The man Jinnah called his right hand

The Pakistan of 2017 is in many ways Liaquat’s creation as he established most of the policies Pakistan follows today.
Published October 16, 2017

Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan often smiled as he faced the camera. He is seen here seated in the centre during a Muslim League Council Meeting in Bombay in the early 1940s. From extreme left are Sher-e-Bengal A.K. Fazlul Huq and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. On Liaquat’s left are Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Sardar Aurangzeb Khan, and Amir Ahmed Khan, the famed Raja Sahib Mehmoodabad (extreme right). | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan often smiled as he faced the camera. He is seen here seated in the centre during a Muslim League Council Meeting in Bombay in the early 1940s. From extreme left are Sher-e-Bengal A.K. Fazlul Huq and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. On Liaquat’s left are Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Sardar Aurangzeb Khan, and Amir Ahmed Khan, the famed Raja Sahib Mehmoodabad (extreme right). | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

LIAQUAT Ali Khan, one of the heroes of the Pakistan Movement, was the builder of the nation in its nascent years. The Pakistan of 2017 — on the 70th anniversary of its independence — is in many ways Liaquat’s creation as he established most of the policies Pakistan follows today.

Liaquat had been a devoted follower of the Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, since 1928, and was appointed general secretary of the All-India Muslim League by his leader in 1936. Over the subsequent 12 years, Jinnah and Liaquat developed a close working relationship, with Jinnah calling Liaquat “my right hand” in 1943, and appointing him prime minister in 1947. He held the position with great skill and distinction until he was assassinated on October 16, 1951.

Liaquat was a reserved, outwardly calm person. Although he was not a demonstrative figure who craved attention and an audience, he was a skilled politician whom his political opponents often underestimated, as did the Congress Party, to their own cost. Besides, he worked in the shadow of the Quaid, who did not allow others to be the public spokesman for the League after 1936, or for Pakistan between August 14, 1947, and his death.

Liaquat greatly admired Jinnah for his devotion to the cause of the Muslims. It was a devotion Liaquat shared and respected. He was always deferential to Jinnah in part because Jinnah always demanded deference from his followers, and in part because Liaquat always respected the almost 20-year difference in age between them. But Jinnah truly depended on Liaquat, who was at the centre of all the League’s activities before partition and as prime minister.

Liaquat was an Urdu-speaking Punjabi, the second son of the Nawab of Karnal. He was educated in law at Syed Ahmed Khan’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which later became the Aligarh University, and he remained devoted all his life to the modernist ideals and the integration of Western and Islamic learning he acquired there. He was a very good student and became a well-educated, well-travelled person who could, and did, conduct himself well during conversations of intellectual and ethical nature, as Viceroy Lord Wavell recorded in his journal.

Liaquat was married to his first cousin in 1915 and had a son, Wilayat, born in 1919, the year after his father died leaving him an independently wealthy man. Liaquat then studied law at Exeter College, Oxford, and the Inner Temple, London. He was called to the Bar and returned to India in 1922 after touring Europe as a well-educated, cosmopolitan man, who could recite Iqbal’s Jawab-i-Shikwa by heart, was fond of entertaining and music, and whose passion was politics.

He was also passionate about education and, among other things, he became the president and benefactor of the Anglo-Islamic School in Muzaffarnagar, United Provinces; president of the Anglo-Arabic College, Delhi (now Zakir Husain Delhi College); and he maintained a connection with Aligarh until 1947. As prime minister he continued his strong interest in education and spoke of its importance frequently.

He registered to practise law in Lahore after his return from England, but devoted his life to education and politics. In 1923 he ran for election to the Legislative Assembly of India from the Punjab, but was defeated. It was, thus, an accident of history that left him associated with the United Provinces and not the Punjab to which he belonged. According to Dr. Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, a Bengali who knew him well and whose husband served as Liaquat’s foreign secretary, he was “very much a Punjabi”.

