Liaquat Ali Khan: an Assessment

A special contribution by Prof. Sharif al Mujahid on 65th death anniversary of Liaquat Ali Khan (1895-1951), the first Prime Minister of Pakistan

Addressing the Independence Day meeting on August 15, 1951, at Jahangir Park, Karachi, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan had predicted that “if for the defense of Pakistan the nation has to shed blood, Liaquat’s blood shall be mingled with it.” Two months later, he fell to a hail of bullets in Company Gardens, Rawalpindi, with the words, “May Allah save Pakistan.” This last prayer sums up Liaquat’s obsessive concern for Pakistan which he had struggled, toiled, and died for.

Liaquat who became Pakistan’s first Prime Minister in 1947, had behind him a rich family, academic, and political background. He was born in Karnal (East Punjab) on October 1, 1895; he belonged to a family of landed aristocrats which claimed descent from Nawsherawan Adil of Iran. His education included a Bachelor degree from Aligarh (1918), a Masters from Exeter College, Oxford, and a Law degree from Inner Temple (1922).

His involvement with legislative politics began in 1927 when he was elected to the United Provinces (U. P.) Council; he was re-elected twice (1930, 1933), became its Deputy President (1931), and, later, leader of the Democratic Party. In early 1937, he was elected to the newly constituted U.P. Assembly, and in February 1941 to the Central Legislative Assembly. For over two decades till 1947, he was associated with the Aligarh Muslim University.

His involvement with Muslim politics came in 1928 when the U.P. League recommended him for membership of the All India Muslim League (AIML) Council. He attended the Jinnah League session in Calcutta in December 1928, where he came in contact with Jinnah. In 1932 he alongwith his newly married Begum (Rana) saw Jinnah at Hampstead Heath, England; and had reportedly requested the latter to return to India from self-exile, to give a lead to the Musalmanswho were divided and in disarray. His association with Jinnah would last for the next sixteen years, and with the years, he became closely associated with Jinnah.

And it was a measure of Jinnah’s sustained confidence in Liaquat that he got him appointed as AIML General Secretary at a time when he had launched upon its reorganization in 1936, and that he named Liaquat to the highest offices available within the Muslim League during the 1940s – Deputy Leader of the Muslim League Assembly Party in the Central Assembly (1943); member, Committee of Action (1943), Chairman of the Central Parliamentary Board (1945); leader of the League group in the Interim Government (October 1946), and, finally, Prime Minister of Pakistan (1947).


But how could Liaquat gain the confidence of a disciplinarian and exacting president, such as Jinnah was, in such measure? Because, as Jinnah himself said, while proposing Liaquat’s name for another term as General Secretary in 1943, “The Nawabzada had worked … day and night, and none could possibly have an idea of the great burden he shouldered. Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan commands the universal respect and confidence of the Musalmans. Though a Nawabzada, he is a thorough proletarian, and I hope other Nawab in the country will follow his example.”

But how could Liaquat gain the confidence of a disciplinarian and exacting president, such as Jinnah was, in such measure? Because, as Jinnah himself said, while proposing Liaquat’s name for another term as General Secretary in 1943, “The Nawabzada had worked … day and night, and none could possibly have an idea of the great burden he shouldered. Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan commands the universal respect and confidence of the Musalmans. Though a Nawabzada, he is a thorough proletarian, and I hope other Nawab in the country will follow his example.”

A study of the Quaid-i-Azam Papers and the Archives of Freedom Movement, which have become accessible to researchers only recently reveal how Liaquat worked day and night. Like Jinnah, he responded to every letter received, even those from politically non-descript individuals, and in the 1940s he literally received hundreds of letters and telegrams every month. He was responsible for implementing policies and programmes decided upon by the League’s high command; he looked after day-to-day organizational matters; he tried to keep the factious and feuding provincial leaders within reasonable limits of divergence and infighting. And during the critical 1945-46 elections, his role in adjudicating disputes and resolving differences, in keeping the League’s election machine well-oiled and in top gear, and in galvanizing the nation and the students for a verdict in Pakistan’s favour was only next to Jinnah.

It is not usually known that Liaquat had also served as a trouble shooter and shock absorber all through this period, his quiet diplomacy, unassuming demeanour, affability and easy accessibility enabling him to play this role rather superbly. Indeed, several top leaders (e.g., Nawab Ismail Khan of the U.P., Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Punjab, and Fazlul Haq of Bengal) sent messages to Jinnah through Liaquat – messages which they could not address direct to Jinnah for the fear of being misunderstood.

Thus, Liaquat helped to narrow down differences within the party’s leadership from time to time. He also tried to keep Jinnah abreast of subterranean differences which, if left unchecked in good time, could have well snowballed and led to serious crises. In tandem, he also tried to mollify estranged leaders or Jinnah, as the case may be, and to checkmate the differences from coming into “the open”. And by doing all this, he helped to keep the somewhat apparently “monolithic” edifice of the League leadership intact – a prerequisite so critical for success in the on going tussle against the Congress and in the struggle for Pakistan. Apparently monolithic because it was not in terms of ground reality as it usually is the case with all massive organizations in history, which Achilles’ heel of the League Ayesha Jalal overemphasizes, again and again, in her controversial work, The Sole Spokesman (1985).

