Requiescat in pace: Sartaj Aziz

Sartaj Aziz will be remembered for his humanity, courtesy and affability

Requiescat in pace: Sartaj Aziz


he news on the morning of January 3 of the New Year touched me personally; Sartaj Aziz sahib had passed away a day earlier. I sit now in an office in the block named after him at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, penning my respect for his memory in inadequate words. I regret that for some time, I did not meet him at his farmhouse near Islamabad. But I had always stayed in touch with him after he left the university in 2013 to take up his last job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I interviewed him for my recent book, Pakistan’s Wars (2022), at his farmhouse, where he looked as mentally alive, cool, composed and affable as he always had. He not only gave me a long and detailed interview about his role as foreign minister in 1999 during the Kargil war but also some of his other publications relating to Pakistan’s economic downturn after the 1965 war. And, as always, he was a gracious host and always impeccable in his old-world good manners.

I had first met Sartaj sahib during the 1990s when I was often roped in to chair sessions on all kinds of subjects provided—or so I joked—I did not know about them. Some of these sessions were on the economy, and they were difficult to chair because the chair was a time-keeper, and the speakers were distinguished people who tended to run out of the time given to them. While most people minded my impertinent calls to make them say no more just when they were going strong, Sartaj sahib did not. Firstly, he did not need any reminders because he arranged his talks precisely according to the time he was given. And secondly, if he was requested to wind up his observations, he did precisely that. His customary smile tended to become broader, and he beamed even more brightly and affably upon me and either just summed up what he had to say or apologised for going on for only another minute or two. I often told people that if there was a perfect gentleman somewhere, then Sartaj sahib was the one I would choose as a model.

As luck would have it, I came in frequent contact with him when I came to the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore to serve as an academic when he was the vice-chancellor of the university. It all started when I was interviewed for a vice chancellorship at a certain public sector university in Lahore.

Sartaj sahib was a member of the panel that interviewed me. As it happened, I was not selected for the post. In those days, since I had turned the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University around and had been praised for it, I thought I could do the same everywhere. However, Sartaj sahib told me later that the particular university I had applied for was a problematic case. So, the panel had decided that a decent (the word he used was shareef) man like myself would be ruined there. At that time, I did not appreciate this, but later events proved that he and the panel were right. Vice-chancellors were handcuffed later, and it would have been difficult for me if I had been appointed to such an institution.

At that time (the summer of 2011), the deanship of the School of Education at BNU became vacant. Dr Sabiha Mansoor, the incumbent dean who was moving away as a vice chancellor, recommended me for the post, and Sartaj sahib promptly offered it to me with his usual courtesy. The FC College had also offered me a professorship at the same time. As FC was offering me a house, my wife preferred that option. However, the teaching load there was so much that I would not have much time left for my research, so I was reluctant. It was at this juncture that Sartaj sahib‘s call came. The next day, I met him at his office in BNU, which was then located opposite the Lahore Gymkhana. He welcomed me and, after a pleasant talk in which I told him frankly about the FC College offer, he said that the salary I had asked for was a bit on the high side so he would have to ask the Board of Governors. As for the house, there was none at BNU. However, he added, “We do give deans chauffeur-driven cars with petrol.” As for the teaching load, he told me that as a dean I would decide such things myself. He then sent me to meet the faculty. The interview was held in due course, and I joined as dean in September 2011.

One day, after a long chat, I went out and found that there were many people waiting to see the VC. My idea that he was idle was utterly wrong. From that time onwards, I went to see him if it was absolutely necessary. He had been too decent to convey that I had wasted his time, and I was even more impressed by his humanity.

Initially, apart from some files which my secretary brought me, I would sit all alone in my office since the faculty had, so to speak, put me on probation. Nobody actually visited me, and I did not call meetings. In my naivety, I assumed that, like myself, Sartaj sahib would also be sitting bored in his office reading the newspapers or books. Thus, I used to go to meet him with very little pretext or none at all. We talked of all things and I developed much respect for him as a human being. He was very well-read and understanding. I presented him with my books and he returned the compliment by presenting me his biography entitled Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History (2009).

It was not only an autobiography of a person, though I learned from it that he was born on February 7, 1929, and that the Pakistan movement was a living event for him. In fact, he had personally participated in the struggle for a homeland for Indian Muslims. Also, he had served in several capacities about which Wikipedia bears witness. But the book is far more than a biography. In fact, it is also a history of Pakistan’s aspirations and dreams—dreams that went sour. He also told me about his studies at Harvard, and I marvelled at his excellent memory and interest in intellectual matters.

I do not know how, but somehow, the question of vice chancellorships came up one day. He might have heard me expressing my views in Islamabad that none except full professors should be appointed vice-chancellors. This was a view I expressed quite often there, and when it did come up, I told him that I still held the very same view. I added that this was a general principle since it symbolised the superiority of knowledge to power and eminence of other kinds. It was, I said, accepting the tea he smilingly offered me, the same principle which made a priest the head of the Catholic church or an army officer the head of an army, though both are unqualified to run huge empires or bureaucracies which need skills in accounting, finance and personnel management. However, they remain on the top of the pyramid while having people qualified in finance and other subjects to assist them in running these huge machines. I also made it clear that this general, rather theoretical position did not imply that I did not accept others (like himself) as vice chancellors so long as this was the fashion in Pakistan. He only smiled, and I could not make out what he thought of my views. I must say that I was deeply impressed by his basic decency. Otherwise, I have suffered for expressing such radical views earlier. But Sartaj sahib was all smiles and unfailing courtesy.

One day, after a long chat, I went out and found that there were many people waiting to see the VC. My idea that he was idle was utterly wrong. From that time onwards, I went to see him if it was absolutely necessary. He had been too decent to convey that I had wasted his time, and I was even more impressed by his humanity. My last contact with him was when I sent him my book on Pakistan’s Wars in 2022. He responded at once, and his mind was as clear as ever.

I am sure all those who came in touch with Sartaj sahib were as impressed by his decency, humanity, courtesy and affability as I am by his intelligence and keen memory. He was an asset to the country in the true sense of the word. With these words, I pay homage to him: rest in peace, Sartaj sahib.

The author lectures at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, and is an occasional contributor

Requiescat in pace: Sartaj Aziz