Remembering Ayub Khan

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Part II
By Akbar Ahmed
 IN Pakistan, as Ayub Khan’s decade drew to a close things were not going well. East Pakistanis, labor unions and student leaders were in a state of agitation against him demanding rights. Ayub’s family was the focus of corruption stories and he appeared isolated and surrounded by sycophants. People were openly talking of change. Pakistanis who once praised him as another Sultan Saladin, greater than even the Quaid-i-Azam, were now deserting the sinking ship. There was a sense of impending change in the air.

Friends of Pakistan were alarmed. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia signed a blank check and told a delegation of Pakistanis who were complaining of Ayub’s family stealing millions: Take this check and fill in the sum you think they stole, but don’t let Ayub Khan go-Pakistan will not survive. He was right; within two years of Ayub’s departure Pakistan was broken in two in a humiliating war which traumatized the nation.

I had just taken charge as Assistant Commissioner, Okara, on my first posting, when the Deputy Commissioner, Sahiwal, told me of an exciting project to rename the district from the colonial Montgomery to Sahiwal, a more ethnic and local name. It was to be a historic event. The Deputy Commissioner asked me to contact the President and request him to preside over the event. I flew to Karachi to stay in the President’s house where I went to see him in the evening. He was sitting by himself in a cane chair in the verandah looking out at the garden. He looked old and careworn. It was a picture of loneliness. He had had a heart attack and it had taken its toll. I could not believe that this was the same man who just four short years ago was the very picture of health. Uneasy indeed   lies the head that wears the crown.

Ayub Khan looked disoriented. It was not a good moment to ask him about the visit to my district. He exploded in exasperation complaining that he had to do everything in Pakistan from planning dams to opening schools and roads. Why aren’t other people doing their jobs? Was he the only man working in Pakistan? I took that as a sign that he would not be able to take part in the renaming of the district.

By now the country was up in arms and Ayub Khan and his family were being accused of corruption and nepotism. When I asked him later why he didn’t respond he said he no longer wished to stay in power after a protesting student had been shot. He preferred not to put up a fight at the cost of Pakistan’s children. When a student shot at him at a public event in Peshawar and the family later came asking for forgiveness, Ayub Khan gave a written statement to them forgiving the student his misguided action. It had been a narrow escape for Tahir too, who, seeing the man with the revolver rise from the crowd, threw himself onto his father to shield him.

Ayub Khan resigned and left for Swat to stay with his daughter and son-in-law and to recover his health. I was visiting Swat at the same time and also stayed with them. We often had meals together with just the three or four of us. They were all handling the deposed president with kid gloves.

The defenestration of leaders is a central theme of some of Shakespeare’s most powerful and   popular plays and I was curious to see from close up how Ayub Khan was handling his fall from grace. In the discussion at dinner he would be puzzled at the intensity and vulgarity shown by his opponents and the fact that their rodomontade tirades would be garnished with words like “bastard”. To his credit, even in that small intimate company, I never heard Ayub Khan use abusive language against his opponents in retaliation. He kept wondering what he could have done to ease the political pressures that had ousted him and what he had done wrong. Even in that state of downfall Ayub Khan maintained his dignity.

He asked me point blank one evening, “They say my administration was corrupt, did you find it so?” I replied that I was seeing a growing trend towards corruption and negligence of duty over the years, and unless this was checked, matters would get to a point when they would become irreversible.

In Okara I had noticed almost immediately on arrival that some people attempted to break the law and claimed protection due to putative links with Ayub Khan and his family. The passenger buses that hurtled through Okara competing for passengers are an example. They would often kill people in the bazaar with impunity. When I attempted to check them, the drivers arrogantly informed me that the bus belonged to “very important people,” and I would regret it if I took action. The police were intimidated and avoided confrontation with the drivers. This did not discourage me, however. By being strict and neutral, I was able to control the rash driving, at least in my jurisdiction. In spite of the heavy fines that I imposed, no high-ups ever reprimanded me. The number of accidents dropped dramatically.

At the height of the East Pakistan crisis in the summer of 1971, I again met with Ayub Khan. Though watching the crisis from Islamabad, as a Field Marshal of the Pakistan Army, he had spotted what for me, a junior Assistant Commissioner in the field in East Pakistan that year, was glaringly obvious: no nation could fight on two fronts and hope to win. After the military action against the Bengalis, he saw little hope. I asked him why the other senior officers were failing to see what was so obvious. He admitted he was out of touch and didn’t really know the high command any more.

As I was staying with Tahir, I had taken the opportunity to call on his father and update him on the unfolding crisis. President Khan was not well, but had still come to the living room, wearing a dressing gown and carrying a book, as he always did, to see me. His Sandhurst training lingered, and as I was leaving Maaji gently said he wanted me to have my long hair cut. I headed straight for a barbershop.

In contrast to Ayub Khan, West Pakistanis still did not appreciate the scale of the crisis. “One armored regiment will go through all of East Pakistan like a knife through butter,” said one frothing at the mouth. “They are all cowards,” was widely said and believed. There were even celebrations cheering on the military action, and people were gleeful that the Bengalis were “being taught a lesson.” The crudest abuse was heaped on the Bengalis. They were called bingos, the equivalent of the “n-word” for African Americans. For simply arguing for justice and human rights, my wife and I were sarcastically referred to as “bingo lovers”.

During our conversations I would gently remind Ayub Khan that not all Pakistanis had abandoned him. I told him that when he actually announced his resignation many of the student ringleaders in Okara who had led the processions against him came to the Assistant Commissioner’s house, some with tears in their eyes. “Our object was not to remove baba, but to shake up the government and stop the corruption.” I did notice a curious fact-the students who could barely afford a bicycle were now riding brand new scooters and carrying wads of shiny new notes. Suddenly there was a lot of money in circulation it seemed.

What had hurt Ayub Khan the most were the reports that he was receiving from the districts of student processions holding up a dog sitting on a chair wearing an Ayub-style karakuli hat. The accompanying slogans of the mobs were even more hurtful, “Ayub kuta hai, hai” (“down with Ayub the dog”). Whenever I mentioned people still cared for him he reminded me of this particular image. “I have seen how much they care for me,” he would say softly.

This parading about with the dog wearing the karakuli hat had also upset me in Okara when the boys took out processions against Ayub Khan. I fully supported the democratic impulses of the boys, but this was my first posting and I was barely a year or two older than the students.  I saw it not only as disrespectful to the person who was the father of my good friend but also as a slight to the symbols of the state.

After his retirement Pakistanis treated their Field Marshal with a graceless meanness: The staff and medical facilities he was entitled to were denied and he was kept under surveillance. Ayub Khan’s example showed me that Pakistanis grovel and fawn when a leader is at the top but have their knives ready to plunge into him if he stumbles and falls.

In the end, for me the lasting image of the Field Marshal will always be that of a man who had endured every calumny fate could hurl at him and survived to stand proud and tall, his wife by his side, his dignity intact, waving me goodbye.

 (The first part of the article was published last week. The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)