Imagine a head of state who has completed a staggering 70 years in the job, visited over 100 countries in this period, been paid court on a weekly basis by 14 prime ministers, interacted with 13 US presidents and – in the middle of the ninth decade of her life and in the midst of the raging Covid pandemic – clocked 192 official engagements during 2021. Harder still would be to contemplate that the same person has never put a wrong foot forward or committed a gaffe, let alone been guilty of even a minor indiscretion: a remarkable feat to achieve in seven decades of onerous public service.
The person in question is none other than Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, universally known as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who marked the platinum jubilee of her reign earlier this month. I wonder how many Pakistanis are aware that from the date of her accession to the throne on 6 February 1952 to 23 March 1956, when Pakistan became a republic, Elizabeth II was also Queen of Pakistan! Therefore, along with former presidents Asif Zardari, Pervez Musharraf and Rafiq Tarar, she is a surviving former head of state of Pakistan. Albeit during the time the Queen was Pakistan’s monarch and its de-jure head of state, her representative in Pakistan was the governor-general, who would act as the de-facto head of state.
Generally, when considering the world’s existing monarchs, one thinks of grandiose and ostentatious displays of wealth, the trappings of great power, authority and influence, a culture of archaic protocol and extreme conservatism, the taint of financial or moral scandals or abdications on account of ill-health, advancing years or fatigue.
But in the case of the current British monarch, her most enduring attribute is an exemplary and unflinching dedication to duty. At age 95, Elizabeth II not only serves as the patron of 600 plus organisations, but she also undertakes scores of visits annually to schools, hospitals, charities, military associations etc., while also finding time to preside over investiture ceremonies, make overseas state visits (until 2015), receive inward state visits and, last but not least, lead her country in times of national joy and sorrow. A head of state who embodies such a reassuring sense of continuity and a selfless sense of service is undoubtedly an asset for the country.
On this occasion it is befitting to consider some anecdotes concerning the Queen’s association with Pakistan. Although her four-year reign as Pakistan’s monarch was uneventful, there was one occasion when she narrowly escaped being sucked into the quagmire of Pakistani politics. The episode took place on 17 April 1953, when the Queen’s representative in Pakistan, Governor-General Malik Ghulam Muhammad, dismissed the government of Prime Minister, Khwaja Nazimuddin.
The deposed prime minister enjoyed the confidence of the Constituent Assembly, which had passed his government’s budget only a few days earlier. So, there was no moral basis for his removal, even though legally the governor-general had the power to do so under colonial legislation which was then temporarily in force as the country’s governing law.
Khwaja Nazimuddin belatedly tried to salvage the situation. He requested the UK High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, to transmit his message to the Queen seeking the withdrawal of the appointment of the governor-general. However, since Ghulam Mohammed had already dismissed the prime minister, the latter had no legal authority to seek the former’s recall.
For this primary reason, Sir Gilbert politely declined Nazimuddin’s request. But he also relied on another reason to refrain from acting in the matter: he pointed out to Nazimuddin that he was the Queen’s representative in Pakistan only in her capacity as Queen of the UK and he had no standing or authority to act in relation to the Queen’s capacity as the Queen of Pakistan. Nazimuddin, himself a barrister, could not argue against this logical, albeit strictly literal, legal position.
Nazimuddin’s bid to contact the Queen’s Private Secretary failed, since the governor-general had ordered the telephone lines of the prime minister and that of his loyal cabinet members to be cut off, and the overseas telegraph service to be temporarily disconnected; the coup-maker had left nothing to chance! Thus, the Queen was spared the unattractive prospect of getting involved in the first of many power-plays that have benighted the constitutional history of Pakistan.
Five years after she ceased to be Pakistan’s monarch, the Queen made her first visit to the country in February 1961. While touring the Malakand Pass during a visit to the then princely state of Swat, she thought of a gesture which shows her presence of mind and attention to detail. A telegram was sent by her to Sir Winston Churchill, arguably her most famous subject, and it reportedly read: “Greetings from Malakand, Elizabeth R”. In 1897, then subaltern Winston Churchill had seen action for the first time while serving with the Malakand Field Force in their operations against the Mohmand tribe. Imagine the exultation and pride that the then octogenarian Churchill, living in quiet retirement, would have felt at his sovereign’s thoughtful message from across the seas!
The late King Farouk of Egypt, when asked about the future of monarchies in the world, had prophesied that a time will come when there will only be five kings left in the world: four will be the kings in a pack of playing cards and the fifth will be the sovereign of the UK. The remarkable life and career of Elizabeth II provides considerable proof of the strength of that prophesy.
Epilogue: During her visit to Quetta in 1961, the Queen was welcomed with the traditional presentation of mountain goats. On behalf of the Baloch tribes, the offering was made by a certain Nawab Khair Buksh Marri! It is hard to imagine that in a little over ten years’ time, the same chieftain who was once considered by a military regime to be worthy of the singular honour to welcome the Queen on behalf of the Baloch, would lose faith in the Pakistani state and embark on a life-long struggle for an independent Balochistan. Food for thought!