Public Record Office


REF: FCO 37/467




British High Commission,


2 April, 1969



The Right Honourable

Michael Stewart, C.H., M.P.,

etc., etc., etc.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office,

London S.W.1.


Martial Law in Pakistan




I have the honour to report that Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan resigned from the office of President of Pakistan on the 25th of March, and handed over power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. General Yahya immediately declared martial law. On the 31st of March, he assumed the title of President.


2. President Ayub announced his decision in a special radio broadcast on the evening of the 25th of March saying that "This is the last time I shall be addressing you as President." The reasons he gave for resigning were:


(a) the economic and administrative systems were breaking down under the threat of lawlessness;


(b) his own hope that reason might settle problems, and that his own decision not to stand for re-election would help restore a peaceful atmosphere, had been disappointed by the further deterioration of the situation;


(c) he had accepted the only two demands on which the opposition politicians had been agreed at the Round Table Conference (adult suffrage and parliamentary government would preserve the strong centre he thought essential for Pakistan. But politicians were now pressing for the immediate acceptance of their more extreme demands. These would have left the country divided into two parts, with ineffective and powerless central institutions. the defence services crippled and the political entity of West Pakistan abolishes:


(c) in the prevailing conditions it would not be possible to convene the National Assembly (to debate Constitutional amendments); some members might not dare to attend; others would not dare express their real opinions;


(d) the situation was now beyond the control of the Government, and only the Armed Forces could meet the situation.


3. Field Marshal Ayub accordingly handed over all his powers to General Yahya stating that he was calling upon General Yahya to fulfil his "constitutional" responsibilities (a statement difficult to reconcile with the terms of the Constitution). General Yahya immediately on the 25th of March declared martial law, abrogated the Constitution, announced that all who had been holding the offices of president, governors, ministers would cease to hold office, established military courts and issued martial law regulations. On the morning of the 26th of March General Yahya made a national radio broadcast in which he cited much the same reasons for the imposition of martial law as had Ayub for his handover of power. He had stepped in to fulfil his "prime duty of protecting the country from utter destruction." The intentions of what he was careful to call his "administration," rather than this government, were solely to restore order and to clean up administrative laxity and chaos so that the way might be paved for free and impartial elections on the basis of adult suffrage to a body which could then work out the constitutional and other reforms that were needed. He also promised to deal with the just complaints of workers, students and peasants. Six days later, on the 31st of March, General Yahya announced that he was taking over the office of President "as from 25 March" for the performance of essential acts of State and in accordance with the requirements of international practice and usage."


4. I believe that the decision to resign was Ayub's own, in consultation with his civil and military advisers. I also believe that General Yahya, with whom Ayub had in the previous weeks been on excellent terrns, had long ago decided that it would be a mistake for the Army to bolster up the Ayub regime or to support any political rival, not least because he was doubtful how far he would have the support of his generals for any such course. Nevertheless for the last six weeks he had been a worried man as he saw the law and order situation deteriorating and a threat to the cohesion of the country and its armed forces developing. He was convinced that the Army must if necessary do its duty to protect the integrity of the country, but felt that if the Army had to be brought in, it should be as a completely new administration, a clean break from Ayub's regime. This view of Yahya's, sound in my view, combined with Ayub's own sense of defeat, meant the complete handover which took place.


5. The imposition of Martial Law coincided with some evidence both that the situation was improving, and that the Ayub Government's will to contain the disturbances was returning. For some weeks before the 15th of March there had been widespread disturbances, in urban areas of West Pakistan and in both the main towns and some rural areas in East Pakistan, involving mob vengeance on alleged criminals, attacks on officials, and strikes and gheraos against industrial firms. Pakistani and particularly British press accounts greatly exaggerated the extent of these disorders, and added to the general alarm by emphasizing the savagery of the mobs. In fact the

number of Basic Democrats killed was about a dozen out of 40,000; most incidents were not political at all but rather the continuance of local feuds, and not many more than 100 were killed in the month of riots, which by the standards of this part of the world is not large compared with previous disturbances or even the normal civil murder rate. Nevertheless the situation appeared to be out of hand, and by and large the authorities had failed to intervene.


