A provincial governor has resigned; the citizens of the province are distraught. The governor’s selfless service to the province evokes a boundless affection in their hearts. But, alas, the will of the citizens is irrelevant to the Powers That Be. Ironically, the governor’s departure is predestined on account of his tremendous popularity which has greatly unnerved the country’s ruler. A civic farewell arranged for the governor is attended by over a hundred thousand people. Tears are shed on the occasion, and several people are heard plaintively beseeching the governor not to desert them. Similar scenes are repeated at various stops on the governor’s farewell tour of the province.
This is not a scene out of ancient history and the governor is not the representative of an absolute monarch. In actual fact, the province is erstwhile East Pakistan, the year is 1962 and the governor in question is the redoubtable Lt General Mohammed Azam Khan. 10 May marked the 60th anniversary of his departure from Dhaka, therefore it is befitting to honour the man whose common touch and popular appeal has not been surpassed by any other Pakistani governor. The only other governor who had a special connect with the people was the venerable Sardar Nishtar, formerly governor of the Punjab, but that was largely because he was one of the most loved leaders of the freedom movement. For a simple army officer like Azam Khan to rival, if not surpass, an icon like Nishtar in popularity as a governor, is and of itself, a remarkable feat.
Born in village Mathra in Peshawar District in 1908, Azam Khan went on to graduate from the RIMC Dehradun and Sandhurst Military College before joining the Indian Army in 1929. Serving first with the 19th Hyderabad Regiment and later with the 10th Baluch Regiment, Azam was in the thick of action in WW2, primarily on the Burma front – on one occasion a bomb detonated very close to him and seriously impaired the hearing in one of his ears. Having opted for Pakistan at the time of partition, he was involved in various operations in relation to the first Indo-Pak War over Jammu & Kashmir, often operating under the pseudonym of “General Beg”.
Promoted as Major General in 1950, Azam was appointed GOC Lahore and his initial claim to fame occurred in March 1953 when he imposed Pakistan’s first ever bout of Martial Law in the city to deal with the bloody anti-Ahmadiyya riots. Displaying ruthless efficiency and determination, he swiftly restored law and order and the writ of the government, which had been in tatters – to the extent that even the telephone exchange of the Governor House had fallen into the control of the rioters!
Soon after the duo of Iskander Ali Mirza and Mohammed Ayub Khan abrogated the 1956 constitution and promulgated a nationwide Martial Law on 8 October 1958, Azam, then commanding the Army’s strike corps based at Jhelum, was made a member of the federal cabinet. When Ayub decided that his duopoly with Mirza would not work, it primarily fell to Azam Khan, as the senior member of the cabinet and Ayub’s de-facto number two, to confront President Iskander Mirza late at night on the 26-27th of October and procure his resignation – a delicate task that he successfully managed without any untoward incident taking place.
He began to mix freely with the poorest of the poor, particularly with the farmers and the fishermen – it became a running joke that persons in these categories were the closest friends of the governor in East Pakistan
As federal minister for rehabilitation, Azam’s greatest achievement was the establishment of the Korangi Housing Project for the ‘muhajireen’ from India. This project, comprising 50,000 houses, was completed in a record period of 6 months on a shoestring budget of Rs 15 million. Further, Azam was also in charge of refugee settlement claims across the length and breadth of Pakistan. He dealt with this task indefatigably and was constantly on the move all over the country, from dawn to dusk, meeting with refugees, evaluating their claims and liaising with local officials to expeditiously settle the claims.
This admirable show of public service endeared Azam Khan to the refugees and made his name known countrywide. Paradoxically, such impressive popularity of his chief lieutenant made Ayub Khan nervous, and he contrived to remove the former from the scene by sending him as governor of East Pakistan in April 1960. But before doing so, Ayub retired Azam from the army at the age of 51, two years before the mandatory age of retirement for a lieutenant general. As the senior-most general after Ayub, Azam had a legitimate expectation to succeed the former as C-in-C, but Ayub had already set his mind on promoting the utterly dependable but professionally pedestrian Musa Khan to the role, arguably to the disadvantage of the professional excellence of the Pakistan Army.