In terms of his political acumen, three major events stand out. First, at the Meerut Divisional Conference in March 1939, he propounded partition as the most rational solution to India’s constitutional problem. Coming on the heels of the Sindh Provincial Muslim League Conference’s resolution of October 1938, this came as a shot in the arm to the proponents of partition, especially since, in a more concrete sense, Liaquat represented Central League’s thinking on the issue. Second, in his interview with Sir Stafford Cripps in December 1939, he proposed three options – the provincial option i.e., each province be given the option to join the Indian federation or not; a loose confederation with a limited centre; and, outright partition between Hindus and Muslims. Remarkably though, these three options constituted the basis of the three major British proposals during the 1940s – the Cripps Plan (1942), the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946) and the Mountbatten Plan (1947).

Third, in his talks with Bhulabhai Desai, leader of the Congress Party in the Central Assembly in 1944, he proposed parity between Congress and the League in any future set up at the Centre, besides coalitional governments in the provinces and they became the core points in the Desai-Liaquat formula “Pact”. This was the first time that this parity principle which the League had long demanded in any coalitional set up, but was denied, had been conceded by the Congress at any level. Once lifted beyond the pale of controversy, this key provision became the basis for the quota of seats for Hindus and Muslims/Congress and the League in the subsequent Wavell (1945) and Interim Government (1946) proposals. Thus, Liaquat’s contribution in getting the principle of parity accepted assumes a milestone status.

Jinnah was reportedly a little “unhappy” about Liaquat having contracted the “Pact” behind his back (since he lay ill at Matheran) but was fully alive to both its significance and its long term implications. He, therefore, accepted Liaquat’s “explanation” and exonerated him of any “breach of trust”, while Desai, though blessed by Gandhi in his talks with Liaquat at the time, was even denied a Congress ticket in the 1945-46 elections.

During 1937-38, Jinnah bestrode first Muslim India and then Pakistan like a Colossus; but he also knew, as The Times (London) wrote, “that his work would not last unless he taught his people to be independent of his guidance, and more and more he gave over the responsibilities of the government to the band of able men he had collected and trained”. Philip Noel-Baker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (1947-50), attested to this refreshing trait in the Quaid’s supreme leadership role when he said, “His power was great, yet his greatness was that he used his power to make a team of men, who could carry on the work when he was gone.”

And that band of able men was headed by Liaquat who picked up the mantle of national leadership upon his leader’s demise. Unassuming all the time, never seeking the limelight and content to work behind the scenes under Jinnah’s towering shadow, as Liaquat was generally known to be, almost no one thought that he could bring to the fore the sort of leadership qualities which he did at the time of Pakistan’s greatest crisis which the Quaid’s death represented in her early years. But the deft manner in which he tackled problems, both internal and external, and consolidated Pakistan surprised almost everyone and won him recognition both nationally and internationally. “No one played more successfully the role of Cavour to his leader’s Mazzini”, remarked The Times of India (Bombay). And “he guided the fortunes of his country with a certainty which amounted to genius”, wrote The Statesman(Calcutta).

During the next three years (1948-51), Pakistan was confronted with some new problems, besides the old ones. First was to belie the assumption that Pakistan would collapse once she had to face the continuing partition problems by herself without the guidance of the Great Leader – the assumption that provoked Dawn to proclaim “Quaid-i-Azam is dead: Long live Pakistan”. Though by no means easy, Liaquat ably filled in the vacuum caused by Jinnah’s exit from the scene.

Second, Jinnah’s exit emboldened India to go on the offensive in a big way. Within twelve hours of Jinnah’s burial, she mounted an invasion of Hyderabad state, and had it occupied within five days. In September 1949, India imposed a trade embargo in the wake of devaluation of her currency, putting Pakistan into a serious economic strain since India was at that time the largest buyer of Pakistani jute, the country’s premier cash crop. In early 1950, the Indian Prime Minister threatened to use “other methods” and got her troops massed within striking distance of West Pakistan, in order to pressurize Pakistan into accepting New Delhi’s viewpoint on the minorities’ question. Again, in July 1951, India amassed her troops on West Pakistan’s borders. Each time Liaquat stood his ground, took effective measures to counter the Indian moves, showed courage, determination and statesmanship, and galvanized the nation as a solid phalanx.

In the meantime, he consolidated what had already been accomplished in Jinnah’s life time, enlarged upon it and carried forward the process of building Pakistan. Thus, he accomplished a good deal in making Pakistan a going concern and a growing enterprise.

Internally, Pakistan was politically stable, and, though still short of resources, economically unstable and burgeoning. Internationally, Pakistan had carved out for herself a place in the comity of nations and at the international fora; Pakistan was also courted by the big powers, as indicated by an invitation to Liaquat by both Moscow and Washington. “Three years of Liaquat Ali Khan’s leadership”, said Sir Olaf Caroe, one time Governor of the NWFP, “carried Pakistan through difficulty and crisis to the achievement of a degree of political stability rare in any democratic country … of economic prosperity beyond her rosiest dreams, and of an honoured place in the affairs of nations.”

And since, as The Times of India said, “he died in the line of duty … and fell for the country,” the Quaid-i-Millat of yesteryears became the Shaheed-i-Millat since 1951.


The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, who has recently co-edited UNESCO's History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007); the only oral history on Pakistan's Founding Father.

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