Yaqoob Ali Khan
Yaqoob Ali Khan

General Ziaul Haq’s singular focus during the early years of his regime remained on grasping the intricacies of civilian administration, and he soon found out that he knew little about foreign policy. With domestic affairs a priority, he allowed bureaucrats to handle affairs of foreign policy.

Enter Agha Shahi, a career Foreign Office diplomat, who had been working in the Foreign Office since the Bhutto era.

Shahi’s rise was quick: in January 1978, he was promoted to foreign policy adviser, and a year later, he bagged another promotion — foreign secretary. He retained this position till 1982, working as the top man in the Foreign Office during these three years.

With many calculations still to be made in Cold War politics and a crisis brewing on the western border, Gen Zia installs his man in charge of foreign policy: Sahibzada Yaqoob Ali Khan

In 1982, Shahi made an attempt to keep Pakistan lodged in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as an observer — the country had only become a full member of the NAM in 1979, having earlier sided with the United States in the Cold War era and been a signatory to the South East Treaty Organisation (Seato) and the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento).

Pakistan had been participating in NAM activities but was not entitled to full membership because of its Seato and Cento associations. After the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, Pakistan relinquished its membership to the two pacts and formally began the process of becoming a full NAM member instead.

When Pakistan’s request was granted in 1979, Gen Zia deemed it important enough to proceed to Havana to attend the NAM summit, then in its sixth session.

But before the next edition, the seventh summit conference that had been convened in New Delhi, India, in March 1983, Agha Shahi and Gen Zia ran into a dispute that soon turned into an impasse. Agha Shahi wanted to keep Pakistan’s position in NAM as an observer but his line was opposed by the general. The disagreement cost Shahi his job; he quit the Foreign Office in 1982.

Agha Shahi
Agha Shahi

With Shahi gone, Gen Zia decided to re-evaluate Foreign Office workings insofar as the United States was concerned. He began looking for a man whom he could trust to replace Agha Shahi. Among retired army officers, his eye caught the name of Sahibzada Yaqoob Ali Khan, who was a retired general and had a decent record of serving in various positions.

Agha Shahi wanted to keep Pakistan’s position in NAM as an observer but his line was opposed by the general. The disagreement cost Shahi his job; he quit the Foreign Office in 1982.

Hailing from the ruling family of Rampur, Sahibzada Yaqoob had begun his service with the British Indian army and had also fought in the Second World War. He had also led an armoured division in the 1965 war with India. After retiring from the army, he had been posted as ambassador in France, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Sahibzada Yaqoob accepted Gen Zia’s offer to become foreign minister. Together with the general, he worked intelligently for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan — something that Shahi wasn’t able to deliver.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, Gen Zia was still keeping the two Bhutto ladies in continued detention. Despite tall claims of improved law and order, on Sept 25, 1981, Muslim League leader Chowdhry Zahoor Ilahi was shot dead in Lahore. The Zia government subsequently levelled charges of murder against the PPP and a large number of party activists were arrested.

An imaginative politician from Gujrat, Ilahi belonged to the traditional style of leaders. He began his career by serving in the police department of Punjab and later switched to business. During the Ayub Khan era, he was an opponent of Nawab Amir Mohammad Khan of Kalabagh, a strong-willed administrator.

By virtue of being an important leader of Ayub Khan’s Muslim League (Convention), he also opposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When Bhutto assumed power, he had Ilahi arrested and also confiscated his property. He fought for real democracy in the country but did not live to see his dream turn into reality.

It was not immediately known who killed Ilahi, but the military government quickly alleged that Murtaza Bhutto’s Al Zulfikar Organisation was behind the murder. The assassins were never apprehended.


Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine July 19th, 2015

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