Liaquat was elected to the Legislative Council in the United Provinces in 1926 and for 20 years represented the province; first at Lucknow and then, from 1941, in Delhi, where he joined Jinnah in the Legislative Assembly of India. Jinnah appointed him the Muslim League deputy leader.

He had always been interested in economic affairs, spoke frequently on the subject in the United Provinces’ legislatures and in the Legislative Assembly of India in New Delhi, served as one of the Indo-British trade negotiators in 1937, and was the first Indian Finance Member of British India in the interim government between September 1946 and partition.

Liaquat had a legalistic bent of mind and he was a detail-oriented person capable of long hours of work. Temperamentally he was ideally suited to be the general secretary of the League, and all its committees — such as the Working Committee and the Committee of Action — revolved around him. He was also responsible for the provincial League parties, maintained voluminous correspondence, and frequently travelled throughout the subcontinent for the League. It was remarkable that the League became a well-organised, national political party just in the space of a few years due to Jinnah’s leadership and Liaquat’s organisational ability.

Of critical value was Liaquat’s role in the creation of Dawn as a weekly newspaper in 1941 and as a daily, the following year. Dawn played a major role in publicising and popularising the demand for Pakistan, and in the elevation of Jinnah as a national and even international figure.

Carrying the newspaper became a sign that one was a follower of Jinnah and a supporter of the demand for Pakistan. Indeed, Dawn was a catalyst for the creation of Pakistan.

The founding of Pakistan in 1947 was the great achievement of the Quaid-a-Azam, but he could not have done it without the help of a number of leading supporters, of whom Liaquat was the most important. But Liaquat also had another great achievement in his life, and that was the establishment of Pakistan as a working state entity and the development of its policies, most of which have been followed since 1947.

In the history of world leaders, Liaquat must be ranked with Clement Attlee, who created the welfare state in Britain, and Harry Truman in the United States, who formulated the US foreign policy which has been followed to this day. Liaquat had a much more difficult task than Attlee or Truman, as Britain could receive loans from the United States and the British Commonwealth countries, and the US had come out of the Second World War in a very strong economic and political position. On the contrary, Liaquat assumed the leadership of a completely new and untested polity, with very little international support.

In 1947 both British and Indian leaders were talking about the possibility of Pakistan soon collapsing “like a tent”, openly discussing how many weeks or months Pakistan would last. It was Liaquat’s historical achievement that by the end of his prime ministership in October 1951 no one was talking about Pakistan’s imminent collapse.

In 1947, Pakistan needed to create a state apparatus from scratch while absorbing millions of refugees, and fighting with India over Kashmir. In addition to ensuring Pakistan’s survival and the creation of government institutions, such as the civil service and the military, Liaquat was responsible for creating Pakistan’s national policies and 70 years later they have mostly remained intact.

The cornerstone of these policies was the stabilisation of the economy along sound fiscal lines while aligning it with capitalist trends in the West rather than with the communist bloc dominated by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Pakistan had little choice at the time though. Turning to the Soviet Union for assistance was not much of an option as its economy had all but been destroyed during the War and its preoccupation with Cold War issues was not much of a help either. While the West in the end provided little economic support, Pakistan’s industrial development in the 1950s and ’60s was actually a result of Liaquat’s early policies.

In addition to the economic policy, Liaquat also established Pakistan’s foreign policy, which the country has largely followed ever since. The first feature of this policy was in regard to India and the conflict over Kashmir. Liaquat never agreed to accept the Vale of Kashmir as part of India, a policy that has characterised Pakistan’s stance to date. Liaquat made a huge effort in India, England, and in Pakistan, trying to force India to agree to binding international arbitration over Kashmir. Even though he was not successful, his views on Kashmir have been propounded by all who have followed him since.

Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and Begum Rana Liaquat wave to the crowds as they are about to board the flight for the United States on state visit in May 1950. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and Begum Rana Liaquat wave to the crowds as they are about to board the flight for the United States on state visit in May 1950. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

The same has been the case with the policy of alliance with the West. As with the orientation of its economy, Pakistan had little choice in the matter. In 1947, the Soviet Union was busy draining its East European allies of their assets to build up its own industries. Allying with a state based on godless communism was also unacceptable, and had Pakistan done so it would have been isolated diplomatically by the West at a time when it desperately needed its support. As a member of the Baghdad Pact between 1955 and 1979, as a frontline state in the war in Afghanistan after 1979, and, again, as an ally in the war on terror in the post-9/11 world, Pakistan has followed the alignment set by Liaquat. It is only recently that Pakistan has started trying to develop meaningful ties with China.

The third main feature of Pakistan’s foreign policy is its relationship with its Muslim confreres in the Middle East. Before partition, Jinnah had declared that Pakistan would be a friend of the West but oriented toward the Muslim Middle East. Liaquat sought good relations with all the Muslim countries, including Iran, which was the first country in the world to recognise the new state, and he welcomed the Shah of Iran to Pakistan in March 1950; the first head of state to visit the country. In the 1970s and ’80s Pakistan emphasised its Middle Eastern connections; in 2017 the country looks increasingly for assistance from the Middle East and seeks to play a significant role in military affairs in the region.

Finally, with regard to its form of government, Pakistan continues to follow the path set for it by Liaquat. He had always been committed to a democratic political system and sought to create Pakistan as a parliamentary democracy in line with the Westminster model. But this had to be done while recognising and honouring Muslim feelings. These included the recognition that Islam is central to Pakistani life and its political system. Liaquat did this in the Objectives Resolution of March 12, 1949, when he started the process of creating a constitution which set up a parliamentary system but one that respected the sensibilities of the religiously-inspired. The Resolution, although amended, is part of the Pakistan Constitution under Article 2(A).

Liaquat was a son of Aligarh and a devoted follower of its founder, Syed Ahmed Khan, and that explains his modernist philosophy of integrating Western and modernist Islamic learning toward creating an advanced society based on both. Socially liberal, he fully supported women’s education and the activities of his second wife, the dynamic and remarkable Rana Liaquat Ali Khan, who founded the All-Pakistan Women’s Association in 1949.

From the creation of a modern military, a diplomatic service, foreign policy and diplomatic relationships, to the establishment of an educational system, a civil service, a state bank, and an entire economy, Liaquat was at the centre of all these activities and the inspiration for many of them. He believed he would have the time to write and promulgate a constitution, and convert the Muslim League into a well-organised and vibrant party as he had done for its All-India version in the years before 1947. Besides, he was also keen on establishing respect for all sects and creeds and viewpoints. When he was assassinated, he was only 56. Had he been the prime minister for another, say, 10 years or so, Pakistan would have developed more along the principles of the ideal liberal Muslim democracy envisioned by the Quaid-i-Azam and by his “right hand”, Liaquat Ali Khan.

The writer is Professor of History, Eastern Michigan University.

This story is part of a series of 16 special reports under the banner of '70 years of Pakistan and Dawn’. Read the report here.

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Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan speaking at the Constituent Assembly in August 1947. Begum Rana Liaquat is seen on the left. On the right is Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives
Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan speaking at the Constituent Assembly in August 1947. Begum Rana Liaquat is seen on the left. On the right is Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. | Photo: Dawn / White Star Archives

Sensible words laced with vision

The ushering in of 1938 was the beginning of a full year, in the seventeen-month period, in which Muslims experienced for the first time in modern history life under a Government dominated by Hindus. By the end of the following year, they would feel that the resignation of the Congress governments from provincial offices would be a ‘Day of Deliverance.’ It was this experience of ‘Congress Raj’ that convinced many Muslims that their cultural and educational institutions would not be safe in an independent India dominated by Hindus.


The speech given by Liaquat on March 28, 1938, was on communal matters. The speech was given during a debate on the budget in the UP Legislature, but, as was increasingly the case, accusations of communalism on the part of the government were raised by Muslim League members. This was increasingly a theme developed by Liaquat.

