The Coup of 19 December 1971 -How General Yahya was Removed From Power

Editor’s Note: History has many faces. It may be written from different perspectives.The account by Brig. F.B Ali is one.

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By: Brig. F.B Ali

19 December 1971 was a remarkable day in Pakistan’s short and unfortunate history. It was the day on which the Pakistan Army removed the country’s military ruler and forced him to hand over power to an elected leader, the first and only time that such a thing has happened. It may be worthwhile revisiting this event after all these years for the benefit of the many who do not know what happened. To understand it, however, it is necessary to recall the context within which it occurred.

On 16 December Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi surrendered the army in East Pakistan to Indian forces, and half the country was lost. That night President Yahya Khan broadcast a speech in which, in a voice slurred with drink, he announced that though a battle had been lost the war would go on.

Next day he accepted the unilateral Indian offer of a cease-fire in West Pakistan. Yahya Khan’s shameful acceptance of defeat on behalf of an army that he and his generals had prevented from fighting during the 14-day war burst like a thunderclap over soldiers and civilians alike. While feelings of anger and betrayal were common among both, the soldiers felt in addition a deep shame that their cowardly and incompetent generals had caused them to let the country down so badly.

The true significance of the events of 19 December 1971 is that it was the Pakistan Army that rid the country (and itself) of this foul regime that had ruled in its name.

The overt action was taken by a small group of officers, but it depended for its success on the tacit support of the rest of the army. If even a small element of the military had acted to preserve the regime, our move could well have failed since we were determined that there would be no clash within the army. But no one lifted a finger to support the Yahya gang, in spite of the desperate efforts they made to seek help.

During the 1971 war I commanded an armoured division artillery in the Gujranwala-Sialkot-Shakargarh sector. On 17 December, after Yahya Khan announced the acceptance of the cease-fire, I was quite certain, as were most other people, that he and his government would accept responsibility for the debacle and announce that they were quitting. 

That evening I handed in my resignation from the Army, acknowledging my responsibility (shared by all other senior officers) for having silently acquiesced in the takeover and maintenance of power by these corrupt, self-seeking generals who had brought the country to this sorry state.

Next day, the 18th, I was stunned to learn that Yahya Khan had no intention of leaving; instead, he announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution. Meanwhile, angry public demonstrations demanding that the regime should quit had erupted all over the country. There was a real danger that Yahya Khan might use troops to quell the public outcry, which would have imposed an unbearable strain on the discipline of the Army, itself angry and upset over what had happened. I became convinced that the regime had to be clearly told that it no longer had the support of the Army and must go.

I tried to persuade my division commander, Maj. Gen. MI Karim, to send such a message to the government through GHQ, but, although he appeared to share my views, he hesitated to take such a step. Finally, on 19 December, I could wait no longer, and took over effective command of the division from Gen. Karim. (He tacitly accepted this, and gave me valuable help during the subsequent events).

In this action I also had the support of some other senior officers who felt as I did. Our position was that the regime should quit and hand over to the elected representatives of the people, and that all those incompetent and corrupt commanders who had led us into defeat should be sacked. In practical terms this meant handing over power to ZA Bhutto and his People’s Party, who had won the 1970 election in West Pakistan. Even though I was by no means a fan of Mr. Bhutto’s, I believed that their elected status gave them the right to govern, and obtain the allegiance of the armed forces.

We decided that Cols. Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal would fly to Rawalpindi with a message from us for Yahya Khan : he should announce by 8 p.m. that evening his readiness to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. In addition, all those generals who had led the army into this disaster should also quit. In case such an announcement was not made by 8 p.m. then we could not guarantee control of the situation, and any resulting consequences. 

