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National News
January 28,2016

The Sahibzada — A legend in his own lifetime

Syed Tariq Fatemi

The death of any human being is a loss for the near and dear ones. The passing away of a giant is however a loss for humanity, especially when he happens to have touched the lives of both individuals and nations.

While in Moscow, I had heard only vaguely of a Pakistani general, who had opted to tender his resignation, ending a brilliant career and forfeiting the very real possibility of becoming the chief. He sought repeatedly to persuade the regime to engage in a political dialogue with the East Pakistani leaders to bring them back within the fold. In a comprehensive assessment to the president, he spoke of the folly of policies that were inexorably pushing the country to unmitigated disaster, in terms so very stark that to this day they appear to have been written with the benefit of hindsight, rather than with prophetic accuracy. It needs to be read by coming generations.

It was however, only in October 1974, when posted in the US that I came to know this seemingly quiet, reserved, somewhat aloof offspring of two royal houses. From fighting Field Marshal Rommel’s ferocious desert rats, to being captured by the Germans but managing to break out of prison and seek refuge with an Italian family, he returned home to be selected for staff duties with Lord Mountbatten and later, with the Quaid. While still in his twenties, Yaqub Khan had already seen and experienced more than what others can dream of in an entire life time. Much greater responsibilities and honours lay ahead, when he was tapped by Mr Bhutto to head our mission in Paris, where he was such a success that soon he was moved to Washington, where he guided our relations with the US for five years, during which he not only engaged in repairing the damage done during the tumultuous Bangladesh crisis, but became the Capitol’s most influential foreign envoy, with personal ties to key players in the administration, Congress and the media. They all sought him out not merely for his views on foreign policy, but on literature, the arts and music.

When a Jewish synagogue was attacked and occupied by a group claiming to be Muslims, it was Yaqub Khan, along with the ambassadors of Egypt and Iran, who volunteered to enter the premises and stayed with the militants to persuade them not only to release the hostages, but to voluntarily surrender themselves to the authorities. This first episode of militancy in the American capital was covered live, round the clock, by the networks while the White House agonised over the wisdom of approving this highly dangerous mission by three foreign diplomats. When they emerged successful, not only were they toasted by a grateful nation, but acknowledged for their bravery and deep knowledge of Islamic faith and jurisprudence that they had used to convince the militants to opt for peace, rather than violence.

Later, when the Sahibzada was requested to move to Moscow by president Zia, in preparation for a major initiative in relations with the Soviets, I was asked to be part of his team. Since this was my second spell in the Soviet capital—the two of us, with our knowledge of Russian, gave the Embassy quite an edge.

As the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 had destroyed prospect of engineering any headway in this direction, I knew the Sahibzada would soon be on his way out, this time back in Paris. But I also knew that it would not be long before president Zia would persuade him to return home to take charge of the Foreign Ministry, which is what he had wanted to do for nearly a year. Though the two had a close but formal professional and personal relationship, the Sahibzada had earlier not hesitated to faithfully convey Prime Minister Kosygin’s strong appeal for Mr Bhutto’s life to be spared, but added his own voice to those who believed that hanging an elected political leader would leave a scar on the nation’s psyche, from which it would not recover for decades.

His stewardship of the Foreign Ministry brought about a remarkable change in its standing, as the minister’s intelligence, acumen and strong bonds with the president made him a critical player, in both the formulation and execution of the country’s foreign policy. He soon became an admired figure on the international stage. Highly intelligent, elegantly dressed, a polyglot, the suave the Sahibzada could converse with Kissinger on Goethe and Kant in German, with the same ease as he could with Shevardnadze on Pushkin and Dostoevsky in Russian; while with his command over French and Italian, he could speak like a native. And, many a freezing Moscow evening was warmed and enlivened by night long sessions in the company of Faiz Sahab, whose poetry, the Sahibzada could recite from memory.

In a public service spanning eight decades, the Sahibzada not only lived a life of honour and dignity, but held his head high and his feet firmly planted on ground. A stern master, a loving husband and an affectionate father, he not only earned the respect of his peers, but the esteem, loyalty and admiration of all those who had the good fortune of knowing him. A legend in his own lifetime, he has become an icon in death.

May Allah Almighty, in His infinite mercy, grant him eternal rest!

The writer is the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs


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