6. But from the 15th of March there were several indications of restored confidence. On the 15th of March the appointment of Yusuf Haroon (a man Ayub disliked but who was acceptable to the Opposition) as Governor of West Pakistan was announced. On the 19th of March the Home Minister, vice-Admiral A.R. Khan gave a strong address to a press conference where he warned that the provincial governments were to get tough with the law-breakers, using the military where necessary. On the same day, in Parbatipur, East Pakistan, the East Pakistan Rifles were brought in to restore order after disturbances; and armed police were used in Comilla. And on the 21st of March the appointment of Huda as Governor of East Pakistan was announced. For some days previously, most opposition politicians had been appealing to their supporters to maintain peace and orders and there were signs, in the rapid formation of local committees of peace-keeping vigilantes in East Pakistan, that this was having some effect. The incidence of arson, murder and riot was on the decline.


7. All these may be taken as instances of a situation potentially improving from one where martial law might be required, to one where there could still be hope that the political processes which Ayub set in motion with his broadcast of the 1 st of February could lead to a satisfactory settlement of most of the popular demands for reform. An indication of the Government's own continued, if' qualified, good faith in using the political process was the publication on the 20th of March, of the Government's own Constitutional Amendment Bill, which offered rather greater amendments to the Constitution than merely adult suffrage and the parliamentary system. It was announced that the Assembly would be convened to discuss the bill "within a month."


8. And yet on the 24th of March Ayub wrote to Yahya to ask him to take over. The all-important factor was, I believe, the constitutional amendment bill prepared by the six-point Awami League as an alternative to the Government bill for debate by the National Assembly. This was presented to the President by Mr. A.M.H. Qamaruzzaman, MNA, General Secretary of the Awami league and prime sponsor of the bill, on the 23rd of March. Although the bill gave slightly more power to the centre than the extreme position of the Awami League, it only added currency and a nominal state bank to defence and foreign affairs. Most important, it envisaged a sub­federation of four units within West Pakistan as well as near complete autonomy for the two wings.


9. Had Ayub been certain that this bill, when put before the Assembly, would be defeated, and the Government's bill passed, he might well have allowed the political process to continue. Nominally the Government Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is overwhelmingly predominant in the National Assembly. But so strong had

become the popular support in East Pakistan and several parts of West Pakistan for the idea of regional autonomy including the break-up of One Unit that many PML members would fear for their lives and property if they voted for the Government's bill or against that of the Awami League. Also many PML members from West as well as East Pakistan, would now be genuinely inclined to vote for the Awami League's constitutional formula. All this meant that the Government bill might well not win the 104 votes needed (out of 156) even if lingering West Pakistan Government loyalists prevented the Awami League's bill from passing either.


10. Ayub's reasoning thus appeared to have been that if such a parliamentary deadlock was likely a month ahead, leading to the need, then, for Martial Law, West Pakistan as well as East might be uncontrollable. Even Daultana, the conservative opposition Punjabi, came out against "One-Unit" on 21 March; Bhutto followed suit on the 24th. The appeal to so many in the non-Punjabi areas of West Pakistan of the "sub-federation" included in the Awami League's bill might prove to be such that the defeat of the bill and any consequent proclamation of Martial Law would lead to impossible disruption even in the West Wing. Beside this consideration the promising signs of the days before became almost irrelevant, affecting as they did only the immediate situation. The hand over to the Army and the imposition of Martial Law thus can be seen as a decision that the integrity of Pakistan must be preserved for as long as possible and that at all costs the manoeuvreing of East Pakistani politicians should not be allowed to break up the unity of West Pakistan as well.


11. Martial Law has immediately calmed the situation. Although some people (21 in Karachi and 31 altogether in East Pakistan) have been arrested under Martial Law for such offences as organising strikes, there has been a restoration of law and order and industrial peace. Factories in both Wings are now working at full stretch. Streets are being rapidly cleaned up and all visible signs are being shown of briskness and attention to duty on the part of those officials who, only a few days ago, were fleeing from their offices or going on strike in support of their own grievances.