The two officers met with Gen. Gul Hassan, Chief of the General Staff, that afternoon and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went to Gen. Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the President at 7 p.m. 
Gen. Hamid then went into a flurry of activity. He called several army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation in our area, but they all expressed inability to do anything. Maj. Gen. AO Mitha, another stalwart of the regime, tried to get some SSG commando troops for action against our divisional HQ, but was unable to obtain any. The failure of these efforts, and the obvious absence of any support in the Army, left the Yahya clique with no option. Shortly before 8 p.m. the broadcast was made that Yahya Khan had decided to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people

After this announcement Gen. Gul Hassan and his friend, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, the Air Force chief, in consultation with GM Khar, a PPP leader, arranged for ZA Bhutto’s return from Rome, where he was sitting out the crisis, apparently because he was not sure about his personal safety if he came back. When Bhutto arrived on the 20th Gul Hassan and Rahim told him that the military was behind them, and it was they who had removed the Yahya regime.

That night Mr. Bhutto made a broadcast to the nation in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan’s inner clique, saying that he was doing this “in accord with the sentiments of the Armed Forces and the younger officers“. He also made Lt. Gen. Gul Hassan the Army chief, and confirmed Rahim Khan as the Air Force chief, though they did not last long when they proved insufficiently pliable.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had a glorious opportunity when he became President. The people of Pakistan were shaken down to the roots of their national psyche. The country had splintered, but much worse was that the very basis of their nationhood, their justification for being a people, long chipped away, had finally been shattered. Their lives, devoted mainly to selfish, individual pursuits, suddenly stood starkly revealed in all their pettiness and worthlessness. Shorn of their illusions and their excuses, in their helplessness they looked longingly for a leader to guide them back to the right path; they were prepared to give up the weaknesses and follies of the past, to make a new beginning as a cohesive, caring people ready to work together again to achieve the vision that had created their homeland 25 years ago. All they wanted was a leader who felt the same pain and yearned for the same goal.

Bhutto could have rallied the people of Pakistan to Herculean effort, led them to reverse the decline of the past years, and recreated the nation that had, against all odds, established Pakistan in 1947. But at this great crossroads in history, the man of the hour was found pitifully wanting. His lack of vision, meanness of spirit, and pettiness of mind, all led him to see this historic moment as just an opportunity to grab personal power. Even the use of this power was affected by his limitations : for example, one of his first acts as President was the arrest and public humiliation of persons against whom he harbored personal grudges; and the childish reveling in the trappings of office, typically exemplified by the monkey uniforms in which he clothed himself and his ministers.

That the effort by this small group of officers to end an inglorious chapter in Pakistan’s history, and provide to the nation another opportunity under the leader it had chosen, ultimately failed to produce the desired results does not in any way diminish the great credit due to them. 

They risked everything (their careers, their liberty, their families, even their lives) to answer the call of this critical moment in their nation’s destiny. Even though their action succeeded, they still lost the promising careers they had in the profession they loved; Bhutto made sure of that. If ever a true history of Pakistan is written, then high up on the roll of honor of its true patriots should be inscribed the names of Lt. Col. Muhammad Khurshid, Col. Aleem Afridi, Col. Javed Iqbal and Brig. Iqbal Mehdi Shah.

Later on, other young, patriotic military officers tried again to stop the downward slide on which Pakistan was launched. They failed, and paid a heavier price. The cycle of feckless generals and politicians continues; the country founders from one crisis to another. Yet, the action of 19 December 1971 should neither be forgotten nor diminished. It was an affirmation that Pakistan was worth fighting for, worth risking one’s life for. We still need that affirmation today.

4 thoughts on “The Coup of 19 December 1971 -How General Yahya was Removed From Power

  1. Javaid Bashir

    Brig. F.B Ali’s article is full of inaccuracies and twisting of facts. He wants to take credit for removing General Yahya and his cohorts and co conspirators after the East Pakistan debacle. Te group of officers who were responsible to make Yahyah Khan was nowhere on the scene at that time. If I am not wrong they may have been instrumental to bring the pressure on the regime.