“Nawabzada Muhammad Liaquat Ali Khan: Sir, some honourable members here seem to be under the impression that this demand of the Musalmans for representation in the services is something new and something which is confined to this country only. The trouble with us, Indians, is that we never look beyond our noses. If my honourable friends had been following the events outside India, they would have found that even in the Western countries where the representative institutions are being run on most democratic lines this demand by the minorities for representation in the services is very insistent and persistent.

Whereas in this country, though my friends talk of nationalism yet most of them would not even touch a glass of water if it was touched by somebody else. Is it not disgraceful to hear of ‘Hindu Pani and Muslim Pani’ at railway stations? So what is the use of talking about things which do not exist. We are living at a time when our culture is different, our social life is different, our religions are different. It is wrong to think that this demand of the Musalmans for representation in the services is a religious matter. It is nothing of the kind.

Every minority feels that it must have adequate representation in the administration – not for the few jobs, not for loaves and fishes – so that it may feel secure and have confidence in the Government of the country. So I really do not understand when honourable member after honourable member stands up and says that this demand of the Musalmans is undemocratic, that it has no reason, or logic behind it, and that its motive is only to establish a Muslim rule in India.

Sir, I assure you that he must indeed be a wretched Musalman who thinks in these terms of a Muslim rule or a Hindu rule. What every Indian wants is an Indian rule where everyone belonging to every community will have fair play, where everyone will have confidence in the Government of the particular province in which he happens to live. What we have to see is to create conditions under which the minorities will have confidence in the administration. What I want and what I feel is this that the minorities should be adequately represented in every department of the Government. It is really a question of creating trust in the administration of the province.

Shri Jagan Prasad Rawat: What percentage do you suggest?

Nawabzada Muhammad Liaquat Ali Khan: Sir, my honourable friend says, what percentage I would suggest. I can only tell him that if I had been a Hindu – and when I say this I am saying this most honestly and sincerely – I would have told the minorities to take cent per cent if that would satisfy them. What does it matter, what percentage you give to one community or the other in the services? What matters is that you get independence, and have the administration of your country in your own hands. These things are a passing phase. This distrust will not last long and I can assure you that as long as you think in the terms of percentage and things like that there will never be any real freedom for this country.”


The most important event of the year came at the end of the year with the British declaration of war without what the Congress considered proper consultation. As a result Congress ministries resigned. This led to the League declaring December 22, 1939, the ‘Day of Deliverance’, ‘as a mark of relief that the Congress Governments have at last ceased to function’. This was one of the two biggest blunders the Congress made in the decade before independence (the other was the Quit India campaign of 1942.) The resignation of the Congress ministries led to the party giving up all the power and authority it was acquiring as it established itself in the minds of the British and Indians alike as the legitimate inheritor of power. It was a disastrous political decision by the Congress, but a golden opportunity for the League to recover its fortunes; it did not miss the opening as its organised activities increased in number, frequency and intensity.

MARCH 25, 1939

On March 25, 1939, Liaquat delivered the Presidential Speech at the United Provinces Divisional Muslim League Conference, Meerut.

“The present activities of Muslim League commenced from the General Elections. The question arose as to how the various Provincial Governments were to be formed. The Congress preferred party Governments to coalitions with Muslims. Thus in eight provinces we have Congress Governments which are fundamentally Hindu. After the acceptance of office by the Congress, an ever increasing number of defects in the Government of India Act have made themselves apparent, for under this act it has become obvious that there need be no Muslim at all in any provincial government – witness Orissa and Central Provinces – or if any – those who beside themselves represent nothing else –witness the rest of the Congress Provinces. Further it has become apparent that the protection given to the religious, cultural, linguistic and other rights of the minorities under the Instrument of Instructions to the Governors has proved, to be futile and meaningless. Under cover of Section 144 the Muslims are being denied their several rights. There is riot and civil commotion in United Provinces and Central Provinces and suspicion is gaining currency that the Hindus are being favoured, that the elementary rights of the Muslims are being ignored.

