Liaquat Ali Khan: An Assessment
Written by English NewsPaper/Dawn/Others   

Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan (1895-1951) was the first Prime Minister of Pakistan (1947-51). And he was chosen for that office by the All-India Muslim League (AIML) which, having won some 88 percent of the Muslim seats and secured about 75 percent of the popular vote cast in the Muslim constituencies during the critical 1945-46 general elections, was the sole spokesman of the hundred million Muslims of India.

This meant that Liaquat was next only to Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah at that historic moment.

Liaquat, when he became Pakistan’s Prime Minister, had behind him a rich family, academic, and political background. Born in in Karnal (East Punjab) on October 1, 1895, he belonged to a family of landed aristocrats which claimed descent from Nawsherawan Adil of Iran. His education included a Bachelor’s degree from Aligarh (1918), a Master’s from Exeter College, Oxford, and a law degree Inner Temple (1922). His involvement with legislative politics began in 1927 when he was elected to the United Provinces (U.P.) Council. To the Council, he was reelected twice (1930, 1933), becoming its Deputy President in 1931. Later, he became the leader of the Democratic Party. Early in 1937, he was elected to the newly constituted U.P. Assembly as an Independent, and in February 1941 to the Central Legislative Assembly. For over two decades till 1947, he was associated with the Aligarh Muslim University.

His involvement with Muslim politics came in 1928 when the U.P. League recommended him for membership of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) Council. He attended the Jinnah League session in Calcutta in December 1928, when he came in contact with Jinnah. In 1932 he alongwith his newly married Begum (Rana) saw Jinnah at Hampstead Heath, England, when he had reportedly requested the latter to return to India from self-exile, to lead the Musalmans who were divided and in disarray. His association with Jinnah would last for the next twenty years. And, with the years, he progressively came close to Jinnah.

Now, what were Liaquat’s credentials that got him nominated as the Executive Head of the near state of Pakistan? Liaquat was the leader of the Muslim League bloc in the Interim Government for some nine months (October 1946-July 1947). He was the Deputy Leader of the Muslim League Assembly Party in the Central Legislature since 1943, and since Jinnah, because of his pressing engagements, seldom attended the Assembly sessions, Liaquat was for all practical purposes the de facto leader. He was also the General Secretary of the AIML, to which post he was elected unanimously at the Bombay (1936) League session, and this at the instance of Jinnah himself; he was also the longest serving General Secretary of the League in all its annals, even out-serving the legendary Sir Wazir Hasan (1912-19) of yester­-years. Liaquat was also a member of the League Central Parliamentary Board. He was, thus, in part responsible for the selection of League candidates for the Central Assembly and for adjudicating disputes between prospective League candidates for the provincial polls during 1945-46.

But how could Liaquat gain the confidence of a disciplinarian and exacting president, such as Jinnah was, in such measure? Because, as Jinnah himself said, while proposing Liaquat’s name for another term as General Secretary in 1943,

“The Nawabzada had worked… day and night, and none could possibly have an idea of the great burden he shouldered. Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan commands the universal respect and confidence of the Musalmans. Though a Nawabzada, he is a thorough proletarian, and I hope other Nawabs in the country will follow his example.”

To work in an organization headed by Jinnah, and that next only to him, was no mean task, nor was it enviable. That Liaquat served under him for eleven long years and still continued to enjoy his confidence says a good deal about his capabilities to implement policies and programmes decided upon by the League’s high command, to look after day-to-day organizational matters. More important, Liaquat was also supremely successful in keeping the factious and feuding provincial leaders within reasonable limits of divergence and infighting. Liaquat was unassuming all the time; he believed in working behind the scene; he never sought the limelight; above all, he was content to work under Jinnah’s towering shadow. Hence his role in the organization and in solving problems that arose from time to time has not generally received the kind of attention and recognition it should normally have.

A study of the Quaid-i-Azam Papers, and the Archives of Freedom Movement, which have become accessible to researchers only recently reveal how Liaquat worked day and night. Like Jinnah, he responded to every letter received, even those from politically non-descript individuals, and in the 1940s he literally received hundreds of letters and telegrams every month. And during the critical 1945-46 elections, his role in adjudicating disputes and resolving differences, in keeping the League’s election machine well-oiled and in top gear, and in galvanizing the nation and the students for a verdict in Pakistan’s favour was only next to Jinnah. It is not usually known that Liaquat had also served as a trouble shooter and shock absorber all through this period, his quiet diplomacy, unassuming demeanour, affability and easy accessibility enabling him to play this role rather superbly. Indeed, several top leaders (e.g., Nawab Ismail Khan of the U.P., Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Punjab, and Fazlul Haq of Bengal) sent messages to Jinnah through Liaquat – messages which they could not address direct to Jinnah for fear of being misunderstood.

Thus, Liaquat helped to narrow down differences within the party’s leadership from time to time. He also tried to keep Jinnah abreast of subterranean differences which, if left unchecked, could have snowballed and led to serious crises; to mollify estranged leaders or Jinnah, as the case may be, and to checkmate the differences from coming into “the open”. And by doing all this, he helped to keep the somewhat “monolithic” edifice of the League leadership intact – a prerequisite so critical for success in the on-going tussle against the Congress and in the struggle for Pakistan.

