Sixty years after October 1958, Ayub Khan’s legacy makes for rich historical research
Sixty years ago, on 27 October 1958, General Mohammad Ayub Khan, commander-in-chief of the Pakistan army, and chief martial law administrator, decided to jettison Major-General Iskandar Mirza, president of Pakistan, and take sole control of the country as its ruler.
Together, the two men had imposed martial law on the country 20 days earlier, abrogated the constitution framed only two years earlier, and placed a ban on democratic politics.
Ayub Khan died on April 20 1974, five years after he was pushed from power by a mass upsurge in both East and West Pakistan. As Pakistan’s first military ruler, he governed in authoritarian fashion for a decade, despite his attempts to don democratic raiment. He had a misplaced sense of his destiny, was contemptuous of politicians, and in his own fashion, went all the way in defining politics for the people of Pakistan.
In all these years, not much has been said or written substantively about him, though his putative diaries published in Pakistan some years ago give us some hazy images of the way his mind worked. Not long ago, reports appeared in the media of a desecration of his grave, but nothing more was heard of it.
Ayub’s son Gohar Ayub Khan, who has served as Pakistan’s foreign minister, came up some years ago with a paean to his father. He called it “Glimpses into the Corridors of Power,” where certain references to the man responsible for the initial steps in the militarization of the country have been noted with interest by scholars of history in South Asia.
In more ways than one, Ayub Khan’s policies and politics were to set in motion a train of circumstances that would eventually hasten the collapse of Pakistan in its eastern province. Bengali memories of the man necessarily have to do with the manner in which he undermined constitutional politics at a time when the country prepared for its first general elections scheduled for early 1959.
For the 10 years which followed Ayub Khan’s takeover, the general’s fiat ran throughout the two wings of Pakistan, with political parties and leaders bearing the brunt of his excesses. Under the Elective Bodies’ Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO), he put well-known political figures out of circulation. A young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became a particular target of Ayub’s wrath, and would suffer until 1969.
The veteran political leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was carted off to prison. Adult suffrage was replaced by a pliant electoral college called Basic Democracy, with 80,000 Basic Democrats, 40,000 from each wing of the country, empowered to elect members of the national and provincial assemblies and the president of the country.
As Pakistan’s president, Ayub Khan presided over a wholesale change in the country’s political tradition. A culture of sycophancy grew, and was promoted to the hilt by the regime. In East Pakistan, a non-entity like Abdul Monem Khan served as governor, to the intense embarrassment of the Bengalis.
In West Pakistan, Manzur Quadir, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, SM Zafar, and others came to prominence in Ayub’s shadow. His favourite minister, the young and brash ZA Bhutto, called in 1963 for Ayub Khan to be declared president for life. Only three years later, Bhutto would turn against his benefactor.
In 1967, the self-styled field marshal -- he had earlier promoted himself from general to field marshal -- produced his memoirs, which some believe was ghostwritten. He called it Friends Not Masters. It was an exercise in self-adulation. It was, for the Bengalis, the ultimate insult, for Ayub made it clear in the work, no holds barred, that Bengalis were a non-martial race. A mere four years later, these non-martial people would throw the mighty Pakistan army out of East Pakistan to create Bangladesh.
In 1966, Ayub Khan dismissed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Six-Point formula for regional autonomy as a secessionist plot, and vowed to exercise the language of weapons against its votaries. Three years later, with the tide turning against him, he had not only withdrawn the Agartala conspiracy against Bangabandhu, but, at one point, offered him the position of Pakistan’s prime minister.
Ayub’s exit from power, at the height of a relentlessly popular movement against him, was a violation of the constitution he had devised for Pakistan in 1962. Rather than transfer power to Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Bengali Speaker of the National Assembly, he made way for General Yahya Khan, the army chief, to have him clamp yet one more martial law on Pakistan.
That was in March 1969. After that, Ayub Khan was not seen or heard of again, save for his appearance in 1972 before the Hamoodur Rahman Commission set up by the Bhutto government to inquire into the causes behind Pakistan’s battlefield defeat in Bangladesh in 1971.
In retirement, Ayub Khan advised Yahya Khan that a political solution had to be found to the crisis that had erupted in the country in early March 1971. Yahya ignored the advice. Over the next few months, the fallen dictator wrote to his successor twice, suggesting that with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman being in Pakistan’s captivity, the regime should work out a deal with the Bengali leader to save Pakistan in its tottering eastern wing. Pakistan, thought Ayub Khan, might not remain a federation any longer. But perhaps a deal with Mujib could lead to a confederation of the two wings? Yahya stayed silent.
Ayub Khan’s funeral was well-attended. His former protégé Bhutto, then Pakistan’s Prime Minister, stayed away from it though. A few days later, he turned up with wife Nusrat at the Ayub family home, proffering the excuse that he had stayed away from the funeral because issues of his security came in the way.
60 years after October 1958, Ayub Khan’s legacy makes for rich historical research. He opened the floodgates to military rule in Pakistan and, ironically, Bangladesh. Three generals have taken a leaf out of his book to push his country into fresh periods of darkness. In Bangladesh, the state created through the politics of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, two military rulers have undermined the land and its people and their history, to our lasting shame.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.