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Muhammad Ayub Khan Era: A Detailed Look at the Second President of Pakistan

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Fahad Ahmed Khan

Muhammad Ayub Khan, widely known as Ayub Khan, was a prominent Pakistani army officer who held the position of the second president of Pakistan from 1958 to 1969. Prior to his presidency, he served as the third Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army from 1951 to 1958. Khan’s early life saw him born in the North-West Frontier Province, and he received his education from the Aligarh Muslim University and was trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He actively participated in the Second World War on the British side against the Imperial Japanese Army and later joined the Pakistan Army after the partition of India in 1947.

During his military and political career, Khan held various significant positions, including Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, and Chief Martial Law Administrator. His presidency was marked by controversial decisions, including the appointment of Gen. Muhammad Musa as the commander-in-chief, alignment with the United States, and launching Operation Gibraltar against India in 1965, which led to an all-out war. Despite the challenges, Khan’s tenure oversaw significant economic reforms, privatization of state-owned industries, and the establishment of Pakistan’s space program.

However, Khan’s presidency was not without criticism. His policies led to concentration of wealth in the hands of a corrupt few, and his geographically discriminatory policies ultimately contributed to the Bangladesh Liberation War. His resignation in 1969 followed widespread disapproval, and he was succeeded by Yahya Khan. After a brief illness, Khan passed away in 1974.

The legacy of Muhammad Ayub Khan remains mixed. While he is credited with economic prosperity and industrialization during his presidency, he is also criticized for his concentration of wealth and policies that led to significant political unrest. In recent years, there have been calls for legal action against him for violating the constitution and overthrowing a democratically elected government.

Ayub Khan’s early life was rooted in the Hazarewal family of Pashtun descent in the North-West Frontier Province of British India. His education took him to Aligarh Muslim University and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he was recommended by General Sir Andrew Skeen. Fluent in multiple languages, including Urdu, Pashto, English, and his regional Hindko dialect, Khan’s early experiences and education shaped his future military and political career.

The era of Muhammad Ayub Khan’s presidency from 1958 to 1969 was marked by significant events and policy decisions that had a lasting impact on Pakistan. Ayub Khan rose to power through a military coup in 1958, where he declared martial law and assumed the position of Chief Martial Law Administrator. He justified the coup as a necessary step to restore order and bring about democratic reforms. However, his ruling style was more centralized, and he maintained control over the bureaucracy through an intricate web of spy agencies.

One of the major milestones of Ayub Khan’s presidency was the promulgation of the Constitution of Pakistan in 1962. The new constitution, while respecting Islam, did not declare it as the state religion and provided for the election of the president by a select group of Basic Democracy under Ayub’s control. Additionally, Ayub Khan introduced the Muslim Family Law Ordinance in 1961, which aimed to reform marriage and divorce laws, reflecting his vision of modernization and progress.

Economically, Ayub Khan’s era is remembered for successful industrialization and rural development, with a strong emphasis on capitalism and foreign direct investment. The “Decade of Development” under his rule saw the establishment of various mega projects and hydroelectric dams, contributing to significant GDP growth. However, despite the economic progress, his policies led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few influential families, raising concerns about income inequality.

On the foreign policy front, Ayub Khan prioritized relations with the United States and Europe, downplaying relations with the Soviet Union. His alliance with the United States and the subsequent 1965 war with India had far-reaching consequences, leading to a settlement facilitated by the Soviet Union, which was perceived negatively by many Pakistanis and resulted in the resignation of Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The latter part of Ayub Khan’s presidency was marked by widespread disapproval and protests, with opposition parties gaining momentum and public dissatisfaction growing. Eventually, in the face of mounting unrest and opposition, Ayub Khan resigned from office in 1969, inviting General Yahya Khan to take over control of the country.

Overall, the legacy of Muhammad Ayub Khan’s presidency remains mixed. While he is credited with significant economic reforms and modernization efforts, his centralized ruling style, controversial policies, and the repercussions of the 1965 war have continued to shape historical perspectives of his tenure.

In the last years of his life, Ayub Khan chose not to comment on the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. He passed away from a heart attack on April 19, 1974, at his villa near Islamabad.

During his presidency, Ayub Khan aligned Pakistan with the American-led military alliance against the Soviet Union, which contributed to the country’s economic development and established long-term political and strategic relations with the United States. While Pakistan’s industrial sector rapidly expanded due to major economic aid and trade from the United States and European Communities, the resulting cartelization led to increased inequality in the distribution of wealth. His concerns about the dominance of the US over Pakistan’s foreign policy led to the publication of his book “Friends Not Masters” in 1965.

Ayub Khan began writing a diary in September 1966, chronicling events such as his resignation from office, the assumption of power by Yahya Khan, the independence of Bangladesh, and the replacement of Yahya by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The diary was not released to the public for thirty years due to concerns about its potential impact on the reputation of powerful individuals. After Ayub Khan’s death, the diary was entrusted to Oxford University Press (OUP) to edit and publish.

Under Ayub Khan’s administration, the federal capital was relocated from Karachi to the newly planned city of Islamabad, and the Indus Waters Treaty with India was facilitated by the World Bank to resolve disputes over the sharing of river waters. His government also undertook the construction of irrigation canals, high-water dams, and power stations.

Ayub Khan’s policies subsidized fertilizers, modernized agriculture through irrigation development, and stimulated industrial growth with liberal tax benefits, leading to a 45% rise in the GNP during his rule. However, his critics alleged that these policies favoured elite families and major landowners, contributing to mass protests due to increasing inequality.

Criticism against Ayub Khan’s administration grew due to allegations of despotism, nepotism, and corruption, along with the suppression of free speech and thought. The 1965 presidential election was marred by allegations of rigging, and his peace with India was considered by many as an embarrassing compromise.

Ayub Khan faced criticism for mishandling the economic disparity between East and West Pakistan, contributing to the eventual independence of Bangladesh following the Bangladesh Liberation War. Additionally, historian Yasmin Saikia argues that the Islamization often attributed to Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had its roots in Ayub Khan’s policies, including injecting a “jihadi” rhetoric into the Pakistan Army and re-writing Pakistan’s history from a purely Islamic perspective.

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