Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, seized power in a coup on 27 October 1958, held on to it till 25 March 1969 and died in April 1974. All these decades later, it is as good a time as any to look back at the legacy of the man and indeed the psychology which defined his dominance of Pakistan.
Ayub Khan’s diares, covering the period 1966-1972, edited and annotated by Craig Baxter, were published by the University Press Limited some years ago. When one speaks or hears of these diaries, incredulity is what one is struck by. There is a reason for that. When towards the end of his decade-long presidency of Pakistan in the 1960s he came forth with his memoirs, bearing the brave title of Friends Not Masters, a goodly number of questions were raised about the ghost writers who probably had worked on them. And indeed there were the ghost writers, all of whom in later years were spotted explaining away their roles in the making of the memoirs which, incidentally, amounted to little that was enlightening or revealing.
The diaries raise a wholly different set of questions altogether. Why do they cover the period from 1966 to 1972 and not that which came earlier, when Ayub was at the apex of his powers? Again, why did his family, son Gohar Ayub in particular, wait thirty three years after the old dictator’s death to let the world in on the news that he had actually left his diaries behind? Perhaps the most audacious question of all relates to how much of the diaries comes in Ayub’s language and how much of it extrapolation and embellishment by others. The American academic Craig Baxter has of course edited and annotated the diaries. But that is not the point. The more relevant issue is the authenticity of the diaries. F.S. Aijazuddin in Pakistan has mischievously pointed to the fakes that were Hitler’s diaries in the 1980s. Like him, there are quite a few others willing to ask if some considerable portions of Ayub Khan’s diaries were composed after his death. Take your pick. After Friends Not Masters, it has never been easy to trust Pakistan’s first military ruler.
In the diaries there is little mistaking that the thoughts are quintessentially Ayub-like. He respects no one and is forever ready to pronounce judgement on the reputation of all the good men who simply could not have taken a liking to him. Of course he admires the likes of Justice Munir, a man who remains notorious for his ingratiating loyalty to the general who for no rhyme or reason at one point began to call himself a field marshal. In life, Ayub admired few men. In death, his comments take on a vicious hue. Not even Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Bengali speaker of the national assembly, escapes his sarcasm.
While commenting on Jabbar Khan’s worry about the Agartala conspiracy case in a 9 January 1968 entry, Ayub has this caustic comment: ‘(Jabbar Khan’s) misfortune is that he has several sons who keep on going in and out of jail for their misdeeds. This must be a source of great worry to him’. In another entry on the same day, Ayub reveals his suspicious streak, this time about his own loyalist Abdus Sobur Khan, a Bengali who served as his minister for communications: ‘I sent for Abdus Sobur Khan and questioned him on the part he is alleged to have played in the (Agartala) conspiracy. He denied all knowledge and tried to show that the people in East Pakistan are greatly shocked by the incident’.
There are the regular intervals in which the then military ruler denigrates his former foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at nearly every opportunity. Bhutto, he notes in a 2 December 1967 entry, had ‘held a two-day convention in Lahore to launch his so-called People’s Party’. The man’s inability to read the writing on the wall is mind-boggling. Even when the writing gets to be bold and the wall draws closer to him, he pretends not to see it. But of all the men and matters that leave his nerves on edge, it is Bengalis and a rising Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that exercise his mind. This is how he speaks of Mujib on 26 April 1967: ‘One revealing thing that came to light was that mujibur rahman had been telling his followers that once they raise the flag of rebellion in East Pakistan, the Americans will rush to their assistance’. A few lines later, this is the acidic comment, ‘It is quite obvious that this man is a menace and will continue to mislead the Bengalis as long as he lives’. You tend to get the feeling that the dictator was already cooking up the conspiracy case that was to come in December of the year.
It was a case that would eventually lay him low and catapult Mujib to the status of a Bengali national icon. By 22 February 1969, the day the Agartala case is withdrawn by the regime and Mujib walks out a free man, Ayub Khan is defeated. Amazingly, however, there is no entry in the diary on that day. On 23 February, though, Ayub notes, ‘A serious political situation is emerging. Bhutto in West Pakistan and Mujib in East Pakistan are gaining ascendancy. Something has to be done to prevent such a dangerous combination’. The entry must have been made only hours after Mujib had addressed a mammoth rally in Dhaka, where he had just been honoured as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. Three days later, on 26 February, there is a perceptible change in Ayub’s tone toward Mujib: ‘Incidentally, Mujib came to see me last night. Our talk was cordial. He seemed conciliatory though making no bones that he was the uncrowned king of East Pakistan and he must be recognized as such’. In his twilight, the military ruler makes no mention of the offer he made to the Bengali leader, that of Mujib’s taking charge as prime minister, a gesture the Bengali leader spurned.
The diaries are replete with fulminations against what Ayub sees as Bengali leanings toward India in general and Hinduism in particular. In May 1967, he is blunt: ‘. . . East Pakistan will go under Hinduism and be separated forever’. Ayub Khan’s contempt for Bengalis is a constant refrain throughout the diaries. As early as 11 April 1967, after a meeting with Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, his new foreign minister, he writes: ‘(Pirzada) said that East Pakistanis are incapable of seeing beyond their nose. In their hatred for West Pakistan, and especially the Punjabis, they were capable of doing anything stupid. They got an empire as a result of the partition of Bengal in 1905 with Assam included. They lost it through sheer stupidity’.
The President must have enjoyed these crass remarks, for he seems to making his own at a meeting with Altaf Gauhar on 23 July 1967: ‘(Gauhar) asked me how long will they remain with Pakistan? I said till India was ready to swallow them’. A little while later, this is how he insults Bengalis, ‘. . . the Bengalis have no stomach for self-criticism nor for listening to the truth about themselves’. His myopia reaches a new extreme a month later. In a 23 August entry (during a visit to Dhaka where he meets what he calls a cross section of intellectuals), he notes, ‘I told them that through emotional upsurge the East Pakistani had cut himself off from Urdu, the vehicle in which Muslim thought and philosophy is expressed. In consequence, he was now totally at sea, drifting. This will prove very dangerous for their future.’
Ayub Khan papers over the truth behind his departure from power in March 1969, trying to make it appear that he has opted to quit voluntarily. But his bitterness is scattered all over the place.