This preconsidered majority and minority has created the critical position, that the Hindus are and will be the Government, the Muslims are and will be the Opposition, and the best orations cannot convert the majorities into minorities or vice versa. Centuries will pass and the Musalmans will be in opposition – always deprived of power.

The Congress Socialists have a solution for this. Abolish religion, they say, and political parties will be affiliated to economic policies, and every difficulty will disappear. In other words, abolish Islam and the Musalmans will be strong. Is this democracy? Does democracy enjoin the permanent subordination of minorities to majorities, of one religion to another? Is this not a conjuring trick to subordinate 90 million Muslims to 23 crore Hindus? We are Indian, but why should we cease to be Muslim? Why should we be traitors to Islam? Islam is our faith, culture and civilization, but India is our home where the bones of our ancestors lie buried for the last 1200 years. We desire to live in our home with our own culture, and we wish to control our own destiny according to our own tradition. We want no trustees – British or the Hindus, we want no charity, we do not wish others to grant us favours, we want the power and the right to look after ourselves. We cannot tolerate the Congress issuing instructions to its ministers teaching them how to look after Musalmans. The Congress is not the sovereign power and we certainly are not its subjects.”


The year began with the League, especially Liaquat as Finance Member, fighting for Pakistan inside the Interim Government, and both Jinnah and Liaquat and the League Committee of Action, continuing to argue for Pakistan and working the provincial League parties, especially in the Punjab, Sindh, and Bengal, to establish or consolidate League power.

Eight days after Prime Minister Clement Atlee declared that the British would quit India after transferring power into responsible hands no later than June 1948, Liaquat, in the Legislative Assembly of India in New Delhi, gave one of the most important speeches ever given in the chamber, on February 28, 1947.

It was the Budget speech for the following fiscal year. As the first Budget speech given by an Indian Finance Member in British India it was not only a historic moment but it also had dramatic political effects. Dubbed the ‘Poor Man’s Budget’ it proposed special taxes on wartime profiteering that mostly impacted rich Hindu businessmen. Consequently, Hindus interpreted Liaquat’s budget as an attack on them by a Muslim Leaguer. For many of them, being challenged by a minority Muslim was the last straw; it convinced them that they would be better off by allowing Pakistan to be created and Liaquat, and many Leaguers along with him, migrating to Pakistan. The result was the mood among some important Hindu leaders changed and they began to accept the idea of partitioning the country and the creation of Pakistan. By March 14, Nehru, one of the staunchest opponents of both the Muslim League and partition, was acknowledging that Pakistan was inevitable.

FEBRUARY 28, 1947

“The proposals that I have to place before this House, whether they involve the levy of fresh or the abandonment of existing taxation, are related, not to purely financial purposes, but to certain social objectives which, I am sure the House will agree, must be kept prominently in view by all those who have the good of the countless millions of this vast subcontinent at heart. India is a land of glaring contrasts and disparities; we have here on the one hand a class of multimillionaires rolling in wealth and holding the economy of the country in their grip by exploiting for their own profit the labour of the poorer classes, and on the other the vast multitudes who eke out, somehow or other, a miserable existence precariously near the starvation line. The conditions created by the last year served to accentuate these disparities; the rich became richer and the poor poorer. This meant the concentration of wealth in fewer hands and, inevitably, the use of that wealth for the purpose of tightening the stranglehold of Big money over the economic life of the country as a whole by the acquisition of businesses, public utilities, and the press.

A set of conditions in which the few are able to wield such vast power over the many can hardly be regarded as anything but a negation of the principles of social justice. And although I am not one of those who consider the abolition of private property and the complete equalisation of incomes as the only remedy for these ills, I do believe in the Quranic injunction that wealth should not be allowed to circulate only among the wealthy, and the stern warning given against accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals.”

Excerpts from Dear Mr Jinnah – selected correspondence and speeches of Liaquat Ali Khan 1937-1947; courtesy Oxford University Press (2004)

The writer is Professor of History, Eastern Michigan University, USA

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