By sending Azam Khan to Dhaka, Ayub probably thought that the rustic Pashtun from Peshawar would fail to make the grade in the troubled and restive eastern wing, thus putting paid to his fame. But the field marshal was in for a rude shock!
With his disarming humility, friendliness and genuine affection for the Bengalis, Azam Khan truly won over East Pakistan. First of all, he dispensed with protocol and his motorcade would travel like any ordinary vehicles on the road. Second, he began to mix freely with the poorest of the poor, particularly with the farmers and the fishermen – it became a running joke that persons in these categories were the closest friends of the governor in East Pakistan. On one occasion he even stopped his car and squatted on the road to share a meal with labourers working on a building site.
Third, the governor adopted a policy of reconciliation, restraint and confidence-building in his dealings with politicians, student leaders and members of civil society, even to the extent of releasing Maulana Bhashani, a major political opponent of the regime. Fourth, Azam championed the interests of East Pakistan in his dealings with the federal government, and he strained every sinew to procure maximum development funds for the province. Fifth, the governor led from the front in dealing with the myriad challenges facing the province – for instance, when two major cyclones struck the Eastern wing during his governorship, Azam spent weeks on the frontline in Spartan circumstances, often regularly wading in knee-deep water in order to personally oversee rehabilitation efforts.
While Azam’s approach worked to ameliorate East Pakistani grievances and to help bridge the gulf with West Pakistan, it gave sleepless nights to the president. It was anathema for Ayub to countenance that his key lieutenant in East Pakistan enjoyed such widespread grassroots acclaim, something he could not achieve even in his wildest dreams. Thus, a series of petty measures were devised to rile the governor, including the arrest of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in Karachi without taking Azam into confidence or the recall of the provincial chief secretary, Syed Hashim Raza, against the wishes of the governor. A clear message of annoyance was given by the president to the governor for acting more as the representative of the province in his dealings with the federal government rather than as the latter’s agent in the province. Realising that he no longer enjoyed the president’s approbation, Azam Khan resigned the governorship in April 1962, with his honour intact and his popularity at its peak.
Settling down in Lahore, Azam Khan began taking a keen interest in opposition politics. When the battle-lines for the 1964 presidential elections were being drawn, the combined opposition alliance seriously considered the former general as their candidate. However, it is widely rumoured that Azam’s candidature was vetoed by one of the opposition leaders on the basis that the general had been associated with the Ayub regime – this veto was allegedly secured at the behest of the intelligence agencies and upon receipt of a “donation” of 500,000 rupees to the leader in question.
If Azam had contested the presidential elections, he was sure to have carried East Pakistan and given Ayub a run for his money in the rest of the country, even under the prevalent sham Basic Democracy system. But in a free and fair one person/one vote scenario, Azam Khan would surely have defeated Ayub in the whole of Pakistan and, if so, our history would have been markedly different for the better, with the bloody separation of 1971 possibly not having come to pass.
Once Fatima Jinnah accepted the opposition’s candidature and courageously entered the electoral fray, Azam vigorously campaigned for her success, but sadly it was a foregone conclusion that she would lose the engineered presidential election, as she did. Dejected, Azam gradually withdrew from active politics and public life – his approach being reminiscent of the words of General Douglas MacArthur, who had once famously stated that, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
However, the embrace of the great leveller cannot be avoided by any mortal, and for Azam Khan, then the country’s senior-most living general, the reckoning came at Lahore in September 1994. At age 86, a remarkable innings closed forever.
Epilogue: When Pakistan decided to send its first ambassador to Bangladesh in 1975, Prime Minister Bhutto offered the job to Azam Khan. He declined the role by stating that he could neither represent Pakistan in Bangladesh nor Bangladesh in Pakistan. That says it all about the general’s love for East and West Pakistan!
The writer is a barrister with over twenty years of varied legal practice in Pakistan, UAE and Australia. He is currently an entrepreneur and the co-founder/operator of an online home-based confectionery business. The history and politics of Pakistan is his abiding passion. He can be reached at email@example.com