Childhood & Early Life
Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was born on February 4, 1917, into a Qizlibash tribal family of Peshawar, in Chakwal, Punjab, which was part of the British Indian Empire back then. His family was of Punjabi ancestry. Some sources claim they were descendants of the elite military class of Nader Shah, the Persian ruler who had taken over Delhi in the 18th century.
Yahya's father was an employee of the ‘British Indian Police’ in Punjab. He was initially a head constable but rose through the ranks to be a deputy superintendent.
Yahya attended the ‘Col. Brown Cambridge School’ in Dehradun and later earned a BA degree from the ‘University of Punjab,’ Lahore.
He then graduated first in his class from the ‘Indian Military Academy’ in Dehra Dun.
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He served the army in Italy and the Middle East during World War II. Following the partition of India in 1947, he organized the ‘Pakistani Staff College.’
Yahya became Pakistan’s youngest brigadier general at the age of 34. He was the commander of the ‘105 Independent Brigade’ that was posted at the “line of control” ceasefire area in Jammu and Kashmir from 1951 to1952. He then became the country’s youngest general at 40.
Since he was close to Ayub Khan, the Chief of the Army Staff of Pakistan (who later took over as the president, by a military coup), Yahya was active during the imposition of the country’s first martial law in 1958. He also served as the head of the commission that was responsible for planning the new capital of Pakistan, Islamabad.
He was the Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962. He was then in charge of two infantry divisions, from 1962 to 1965, one of which was in East Pakistan. Yahya renamed the ‘British Indian Army Staff College’ as the ‘Command and Staff College’ (Quetta, Balochistan).
He supported Ayub Khan's campaign in the 1965 presidential elections, against Fatima Jinnah. He was made the General Officer Commanding of the ‘7th Infantry Division’ of ‘Pakistan Army.’
During the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 (over the territory of Kashmir), Yahya was the commander of the Pakistani forces in Kashmir. In 1966, he was promoted to the position of the Chief of the Army Staff.
He was made the Commander-in-Chief in 1966. Yahya commanded the military when riots erupted all over the country. President Ayub requested him to safeguard Pakistan.
He was then made the chief administrator of the martial law (CMLA) that he himself imposed in the country. President Ayub resigned on March 25, 1969, and Yahya became the next president.
Though he was an efficient military general, Yahya was not a proficient politician and thus mostly depended on experts for administration.
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After becoming the CMLA, Yahya had formed a ‘Council of Administration,’ consisting of four members, with him as the head of that council. All of the members were military officials.
In August 1969, a ‘Council of Ministers’ came in place of the ‘Council of Administration.’ However, only two members of the newly formed council were civilians.
In 1971, the central government of Pakistan clashed with the ‘Awami League’ of East Pakistan, which was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujibur demanded autonomy for East Pakistan, and Yahya ordered the army to crush the ‘Awami League.’
The army was brutal, and this made countless East Pakistani refugees migrate to India. India then invaded East Pakistan and ousted the West Pakistani forces. East Pakistan thus achieved independence and formed the country Bangladesh. After this defeat, Yahya resigned on December 20, 1971.
He was succeeded by his foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Following this, Bhutto put Yahya under house arrest.
Soon, Yahya became paralyzed as a result of a stroke. Following this, his political career virtually ended.
Administrative Policies & the Political Aftermath
Soon after he came to power, Yahya suspended 303 government servants in a bid to reform the administration. They tried restricting trade unions.
He established the ‘Legal Framework Order’ of 1970 and dissolved the ‘One Unit’ program (which was earlier formed to integrate Pakistani territories into West Pakistan, to facilitate governance). His government removed the prefix “West” from the name of his country. He also held Pakistan’s first general elections on adult franchise, in 1970.
The ‘Pakistan People’s Party’ won the elections in West Pakistan and the ‘Awami League’ won in East Pakistan, thereby establishing the differences between the two parts of Pakistan.
Yahya asked Mujibur, the leader of the ‘Awami League,’ to visit West Pakistan for negotiations. Mujibur rejected his offer and asked Yahya’s officials to visit him instead.
On March 25, 1971, Yahya began ‘Operation Searchlight,’ which was a planned military invasion to crush the Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan. A massacre followed, and countless people were killed.
Mujibur was arrested and was given the death sentence. What followed was later known as the ‘Bangladesh Liberation War.’ India joined the war, as an ally of East Pakistan. This eventually led to the Indo-Pak War of 1971. The war ended with Pakistan’s defeat on December 16, 1971.
Following this, Bangladesh became an independent nation. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who succeeded Yahya, was forced to release Mujibur on January 8, 1972. Mujibur then became the first president of Bangladesh and later also held the post of the prime minister of Bangladesh.
Family & Personal Life
Yahya Khan was known to be a womanizer who was also addicted to alcohol. Rumors claim he had dated popular Pakistani singer and actor Noor Jahan, also known as “Malika-e-Tarannum,” during the 1971 war.
Yahya was also linked with Akleem Akhtar, better known as “General Rani,” who was a Pakistani brothel owner in Rawalpindi. Apparently, she was Yahya’s mistress and thus became one of the most powerful women of her country back then. She reportedly called Yahya “Kahn Agha Jan.” However, she denied being his mistress and stated that they were just friends
After remaining under house arrest until 1979, Yahya was released by General Fazle Haq. He kept himself away from public events for the rest of his life and died on August 10, 1980, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.