Pakistan’s prince soldier, diplomat, statesman

Published: January 27, 2016
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The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55. He tweets at @BangashYK

The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55. He tweets at @BangashYK

The Honourable Lieutenant General (retd) Sahibzada Yaqub Khan died on January 25, 2016 in Islamabad. Simply put, he was a great man. Born in Rampur to Sahibzada Sir Abdul Samad Khan Bahadur in December 1920, he lived a life which would make anyone envious. His father was the chief minister of Rampur State and hence he grew up in a highly cultured and refined environment. After initially studying at the Colonel Brown Cambridge School in Dehradun, he joined the Prince of Wales Indian Military Academy, and was commissioned in the 18th King Edward’s Own Cavalry in December 1940. Sahibzada Yaqub participated in the Second World War in the North Africa theatre and was even taken prisoner of war by the Axis powers, being freed after three years.

With the news of the creation of Pakistan, the now Major Yaqub opted for Pakistan and was initially appointed as ADC to the governor-general, the Quaid-e-Azam. Rising in his military career, he was appointed General Officer Commanding Eastern Command and also served as the governor of East Pakistan in early March and April 1971, at one of the most critical moments in the history of Pakistan. Here he showed his mettle and resigned his commission and governorship rather than opening fire on civilians. In his letter written to President Yahya Khan, Sahibzada Yaqub iterated that the only solution to the problem was a political one and so the president should call a session of the newly elected parliament and let it chart the course for the country. This advice was unheeded and the country was torn in two.

After the separation of East Pakistan and the ascendency of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he was sent as ambassador to France, and then the US. After the military takeover of General Ziaul Haq, Sahibzada Yaqub was one of the few people left in place, and he later also served as ambassador to the Soviet Union till 1982. Recognising in him diplomatic acumen, personal charm and integrity, Ziaul Haq appointed Sahibzada Yaqub as his foreign minister from 1982 till 1987. During the difficult time of the Afghan War, Sahibzada Yaqub carefully negotiated Pakistan’s position and maintained good relations with every side. His preeminent diplomatic skill was recognised and appreciated even by people who opposed him. Sahibzada Yaqub also had the honour of serving as the foreign minster in the first democratic transition after Ziaul Haq under Benazir Bhutto, helping her steer the murky grounds of great power politics. During the 1990s, he also served as the UN’s special representative to Western Sahara, and later served as chairman of the board of Aga Khan University.

If one were to cite all the accomplishments of Sahibzada Yaqub, then several pages could easily be filled, and so I shall refrain from adding to the very bare essentials noted above. I met him only a few times, but every time I would simply return in awe of all that he saw and achieved and the humility with which he would present it. When I used to ask him about writing a memoir, he would always retort “what would I write about?” — as if his stellar life was mundane! The last time I saw him — a few months ago — I even took a few students with me and he was ever so kind and helpful to them, patiently listening and answering all their questions. What I simply loved about him was his unending zeal for learning and reflecting. He would always ask me as many questions as I would ask him, and his insight into past events was singular and his grasp of events, personalities and their impact unmatched. Well into his nineties he was still a keen reader and when I presented him my book, he quickly browsed through a couple of pages and asked me a few questions! Sahibzada Yaqub often used to reflect and contemplate on the past when I visited and was worried about the country’s future. He would talk about Jinnah and his vision and lament the current state of the country, always emphasising that we have not learnt as much from the past as we should have.

Sahibzada Yaqub was an accomplished soldier, a great statesman, but above all he was a noble human being. Never before had anyone resigned a high rank on a matter of principle — he told me that other generals had warned and told him: “Yaqub, you will be finished” — but he was undeterred. Never before had someone, in Pakistan at least, worked with such impeccable integrity serving both elected representatives and even a dictator, with honour. And never before had I come across a person with such an illustrious career, being so humble, reflective and eager to learn from everyone. It was Pakistan’s great honour and privilege to have him for so long; Sahibzada Yaqub you will be sorely missed!

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th,  2016.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Parvez
    Jan 27, 2016 - 11:50PM

    Very nicely said.Recommend

  • Aijaz
    Jan 28, 2016 - 12:18AM

    You did not write much about his accomplishments for his counrty other than one resignation on principles. But then he worked for the same people because of whom he resigned. To me it looks like his accomplishments were for himself only. Am I missing something?Recommend

  • Darjat
    Jan 28, 2016 - 11:09AM

    A competent man . prayers for the soul to rest in peace Recommend

  • nasser
    Jan 28, 2016 - 11:16AM

    @Aijaz:
    You missed everything bro and would keep doing so unless have a grasp of language and able to understand what is written. Recommend

  • Jawad U Rahman
    Jan 28, 2016 - 7:47PM

    One of the few shining stars in the abyss of 70s and 80s. Upright, articulate, brilliant, polymath, polyglot, patriot, and much more. Respect!Recommend

  • Rx Minor
    Jan 29, 2016 - 7:02PM

    2nd attempt.
    @Aijaz:
    No Sir, you did not miss anything but touched on the central nerve of the past and todays life of what we call them soldiers of fortune, legionnaires, members of the Kings army who collaborated with the colonaliasts suppressed their own folks and fought for them in foreign lands and were personaly rewarded and knighted for their loyalty to their masters. Call them Princes or Generals or even diplomats if one will, they were also the first in line to benefit from independence too, who else but they alone could show their credentials and qualifications to lead the millions of proletariats which the country had in the baggage. The tragedy is that even after their death the people at large are not the benefactos of a genuine independence but those ready to take their role.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Feb 7, 2016 - 2:27PM

    Some are in love with his Rampur legacy and some want to give him benefit of doubt due to his self proclaimed association with Yousafzai clan. He supported Zia policy during Geneva Accord, imposed on BB after the demise of Zia by Ghulam Ishaq+Aslam Baig nexus, appointed by infamous Laghari after removing BB and supporting Taliban Government in Afghanistan yet in none the pieces you will find any criticism. He even included among the various associates who were around last military dictator General Mushraff. A balance analysis of his personality is still not written so far
    http://punjabpunch.blogspot.com/2016/02/myth-reality-of-sahibzada-yaqubread-it.htmlRecommend

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