In terms of his political acumen, three major events stand out. First, at the Meerut Divisional Conference in March 1939, he propounded partition as the most rational solution to India’s constitutional problem. Coming on the heels of the Sind Provincial Muslim League Conference’s resolution of October 1938, this came as a shot in the arm to the proponents of partition, especially since, in a more concrete sense, Liaquat represented Central League’s thinking on the issue, and Jinnah was present on the occasion. Second, in his interview with Sir Stafford Cripps in December 1939, he proposed three options – the provincial option (i.e., each province be given the option to join an Indian federation or not), a loose confederation with a limited centre, and outright partition between Hindus and Muslims. Remarkably though, these three options constituted the basis of the three major British proposals during the 1940s – the Cripps Plan (1942), the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946) and the Mountbatten Plan (1947).

Third, in his talks with Bbulabhai Desai, leader of the Congress Party in the Central Assembly in 1944, he proposed parity between Congress and the League in any future set-up at the Centre, and it became the core point in the Desai – Liaquat formula/ “Pact”. This was the first time that this principle which the League had long demanded in any coalitional set-up, but was denied, had been conceded by the Congress at any level. Once lifted beyond the pale of controversy, this key provision became the basis for the quota of seats for Hindus and Muslims/Congress and the League in the subsequent Wavell (1945) and Interim Government (1946) proposals. Thus, Liaquat’s contribution in getting the principle of parity accepted assumes a milestone status.

Jinnah was reportedly a little “upset” about Liaquat having contracted the “Pact” behind his back since he lay ill at Matheran, but was fully alive to both its significance and its long-term implications. He, therefore, accepted Liaquat’s “explanation” and exonerated him of any “breach of trust”, while Desai, though blessed by Gandhi in his talks with Liaquat at the time, was even denied a Congress ticket in the 1945-46 elections.

During 1937-48, Jinnah bestrode first Muslim India and then Pakistan like a Colossus; but he also knew, as The Time (London) wrote, “that his work would not last unless he taught his people to be independent of his guidance, and more and more he gave over the responsibilities of the government to the band of able men he had collected and trained”. Philip Noel-Baker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (1947-50), attested to this refreshing trait in Jinnah’s supreme leadership role when he said, “His power was great, yet his greatness was that he used his power to make a team of men, who could carry on the work when he was gone.”

And that band of able men was headed by Liaquat who picked up the mantle of national leadership upon his leader’s demise. Unassuming all the time, never seeking the limelight and content to work behind the scenes under Jinnah’s towering shodow, as Liaquat was generally known to be, almost no one thought what he could bring to the fore the sort of leadership qualities which he did at the time of Pakistan’s greatest crises which Jinnah’s death represented in her early years.

But the deft manner in which Liaquat tackled the problems, both internal and external, and consolidated Pakistan surprised almost everyone and won him recognition, both nationally and internationally. “No one played more successfully the role of Cavour to his leader’s Mazzini”, remarked The Times of India (Bombay). And “he guided the fortunes of his country with a certainty which amounted to genius”, wrote The Statesman (Calcutta). During the next thee years (1948-51), Pakistan was confronted with some new problems, besides the old ones. First was to belie the assumption that Pakistan would collapse once she had to face the continuing partition problems by herself without the guidance of the Great Leader – the assumption that provoked Dawn to proclaim “Quaid-i-Azam is dead: Long live Pakistan”. Though by no means easy, Liaquat ably filled in the vacuum caused by Jinnah’s exit from the scene.

Second, Jinnah’s exit emboldened India to go on the offensive in a big way. Within twelve hours of Jinnah’s burial, it mounted an invasion of Hyderabad state, and had it occupied within five days. In September 1949, India imposed a trade embargo in the wake of devolution of her currency, putting Pakistan to a serious economic strain since India was at that time the largest buyer of Pakistani jute, the country’s premier cash crop. In early 1950, the Indian Prime Minister threatened to use “other methods” and got her troops massed within striking distance of West Pakistan, in order to pressurize Pakistan into accepting New Delhi’s viewpoint on the minorities’ question. Again, in July 1951 India massed her troops on West Pakistan’s borders. Each time Liaquat stood his ground, took effective measures to counter the Indian moves, showed courage, determination and statesmanship, and galvanished the nation as a solid phalanx.

Meantime, he consolidated what had already been accomplished in Jinnah’s life-time, enlarged upon it and carried forward the process of building Pakistan. Thus, he accomplished a good deal in making Pakistan a going concern and a growing enterprise. Internally, Pakistan was politically stable, and, though still short of resources, economically buoyout and burgeoning. Internationally, she had carved out for herself a place in the comity of nations and at the international fora; she was also courted by the big powers, as indicated by an invitation to Liaquat by both Moscow and Washington. “Thee years of Liaquat Ali Khan’s leadership”, said Sir Olaf Caroe, one-time Governor of the N.W.F.P., “carried Pakistan through difficulty and crisis to the achievement of a degree of political stability rare in any democratic country… of economic prosperity beyond her own rosiest dreams, and of an honoured place in the affairs of nations”.


— Sharif al Mujahid


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