12. General Yahya's style is carefully pitched in a low key. He is operating, in contrast to his usual practice as Commander-in-Chief, without great fanfare. He was most reluctant to take on the title of President and was only persuaded to do so by the lawyers who said it was necessary for over-riding administrative and protocol reasons. The editor of the Pakistan Times was reprimanded for using the phrase "the Yahya regime" in an editorial of the 28th March. Yahya has so far made no public appearances and instructions have been issued to the press that laudatory messages about Martial Law are not to be published. He has promised to bring to an end administrative laxity and indecisiveness. He has not banned political parties, nor has he imposed press censorship; and he has stated that free and impartial elections will be held.


13. Although the reports of chaos in East Pakistan were much exaggerated it remains true that the instability of the political leaders, especially Bhashani and Mujibur Rahman, was causing more and more concern to their more level headed followers. During March a large number of middle class Pakistanis had reached the conclusion that political developments were leading to the complete collapse of the

economy of the country and of law and order. Moreover, despite the incidents reported in East Pakistan the political excitement was largely an urban phenomenon and large areas of the countryside, including parts of East Pakistan, remained comparatively unaffected by the political ferment. The Pakistani, and above all the Bengali, is extremely volatile. Sycophantic to authority but savage and destructive when they think they wield power themselves, the Pakistanis are inclined to move from a state of complete indiscipline to ready subservience to a strong authority. The ability of a Martial Law authority to impose order depended on a sense of timing. For once - it has been rare during the last few months for any decision to be taken to the right moment tactically -- the decision appears to have come at precisely the right time and to the great relief and astonishment of most Pakistanis they have returned, at least temporarily, to a period of peace and calm.


14. General Yahya is faced with many difficult problems. In the short term he will probably be successful in maintaining law and order and creating conditions in which Pakistan's economy, at least in the West, can make a rapid recovery. It will be assisted this year by an extremely good harvest in West Pakistan, which is likely to be over seven millions tons of wheat. In East Pakistan the problems are much more formidable. The whole structure of administration has to be painfully built up again if food production is not to decline disastrously. The marketing of jute may present some problems in the new season and the jute mills will take some time to recover from their setback in recent weeks. Moreover, although many people in East Pakistan are relieved at the return of peace and order nevertheless there are very few who are prepared actively to identify themselves with General Yahya's regime in case this will expose them to danger when Martial Law is at an end.


15. General Yahya has announced that his purpose is to hold the ring while elections are organised. The continued acceptance of the regime by the populace may well depend on General Yahya's producing evidence that positive steps are being taken to fulfil this purpose in the foreseeable future and that Martial Law will not be of indefinite duration. It is, however, very hard to see how a Martial Law regime can retain its authority and at the same time permit political electioneering. I do not think that General Yahya and his officers have begun to think out how, in fact, there can be a transition from Martial Law to elections in a constituent Assembly. One possible first step would be to instruct the Martial Law Administrator to supervise the drawing up of comprehensive electoral rolls, as these were previously in a mess. In the short­term there is the problem of how the policy matters of the Government are to be handled without the Army becoming involved in politics. In the longer term too, they are faced with the problem whether the Army is prepared in the long run to acquiesce in a decision by democratically elected representatives to weaken the power of the centre and increase provincial autonomy to the point at which East Pakistanis are largely running their own affairs.


16. I myself doubt whether General Yahya will be prepared to step down in a situation in which the powers of the Central Government are in danger of erosion and the Armed Services seem likely to be undermined. On the other hand, I do not believe that 20,000 West Pakistani troops can dominate 65 million East Pakistanis

for more than a short period. This is a situation which calls for wisdom, statesmanship, _ decisiveness and normal courage. In the last resort Field Marshal Ayub, despite his great stature, was not great enough or sufficiently politically responsive to handle the situation. General Yahya may grow in stature with the task which he has to tackle. The situation is now more complex than that which faced the former President and will require immense political sagacity as well as administrative decisiveness. There is as yet little evidence on which to base any confidence about Pakistan's future.


17. I am sending a copy of this despatch to Her Majesty's Ambassadors at Washington, Tehran and Kabul, and the High Commissioner in New Delhi.



                                                                                                                                                                        I have the honour to be,
                                                                                                                                                                        Your obedient Servant


                                                                                                                                                                                C.S. Pickard




Source: The British Papers, Secret and Confidential India.Pakistan.Bangladesh Documents 1958-1969, Oxford University Press,

             Page no- 838 - 843.