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January 30, 2016

A renaissance man


January 30, 2016

A protean genius like Sahibzada Yaqub Khan reminds one of the immortal words of Shakespeare: “…all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

These words sum up the Sahibzada, a polyglot, a connoisseur of the arts, an aficionado of Ghalib and Goethe’s poetry, an outstanding polo player, a military scholar, and a diplomat who would rival Metternich. A scion of a princely clan, Sahibzada Yaqub started his career in the 18th King Edward’s Own Cavalry which was part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, and fought near Tobruk with Rommel’s Afrika Corps before becoming a prisoner of war in Italy for three years.

He was serving as the commander of the Eastern Command in 1971 when civil war in East Pakistan engulfed the country. In line with Wordsworth’s character of the happy warrior: “Who, if he rise to station of command, Rises by open means; and there will stand, On honorable terms, or else retire”, Sahibzada Yaqub chose to hang his boots rather than be part of a sordid denouement of a drama that featured fratricidal killings and an ill-fated military solution to a political conflict.

Fate had other plans for him as he retired to the quiet world of books and private study. He was picked up by a talent hunter par excellence Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to France, and later to Russia and USA, launching his illustrious career as a diplomat.

Sahibzada Yaqub was a true icon for regimental officers who emulated his sartorial taste and mannerism in dress, deportment and speech. He tried to recreate an era of chivalry, decorum, and military punctiliousness all rolled into a graceful regimental routine where the officers dined wearing dinner jackets at a table laid on with crested linen and silver cutlery bearing his beloved PAVO Cavalry’s emblem from John Meakin of England. The haunting skirls of the bagpipers transported the diners to a different era as the lights and fans were switched off and the candelabras, presented by Queen Victoria, threw pearly light along with the dripping wax in Malir’s summer.

Sahibzada’s leadership style was very English and insular, more suited to the European environment where welfare for subordinates meant imparting pristine soldierly values and professional skills. On that score many found him to be too exacting and unforgiving. He had his soft side as well and never harmed any genuine striver despite their flaws. Sahibzada Yaqub was a good trainer and an inspiring mentor. He had an eye for talent and while steering the Pakistan’s foreign policy in the torrid times of the Afghan jihad for his new boss and ex subordinate Ziaul Haq, found time to groom and nurture promising young diplomats like Ashraf Jahangir Qazi and Rafat Mahdi.

He chiselled, polished and honed their talent, instilling a lifelong habit of reading and writing well. The polymath, suave, and urbane diplomat had earned respect in most of the capitals of the world and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon whose following note was found in Sahibzada Yaqub’s personal effects; “It was a pleasure meeting you. Alexander Haig had told me that you are probably the most astute geopolitical thinker alive today. Having met you, I believe this was an understatement.”

As a very engaging conversationalist, he did not suffer fools gladly and was not given to small talk. His gravitas enhanced his mystique but when he spoke he was eloquent, expansive, and philosophical to the point of being puzzling as times. His valedictory address to the present and past faculty and students of his beloved command and Staff College during the centenary celebrations of the college in 2005 was a classic. He cut a majestic oratorical figure cast resplendent in his Savile Row suit, speaking about the virtues of pedagogy and military ethics.

In a most soul-stirring speech, he spoke about the virtues of learning in an era where the Newtonian and Cartesian sciences were giving way to new ways of learning and where mankind would require the development of a sixth sense to be able to learn to think. And that the pearl with the highest price was the ability to think.

While speaking in the evening with few young officers, he reminisced how he had initiated a higher direction of war course based on the European model and that time had come to base our curriculum on subcontinental notions of operational and strategic wisdom. That was vintage Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan, a raconteur and an intellectual par excellence.

The writer is a retired brigadier, and a PhD scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies at the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad.



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