    I am sure after the worst defeat at the hands of the enemy and losing half of Pakistan , they needed a scape goat, and they found one in ZAB’s form. At that moment he took over the helm of affairs. Where no one else could have done so. Np genera;l wanted to stick his neck out. Let alone any divisional army low rank officer could handle the situation, which was getting worse due to the angry mobs of people on the streets. I have personal knowledge of these occurrences, because I was leading one of the rallies taken out by the students of Government College , Lahore . I was studying in B.SC.

    I have seen the history in the making, and saw the great upheaval taking place in front of our eyes. The whole nation was demoralized and the morale of the armed forces was at the lowest ebb. In this tragic and gloomy atmosphere, changes happened as no one was ready to take the blame. Some clashes also took place between the progressive and leftist people and the conservative -religious rightist section of the country.

    ZAB became the first elected Chief Martial Law Administrator and the president of the left over Pakistan. I chose for himself the task, to bring back the stability and restore peace to the nation. He embarked on the Journey for the economic revival, progressive and prosperous country . He had lofty ideas to make a real difference in the life of the nation. I can write a lengthy thesis to enumerate his history- making introduction of reforms in all the sectors. He nationalized the heavy industries . He was instrumental to empower the women and down trodden people of Pakistan. He got back 93,000 prisoners of war from a victorious nation and our arch rival India. It was a miracle of his diplomacy. He signed Simla Accord favorable to Pakistan.

    Brig. Sahib has a mean streak in him. He has tried to paint the greater leader in negative image, but he miserably fail to do so. The historical facts belie his allegations and claims for the grandeur for personal glory.

    1. Mukhtar A. Malik

      It is very doubtful a couple of colones and a brigadier far removed from the capital to give an ultimatum to the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Pressure on the regime was many-fold not least the international. No evidence of is given of the following statement:
      Yahya Khan’s shameful acceptance of defeat on behalf of an army that he and his generals had prevented from fighting during the 14-day war burst like a thunderclap over soldiers and civilians alike.
      How did they prevent fighting the war? Plight of the forces in East Pakistan is known but there is no success story on the Western front. Air strikes were launched and ground battles raged. 5000 square miles of territory was lost to the enemy. US put pressure on India to hands off West Pakistan.

      Now to President and CMLA Bhutto who was eager to wrest power in the West and had already announced that before the crisis, not wrong to suggest part of the crisis. His snobish, autocratic and authoritarian demeanour is well known (Hounding the opponents and reining the colleagues). Yes he secured the lost territory, release of prisoners was not on priority, that would come automatically, but accepted Line of Control to be turned into border later on, quoted by Indian sources at Simla to have said “trust me” on that. Nationalisation of not only heavy industries but banks, insurance companies and educational institutions, partly following India, proved disastrous. Unleashing a culture of rights without the corresponding responsibilities.

  2. AJ

    Javaid Bashir, I will like to share same comment “inconsistent and twisted” for your pro bhutto feedback. Bhutto was a party equally responsible for breakup of Pakistan and later economical collapse of the left over country in the name of stupid nationalization..

    1. Javaid Bashir

      Your scathing comment shows that I am right about Mr, Bhutto. You have no clue about the events and concepts at all. You have twisted the facts . General Yahya and his associates were responsible for the debacle of East Pakistan. The military government’s policies brought the Bengali leadership to fight against our own army in the Eastern theater. The right wing fundamentalist joined hand with the army to kill its own people.

      Indian Army played a pivotal role in the Separation of East Pakistan. There are many other factors that resulted in the worst ever defeat a Muslim Army in the Islamic history

      There was nothing wrong with the nationalization. The experiment failed due to the mismanagement of the bureaucrats who ran those nationalized units. Read the details of Nationalization. Most of the developed countries have nationalized those heavy Industries. Previous to nationalization these units were not running in profits. The industrialist were getting tax holiday on these units. They were pocketing the surplus profit. And 22 families held the entire wealth of the country.


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