Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan NePl (Urdu: آغا محمد یحییٰ خان; 4 February 1917 – 10 August 1980), widely known as Yahya Khan, was a Pakistani General who served as the third President of Pakistan, serving in this post from 25 March 1969 until turning over his presidency in December 1971.
After being controversially appointed to assume the army command in 1966, he took over the presidency from unpopular former dictator and elected President Ayub Khan, who was not able to deal with the 1969 uprising in East Pakistan, forced to resign by protests and offered him the office. Yahya Khan subsequently enforced martial law by suspending the country’s constitution. As a result, it is now highly illegal to suspend the Pakistani constitution, it being a charge of treason with a penalty of death. Khan is now regarded as one of the country's least successful leaders.
Yahya was born to a Pashtun family in Chakwal, British India (now Punjab, Pakistan). He was educated at Punjab University and later graduated first in his class from the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun. He served in Italy and the Middle East during World War II and, after the partition of India in 1947, organized the Pakistani Staff College.
After serving in the war with India over the Kashmir region, he became Pakistan’s youngest brigadier general at age 34 and its youngest general at 40. He became commander in chief in 1966. A protégé of Pres. Mohammad Ayub Khan, Yahya was in command of the military when street riots erupted in the country. Ayub called on him to take over the direction of the government and preserve the integrity of Pakistan. He was appointed chief administrator of martial law, which he declared with the words “I will not tolerate disorder. Let everyone return to his post.”
Yahya Khan succeeded Ayub Khan as president when the latter resigned his office in March 1969. In 1971 a serious conflict erupted between the central government and the Awami Party of what was then East Pakistan, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The East Pakistani leader demanded autonomy for his half of the geographically divided country, and Yahya Khan responded by ordering the army to suppress the Awami Party. The brutality with which his orders were carried out and the resulting influx of millions of East Pakistani refugees into India led to the Indian invasion of East Pakistan and the rout of its West Pakistani occupiers. East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh, and with its loss Yahya Khan resigned in December of that year.
He was replaced by his foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who put him under house arrest. Shortly afterward he was paralyzed by a stroke and, after his release, played no further important political role.
Like other Pakistani leaders before him, Khan placed limits on the freedoms of voters, indicating that the integrity of the country of Pakistan was more important than the election outcomes. This practice of “Basic Democracy” had been used in the past to provide the appearance of democracy while still leaving the military in true control. For example, he helped execute the infilitration of Kashmir during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965
In order to prevent East Pakistan from becoming independent in 1970, Khan instituted martial law. Riots and strikes erupted across East Pakistan. His main political rival, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, began a civil disobedience movement in front of a crowd of 50,000 on March 7, 1971. A last ditch effort to avert war occurred in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, from March 16 to 24. Mujibur and Khan met, discussed the issues, and seemingly reached an agreement—but on the night of March 25, Mujibur was arrested and 60-80,000 West Pakistani soldiers, who had been infiltrating East Pakistan for several months, began what would be known as Operation Searchlight, the massacre of Bengali civilians by Pakistani soldiers.
Estimates for the total number of deaths range from 500,000 to over 3 million, with the death toll having become politicized over the years, says Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.