It is once again October. And once again, for my generation, it is a moment when we journey back into the foggy lanes of memory. We recall October 1958, when General Mohammad Ayub Khan, in cahoots with the then Pakistan President Iskandar Mirza, placed the state of Pakistan under martial law on day seven of the month.

On day 27, Mirza had been banished and Ayub, the commander-in-chief of the army, took full charge as president and chief martial law administrator.

We were children, indeed no bigger than babies when all of that happened. But as the years went by and we began going to school and getting promoted to new classes every year, the idea was drilled into us that Ayub Khan was a great man in history, that he was Pakistan’s saviour, that had he not stepped in, the politicians would have destroyed the country.

Every time he travelled to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, all the students of our school and those of the girls’ school on the other side of the road were made to stand, tiny Pakistani flags in hand, to greet the president, for that would be the route he would be taking from the airport to wherever he would be staying. Now that we recall those days, it strikes us as rather queer that in his own country he was being treated as a visiting foreign head of state.

Forgotten strongman

So how do we remember Ayub Khan today, at this distance in time? He died in April 1974, and was not greatly mourned in Pakistan. By that time, the province of East Pakistan had already become Bangladesh and there was little cause for Bengalis to remember him, save only to go into a recapitulation of everything he did, every blunder he committed in his decade-long grip on Pakistan.

And, yes, at a point early on in his days in power, he promoted himself from general to field marshal. That was pretty intriguing, for perhaps he imagined he was on a par with Rommel and Montgomery. But while the German and the Englishman earned their stars through battlefield engagement, Ayub Khan appropriated them through commandeering Pakistan.

In the decade in which he loomed over Pakistan, Ayub Khan remained in mortal dread of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Indeed, one of the first acts after the proclamation of martial law in 1958 was for the military authorities to place the future founder of Bangladesh in detention. It would be a process that the Ayub regime would continue for 10 years.

Through the Agartala Conspiracy Case, Ayub really believed he could put Mujib away, either through execution or life in prison. That did not happen, of course. A remarkable moment in historical irony has remained captured in the image of a tired, humbled Ayub Khan welcoming a smiling, confident Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the round table conference in Rawalpindi in February 1969.

Ayub Khan surrounded himself with people who in the end turned against him, leaving him in a state of shock. In 1963, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the time foreign minister as well as secretary-general of Ayub’s Convention Muslim League, publicly advanced the notion that the general be made Pakistan’s president-for-life.

Three years later, Bhutto was out of Ayub’s government, launching a campaign to oust his benefactor from power. When Ayub died, Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister but did not attend his funeral. A few days later, he and his wife turned up at Ayub’s home, explaining to the family of the dead dictator that he could not be at the last rites owing to security considerations about himself.

Days in power

In his early days in power, Ayub Khan brought into the public domain a peculiar law he called the Elective Bodies Disqualification Ordinance. He thus had politicians emasculated so that they would not challenge his illegitimacy. He did not believe Pakistan’s people were qualified to practise democracy, and so brought into the political arena the Basic Democracy system, with just 80,000 Basic Democrats qualified to elect the country’s president and members of the national and provincial assemblies.

He had a new constitution, in place of the abrogated 1956 one, formulated in 1962. And yet he violated it when, in March 1969, he handed over power not to Abdul Jabbar Khan, the speaker of the national assembly, but to General Yahya Khan, the army chief.

Ayub Khan’s sentiments about Bengalis was rather complex. He told Altaf Gauhar, the bureaucrat he was closest to, that he was building the second capital (today Sher-e-Bangla Nagar) in Dhaka because sooner or later the Bengalis would move out of Pakistan and would need the place for themselves. And yet he lost little time in threatening the proponents of the Six Points with the language of weapons.

In 1961, he listened to a few young Bengali economists explain to him their concept of two economies for the two wings of Pakistan. And then, nothing came of the meeting.

Swayed by Bhutto, a man not trusted by Harold Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Alexei Kosygin, Ayub Khan acquiesced in launching Operation Gibraltar against India in 1965. The war was a stalemate. Ayub was forced to eat humble pie when he travelled to Tashkent for peace talks with Indian PM Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966.

Ayub’s ghost-written memoir, Friends Not Masters, was a celebration of himself and a denigration of politicians. He had his sycophants prescribe the book as part of the academic curriculum in the country.

Before seizing power, Ayub Khan served in the governments of Mohammad Ali Bogra and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy as defence minister-cum-army chief. In power, he had Bogra join his cabinet as minister for external affairs and he had Suhrawardy jailed.

Moulvi Tamizuddn Khan, the speaker of the constituent assembly who had defied Governor General Ghulam Mohammad in 1953, became speaker of the national assembly under the 1962 constitution.

Ayub Khan loved being referred to as the De Gaulle of Asia. He was in his element when he addressed a joint session of the American Congress in 1961. All those medals he wore – Nishan-i-Pakistan, Hilal-i-Jurrat – were a joy for him. And yet, when all is said and done, he bequeathed a bad legacy to his country.

Three generals after him emulated him in seizing power and making a mess of politics in Pakistan and two generals in Bangladesh, formerly in the Pakistan army, lorded it over the Bengali republic for a good number of years. The tombstone on Ayub’s grave in his village was vandalised a few years ago.

Thus the chronicle of a lapsed, forgotten strongman named Mohammad Ayub Khan.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.