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.