In the late 1990s, there were quite a few attempts I made to meet up with Sahibzada Yaqub Khan when he was in London. My friend Samina Pervez at the Pakistan High Commission (I was serving in the Bangladesh High Commission) made it a point to keep me informed of the retired general’s visits to London, for the particular reason that I had let her know that I wished to speak to Yaqub Khan on 1971, indeed on his career. The meeting never took place, for by the time I was free to catch up with him, he had gone back to Pakistan. Later, on a visit to Islamabad to be part of a media conference, I tried one more time to meet him. I was told senility had begun to make inroads in him. That was as good as saying he would be unable to say anything.
Now that Lieutenant General Sahibzada Yaqub Khan is dead at the ripe old age of ninety five, it is the memory of my first and only meeting with him which is rekindled in me. It was December 1985 and the first SAARC summit had just concluded in Dhaka. I was one among a team of four journalists from the New Nation and Ittefaq entrusted with the job of interviewing President Ziaul Haq. As we sat down in the lounge of the Pakistani high commissioner’s residence for the interview, I realized that to my right sat the much admired, insofar as Bengalis were concerned, Yaqub Khan. His refusal to take military action against the people of Bangladesh and his subsequent departure from Dhaka had earned him a special place in our hearts. He had protested where Tikka Khan had killed. His refusal to follow orders led to his being demoted in rank from lieutenant general to major general by General Yahya Khan. The Sahibzada was never to serve in the army again. His lost rank would be restored to him by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In Dhaka with General Ziaul Haq, Yaqub Khan was at the time Pakistan’s foreign minister, having earlier served post-1971 Pakistan as its ambassador in such influential capitals as Moscow, Paris and Washington. On the day in question, in Dhaka, as I prepared to fire off my questions at Zia, Yaqub Khan suddenly asked me, in clear Bengali, ‘1971-e tumi kothae chhile, khoka (where were you in 1971, boy)?’ The question surprised me, in that happy sense of the meaning. There was something of the avuncular about it. Moreover, the fact that he was speaking to me in Bengali was reason for greater pleasure. I answered him. He then asked me, this time in English, if he could see the sheet I had in my hand, for on it were the questions prepared for Pakistan’s president. I gave it to him. He nodded, gave me a smile, looked at it breezily and handed it back as the interview got under way. I noticed the intense way he glanced at me every time I went to a new question. At the end of the interview, General Zia asked his high commissioner to arrange a visit for me to Pakistan. When I told him that I had gone to school in Quetta, both Zia and Yaqub grinned happily. Both told me it was all the more reason why I should go back to Pakistan on a visit.
When we left the Pakistan envoy’s residence, it was essentially Sahibzada Yaqub Khan who stayed in my thoughts. Of course his gallant act of refusing to go along with Yahya Khan’s plans in 1971 was one reason. Another was the poetry he fell back on during his very first visit to Bangladesh — and that was earlier in 1985 — after Pakistan had broken up. He had been zonal martial law administrator in 1971. As the crisis caused by a postponement of the national assembly session by President Yahya Khan led swiftly to province-wide protests, to be quickly followed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s declaration of a non-cooperation movement, Vice Admiral S.M. Ahsan, the governor, resigned and returned to Rawalpindi. Days later, it was for General Yaqub Khan to follow suit. Fourteen years later, at Dhaka airport, he was asked by Bengali journalists how it felt to be back in a land where he had once wielded authority. His response was as profound as it was coruscating. ‘Kaise kaise rang badalte hain asmaan ke’, he intoned. How the skies change colour! Nothing else needed to be said.
Sahibzada Yaqub Khan’s life was rich in its many dimensions. Unlike a vast majority of Pakistan’s generals, intellectual accomplishment defined his attitude to life. He was well-versed in a number of languages. He read voraciously, a habit which he had acquired in youth through poring over the volumes in the library of his grandfather. Strangely, though, unlike so many others of his military contemporaries, he did not leave behind any writing, any book of his own. He was content to read. It was this interaction with the world of knowledge which perhaps influenced his decision to quit his position in Dhaka rather than burn his fingers in the coming conflagration. Again, his reading of history came in handy in the negotiations that would eventually compel Mikhail Gorbachev to withdraw all Soviet troops from Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s ambassador abroad, Yaqub Khan was the very epitome of urbanity. And as foreign minister, under both Zia and Benazir Bhutto and later in a caretaker administration, he demonstrated a flair for foreign policy not generally observed in military men. He served his country well, but at the same time he was unwilling to defend the wrongs it committed. Nothing of the stigma which came to be attached to such other generals as Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan, AAK Niazi and Rao Farman Ali was to touch him. He knew in March 1971 that the soldiers would destroy Pakistan. He was soon vindicated in his belief.
Ironically, that Pakistan would come into being as a state was far from Yaqub Khan’s mind when he went to Washington on a training programme, in 1946, as a young officer in the British Indian army. At a reception, he came across the well-known astrologer Jean Dixon, who prophesied that his country, meaning India, would be divided and he would go over to the new country born out of the division. Yaqub Khan, it is said, was amused and laughed the prophecy away. He could not imagine India being sundered. Yet, only a year later, he would opt for Pakistan and join its fledgling army. His parents and siblings stayed back in India; he was the only member of the family to leave for Pakistan. His elder brother, who too was in the military, was to retire as a colonel in the Indian army. In the wars of 1948 and 1965, the two brothers were ranged against each other, figuratively speaking, in the defence of their countries.
The death of Sahibzada Yaqub Khan is effectively the falling of the curtain on a generation of gentlemen officers, across the globe, whose refinement of taste was consistently borne out by their etiquette, by their fascination with pursuits of the scholarly kind. In another day and age, Yaqub Khan might well have been a classic instance of the scholar-soldier. It is just too bad that there were hardly any others of his kind — in his country and in an army that has so much been a byword for disruption and disaster.
Sahibzada Yaqub Khan — general, martial law administrator, ambassador and foreign minister in Pakistan — passed away on 26 January 2016.