OPN Liaquat Ali Khan
Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan's first Prime Minister Image Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica

Pakistan’s historians, this generation of media, the academia and the newer generations of Pakistanis have largely forgotten, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan (LAK) — Pakistan’s first and the longest serving Prime Minister. He was arguably the most devoted leader in Pakistan’s journey to independence.

Assassinated on this day — Oct. 16, 1951 — LAK was chosen to become the Prime Minister of the newly independent country by none other than Pakistan’s Father of the Nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whom the Pakistanis reverentially call Quaid-e -Azam — the Great Leader.

On Quaid’s death, Sep. 11, 1948, true to his democratic values, he chose to remain the Prime Minister — the executive head of the administration, instead of elevating himself to the status of the Governor-general — a largely ceremonial post that had come to exercise considerable authority because of the Quaid’s dominant position and his personality.

LAK, born in Karnal in undivided Punjab, in 1895 launched his political career in 1926 when he was elected to the United Province (now Uttar Pradesh) Legislative Council, in which position he served till 1940. In 1940 he was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly of India.

His strong advocacy for Muslims’ rights brought him into national prominence but he also gained respect of other communities for the principled positions he championed at higher levels of the government. He was among earliest converts to the leadership of Jinnah, who chose LAK to be part of the Muslim League’s team at the Round Table Conferences held in London during the 1930s to discuss constitutional arrangements for India.

OPN Liaquat Ali Khan
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Father of Pakistan and founder of Quaid-i-Azam presiding over the historic Lahore session of All India Muslim League in March 1940. Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan (3rd from right), the frist Prime Minister of Pakistan; Khan Saadullah Khan and Nawab of Mamdot also attended the activity. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

After Jinnah decided to move to England during the 1930s, it was LAK who convinced him to come back and steer the Muslim struggle under the All-India Muslim League.

On return to India, Jinnah himself moved a resolution at the League session in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1936 making LAK the Honorary General Secretary of the All-India Muslim League — a position he held till the independence of Pakistan in 1947. It is the testimony of the trust the Quaid had in him that he remains the longest serving General Secretary of the Party.

His dedicated work for the Party came to fruition when in 1945 elections Muslim League won 87 per cent of the seats reserved for the Muslims. He himself won his seat from Meerut (western UP) and was elected Chairman of the League’s Central Parliamentary Board.

He was Jinnah’s principal lieutenant also during the negotiations with the members of the Cabinet Mission and the leaders of the Indian National Congress. During the final phases of the freedom movement, when an interim government was formed consisting of members of the Indian political leadership, he was made the leader of the group of 5 cabinet ministers drawn from the Muslim League.

Over the years LAK never wavered in his support for Jinnah.

Growing up in Lahore. I often found the Punjabis (though a Kashmiri by blood, I am a third generation Punjabi) dismissive of Liaquat’s contribution and his services to Pakistan. They accused him of concentrating the Urdu speaking migrants from India into Karachi — the national capital. Little did they realise that Karachi was chosen as capital of Pakistan by Jinnah, and LAK had no connection with that city.

LAK was known as Nawab of Karnal, which is part of Indian Punjab (now Haryana) and if anything, an overwhelming number of refugees from the Indian Punjab had come and settled in Western Punjab.

A noble soul

His landholdings were so extensive that during my visit to Meerut about 8 years back, the rich and fertile westernmost district of UP that adjoins Karnal, an old man, when he learnt I was from Pakistan told me that LAK’s land holdings in Meerut alone had nearly 300 villages over them. He gifted his personal house of approximately 10,000 square yards — a top property in New Delhi to the Government of Pakistan to be used as the residence of the high commissioner.

The value of property is now estimated to be around $50 million. Another of his palatial bungalows ‘Kehkashan’ was made public in Muzaffarnagar in 2006 with a state minister proposing to turn it into a tourist destination.

Unlike many, Liaquat Ali Khan or his family neither claimed nor accepted a single piece of property in lieu of his extensive land holdings and the residences he left behind in India. In fact, as narrated by Jamshed Marker — the distinguished Pakistani diplomat and cricket commentator, who was an eyewitness, LAK refused to sign a file which his overzealous secretary brought for his signatures allotting a list of properties in Pakistan.

Pakistan should name the new Islamabad airport and one of the primary roads of the capital after Liaquat Ali Khan to honour his contribution and his unmatched sacrifices.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.