In the passing of Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan, the country has lost a statesman of towering international stature. The New York Times described him in 1999 as “the most skilful diplomat of the world today.” Though a scion of the erstwhile princely house of Rampur in India, he chose an action-filled life replete with adventure and high drama.
The story of his life, like a Russian novel, is spread over a vast canvass encompassing wars, revolutions and events that had a transformational impact on global geopolitics. The twentieth century was the most violent and bloodiest in human history and its fires also singed Yaqub-Khan.
On many an occasion, particularly during the period that I served as the director general of his office from 1989-90, the three-time foreign minister of Pakistan and I spent hours discussing matters relating to the country’s external policies. In the course of those unforgettable moments, he would analyse and explain some of the intricate issues of the times. His was a razor-edge intellect and the profundity of his pronouncements seldom failed to exercise an imperishable authority over the minds of his interlocutors.
During our conversations, foreign minister Yaqub-Khan sometimes spoke about his early life. He often quoted from the works of Goethe and one of his favourite lines was, “A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent.” This, he said, was also the “distillate” of his own life. He then explained, “I had to navigate across tumultuous seas and there were only few and far between moments of tranquillity.”
His formative years were spent in Rampur where his father, Sahabzada Sir Abdus Samad Khan Bahadur, was the chief minister of the state. This was the short-lived period of ‘stillness’ in Yaqub-Khan’s stormy and eventful life. It was during these years that he became a voracious reader, a habit he acquired from his grandfather, Abdus Salam Khan, who maintained one of Rampur’s largest libraries.
After his studies at the Prince of Wales Royal Military College in Dehradun, he was admitted to the Royal Indian Military Academy. Yaqub-Khan was commissioned on December 22, 1940 – a day before his twentieth birthday – and was assigned to the elite 18th King Edward’s Own Cavalry, an integral part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. Unbeknownst to him this was to be the first of three defining moments of his life.
The curtain raiser to the Second World War was the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and, two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. A global conflagration was thus ignited, and, the 18th Cavalry sailed for the Middle East theatre in January 1941. Yaqub-Khan, who had been commissioned barely a month earlier, took part in the siege of Tobruk.
He thus won his spurs and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on April 3, 1942 but on May 27, the Italians overran the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, and, the 21-year-old Yaqub-Khan became a prisoner of war. He told me that his years as a POW were not wasted for he spent his time learning Italian, German and French.
In 1943 Yaqub-Khan escaped from Italian captivity along with his close friend Lieutenant Abhey Singh and Major Kumaramangalam who was to become the Indian army chief from 1966 to 1969. The group, led by Yaqub-Khan because of his fluency in Italian, tried to reach the allied lines but were captured by the Germans. Thus the young lieutenant of the 18th Cavalry became a POW again and spent the remaining years of the war at Braunschweig.
The end of the war in 1945 provided only a brief interlude of happiness for Yaqub-Khan. He had risen to the rank of major and was an officer in the viceroy’s bodyguard when he was suddenly confronted with the second defining moment of his life. In early July 1947 each officer was given a mimeographed form and was asked to specify whether he wished to serve in the Indian or Pakistan army.
This was to be the most difficult decision that the 27-year-old battle-tested soldier would ever be required to take. In their bestselling book, ‘Freedom at Midnight’, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins graphically portray his terrible anguish. I could understand his pain because I also underwent the same dreadful ordeal in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh.
Yaqub-Khan tried to explain his decision to opt for Pakistan to his mother, and, according to Lapierre and Collins, the broken-hearted lady replied: “I do not understand all this. We have lived here for two centuries. Your forefathers fought the British for this land. Your great grandfather was executed in the Mutiny. Our graves are here. I’m old and my days are numbered. I don’t understand politics but as a mother my desires are selfish. I am afraid this will separate us.”
She was right. Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan would never return to his ancestral home nor would he see his beloved mother ever again. He had sacrificed everything for Pakistan.
Within months the first Pakistan-India war broke out in Kashmir. Yaqub-Khan was sent to the snow-covered slopes of the region and was tasked to assault enemy pickets. His elder brother, Sahabzada Yunis Khan’s regiment, the Indian army’s Garhwal Rifles, was also positioned in the same theatre. Seldom in the history of human conflict have real brothers been called upon to confront each other at the battlefront.
Yaqub-Khan rose to dazzling heights in the Pakistan Army. It was in East Pakistan as the commander of the Eastern Command in 1971, that he encountered the third defining moment in his action-packed life. He had urged the regime in Islamabad to defuse the mounting tensions through dialogue with the political leaders of East Pakistan. He warned that any other course of action would have horrendous consequences.
The advice fell on deaf ears and Yaqub-Khan resigned from the army. Shortly afterwards, a hideous chain of events was unleashed and culminated in the creation of Bangladesh. Within a few hours of his death on January 26, I received emails from friends in Dhaka. One of these read: “Had the Yahya Khan regime listened to General Yaqub, Bangladesh may never have been created. He will live forever in our thoughts and prayers.”
As an ambassador and then as foreign minister, Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan’s achievements were stunning. Shortly after my arrival in Moscow in 1999, I paid a courtesy call on former foreign minister and prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. He told me that some of the previous Pakistani ambassadors to Moscow were outstanding diplomats “but the most brilliant among them was Mr Yaqub-Khan.”
On January 27, two former US ambassadors, Howard and Teresita Schaffer, co-authored an article on Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan. Their assessment says it all: “His death leaves the world a poorer and less colourful place…If diplomatic conversation can be spellbinding, which it rarely is, it was widely agreed that perhaps more than any other practising foreign policymaker Yaqub could make it so. He was one of a kind. We shall not see his like again any time soon.”
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.