistan was inevitable. Ayub’s rule gave a lot of economic prosperity to Pakistan (I think to both wings of Pakistan) but Pakistan was/is not a bank. It is a country, a living organism with multiple needs, multiple pressure points. You can have a healthy body for a while but a sick mind would eat you up later. As someone pointed out before in these comments, the engineered defeat of Fatima Jinnah was perhaps the biggest factor in the eventual fall of Dhaka.
    3) It is of much interest and signficance to me that in the 1965 war India and Pakistan largely chose to ignore the E. Pakistan front. But merely 6 years later that was not so. Perhaps the decline of Pakistan’s politics in the 6 years was too rapid and India could not resist it. Perhaps E.Pakistan had finally ripened to break-way by 1971.
    4) India attacked E. Pakistan 1971. Plain and simple opportunism and aggression and won a war which Pakistan could not win. Today India strategists know that repeating the same in Baluchistan is not possible because of geographical reasons.
    5) BUT…ultimately Yahya is to be blamed. At his desk the Buck Stopped. Bhutto and Mujib were non-entities officially in front of a Martial Law President.
    6) Sincere good luck to our E. Pakistani brothers.

  4. MB says:

    Would you believe it?

    Everytime i talk to some foujiz i feel like they are far far away from the ground realities in the country.

    Two months back i was with a captain (to be a major soon) on seaview Karachi and when we were talking politics, i was stunned at his simplification of things/events and his complete absence to understanding of some basic ground realities.

    From his view it looked as if ALL IS WELL in PAKISTAN.

    Are all our bro jawanz like this ??

  5. Haroon says:

    I am glad you posted this video.

    This guy often gets ignored as all the blame gets on Bhutto. But he really was the lowest of lows for Pakistan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *