Iskander Ali Mirza is a controversial figure in Pakistan’s history. Trained at Sandhurst and having served in the British Indian Army, he became a political figure in Pakistan after Independence. As interior minister he helped oust Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad in 1955 and took over his position. Later, he would be elected as president under the 1956 constitution promulgated under his watch. Accused of constantly meddling in political affairs as president, he also promulgated Pakistan’s first martial law in 1958, which saw his own ouster by the army commander Gen Ayub Khan. Sent into exile by Gen Ayub, he was never allowed to return and died in the UK in 1969.
Hassan Ispahani (HI): In London, on the 23rd of September 1967, Iskander, we are meeting in an excellent atmosphere, good weather and, above all, in a free country. We can therefore talk as we like — [long pause]
For years… which I want to clear with you today. You know as well as I, that neither of us is going younger and time is flying fast in keeping with our modern jet age. So, with your permission and consent, I shall put to you a few questions to which I hope you will give appropriate answers. I think that this little talk will certainly be good for the future historians at least. Today you are condemned for all that has happened during the period that you held the reins of power in Pakistan and President Ayub’s book, published recently, appears to have put a royal seal on your mismanagement and misfeasance. Shall I start?
Iskander Mirza (Im): Yes.
HI: Thank you. I shall. To start with, I shall go back a little to your early period of Governor-Generalship and Presidentship. Was it necessary for you and Gurmani to bring into being a child like the Republican Party which I often anticipated will die as soon as you [were] deposed or left office? Such parties, as in the Republican Party have existed in the past, exist today and may or will exist in the future — these parties do not grow from the grassroots and, therefore, when their creators are no more, just vanish into thin air. Will you give me some information on the reasons that prompted you to start a party when you were in power?
IM: In order to make the story complete, it is very necessary to go still further back, ie in 1954 September. I think you remember that, one day, you came in London to the hotel I was staying at and told me, ‘Let us go to the airport’, as Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra was returning from the United States. So I accompanied you to the airport and, before our arrival, apparently, Mohammad Ali Bogra and Chaudhry Muhammad Ali [the fourth prime minister of Pakistan] and the party had arrived at the airport. As soon as Mohammad Ali Bogra saw us, he said don’t you know that there is a great deal of trouble in Karachi and that they have just heard from one of the ministers, Mr Malik, on the telephone that Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad is about to declare martial law.
I knew nothing about it and was astounded, and just then Gen Ayub also came from America and he also joined us. I told Ayub what I [had] heard and he took me aside and he said, ‘Don’t propose anything because, before leaving for America, I have been promised to by Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad that I shall be asked to take over the country.’ So I said, look, this would be a very stupid thing to do; he is a very sick man and you must not take everything he says seriously. Let us [take] time and see how things come about when we return to Karachi.
Then Mohammad Ali Bogra asked me if I could get a special aeroplane, so that we could get there quickly. Well, I tried to get a Canberra from the Royal Air Force, but it was not possible, so another aeroplane, I think it was an Argus, was placed at our disposal. So we all, including Mr [Mirza Abul Hassan] Ispahani who was then High Commissioner, flew to Karachi without even saying goodbye to my wife and the same happened to the High Commissioner.
Iskander Mirza: Pakistan’s First Elected President’s Memoirs from Exile, compiled and edited by Syed Khawar Mehdi, has recently been published by Lightstone Publishers. Eos is presenting excerpts of an interview transcribed in the book and conducted by the Pakistani legislator and diplomat Mirza Abul Hassan Ispahani in 1969, shortly before Mirza’s death. Although potentially self-serving, these recollections shed light on what was going on behind the scenes during the first decade of Pakistan’s tumultuous political history
On arriving at Karachi, we saw an enormous crowd in an excited state and the amusing thing is, on the way, Mohammad Ali Bogra asked me if I could arrange some army to guard him at the airport. I said, yes, it could be arranged, but do you really think it is necessary? He said, yes. His information is that it would be very necessary. So I telephoned Gen Musa by aerial telephone from the air to inform him that we are arriving at such-and-such a time and would he, very kindly, arrange for a company in battle-order to be ready at the airport to protect the prime minister.
So, when we landed, there was a very excited crowd all around running here and there with the Director of Civil Intelligence jumping into the air from one side and somebody else jumping from another and the whole place was like a madhouse. I then suggested it to the High Commissioner, Mr Hassan Ispahani, to get a hold of Bogra, put him in a car and take him to the Governor-General’s House and I would follow later with some others. So, when we got to the Governor-General’s house (and) Gen Ayub and I went towards the Governor-General’s room, there was no sign up to then of Mr Ispahani and Mohammad Ali Bogra.
When we got in there, we saw Chaudhry Muhammad Ali walking about in the room and the Governor-General lying on the floor on a white sheet in a terrible state — he was almost foaming at the mouth and striking in the air, right and left. His face was red and he looked really ill and really not quite in his senses.
We asked him what has happened? Why are you lying on the ground and why are you in such a state? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I am very angry; I want to get rid of this government, I don’t want to see the face of the prime minister; he has been disloyal to me — I want you to take over the country.’ So I talked to him quietly and I said, ‘Look this is not the way to do things, what is the world going to say? You wait.
‘Mohammad Ali Bogra must [have] come by now and he will come up and you must see him and have a heart-to-heart talk. You can’t settle things like that.’ So, one of the servants was sent down and Mohammad Ali Bogra with Mr Ispahani entered the room. In the first minute, I thought the Governor-General was going to burst and [have] a mental collapse, but he gradually recovered and then started talking and he was very furious. However, things came to a pass and they came to an agreement on the basis that a new cabinet would be formed and that the assembly would be suspended. And things would start de novo from the next day.
Chaudhry Mohammad Ali was running between the Governor-General and Bogra and drafting something for all this to take effect the next day. From the next day, Ghulam Muhammad gave a list of certain names whom he wanted in the cabinet; that of Mr Ispahani, Gen Ayub, myself, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, with Mohammad Ali Bogra as prime minister and the others he told him to select himself.
So, we sat down in the cabinet room of the …. sorry, before I come to the time when we went into the cabinet room and sat down, the proclamation which was drafted by Chaudhry Muhammad Ali in consultation with Bogra, Nawab Gurmani and Ghulam Muhammad was drafted and issued to the press. We then sat down and started thinking what next to do.
The government was selected and was sworn in a few hours’ time. No. I am sorry, it was sworn in the next day — our job was to try and clean up the administration as much as we could, and to work for the bringing in of the new constitution, so that the people may start having a share in the government of the country.
“Now, when a prime minister of the country comes to the president and tells him to shoot him, [that] he has made too many mistakes and he is almost weeping, the only conclusion the president can arrive at is the man has lost his nerves and is no longer able to continue as prime minister.”
This was our principal task but, before we could come to it, it was decided to have a sort of an election — which I have not yet understood on what basis, and what was the electorate; and it was a big farce in my opinion. However, some of the officers were selected and some not and another cabinet was formed after about six months and then the constitution-making started furiously and Mohammad Ali Bogra had to go away to America as ambassador; which assignment he was very fond of. We also, unfortunately, lost the services of Mr Ispahani, who refused to be elected on the terms proposed.
A few months after this, the Governor-General got very seriously ill and it was quite impossible to do anything about his health, because he was suffering from paralysis and heart trouble and very high blood pressure — the doctors said that he must not continue as Governor-General for the moment.
And then the cabinet decided that I should act as Governor-General so, as soon as I took over as Governor-General, the question arose who should be prime minister? Bogra was going to America as ambassador and then Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, accompanied by Gurmani, came to me and he said that it is the opinion of the Muslim League party that Mr Suhrawardy, the leader of the Awami League who had about 13 men in the Assembly, [should] be the prime minister.
I said this is a very peculiar way of starting a new constitution because, in any constitution, the largest party forms the government and I really cannot understand how I can overwrite that provision. I said I am going to ask you, Chaudhry Sahib, to form a government — if you are not able to form a government, then it’s for you to come to me and tell me that you have failed; you can’t tell me to ask this man or that man to be prime minister.
This is for you to try and form a government and come to me and tell me this is the government I have formed or this is the government which can work. He then told me that he would like to be prime minister and work the constitution, for which he has worked so hard, provided I talk to Mr Suhrawardy and try and get him around. I said I will try.
I went to Mr Suhrawardy’s house and I talked to him and, ultimately, he agreed that he would not vehemently oppose Chaudhry Mohammad Ali’s government, but he will be in the opposition [and] will not be in the government itself. I said this ought to be enough for you, Mohammad Ali. He said, yes! And he formed the government.
This government brought in the One-Unit scheme, by which I mean that it was decided that the whole of the West Punjab, Sindh and Frontier and Balochistan should lose their respective identities and merge into one province, to be known as the West Pakistan province.
HI: Excuse me, general. Here, I want to put another question to you. Were you not one of the prime movers of this One-Unit formation, or did you not help very strongly through your influence with Khuhro and others to form this one unit? Will you please explain?
IM: I was sitting in the President’s House when a telephone call came from Lahore — and Dr Khan Sahib [Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, the first chief minister of West Pakistan] told me that he has formed a new party. I said what party? He said, I have formed a Republican Party. I said, why? He said, because I can’t trust the Muslim League; they have done me down and I have formed a new party. I said, who has joined your party? He said, ‘Most of the members of the Muslim League.’
I expressed my surprise and I said, well, I personally was against the fragmentation of the Muslim League in this manner and I do not understand why this has been done, and I said, ‘Have you consulted Nawab Gurmani?’ He said Nawab Gurmani is the man who put the idea in our head of forming the Republican Party.
So I said, did you, have you spoken to the prime minister, Mr Mohammad Ali? He said no, why should I? I said, when you are breaking a party, you might have talked to the prime minister who, after all, is the head of the Muslim League party. He said, ‘No we have not talked.’ So I said, I think you haven’t been very wise. However, see what you can do and talk to him but, in the meantime, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali had also heard of it and he came to see me looking very sad and glum and he said this is what they have done.
I said, I have no hand in it, Mohammad Ali. This is the hand of your great friend, Gurmani. I am told, the whole conception is his [and] I have nothing to do with it and now, whatever everybody might say, I have nothing to do with it. I can’t tell them to break the party. Just as I couldn’t tell them not to form the party; I can’t tell them to break it. It is now for you, as prime minister, to see that this thing dies in its infancy.
But he didn’t take any action and most of the Muslim League members of the Punjab Assembly joined the Republican Party and, when the vote of confidence for Khan Muhammad Sahib came, he won by one vote or the casting vote of the president who was also a member of the Republican Party, the Chief Minister of Khairpur, by the name Mumtaz Qizilbash.
He [Chaudhry Mohammad Ali] decided that he will not remain as the president of the Muslim League but will make Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar as president. I was going on to the Chittagong Hill Tract; before going I sent for Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and I said, ‘Look, you know Nishtar perhaps for 10 years; I have known him for 25 years. Please listen to me and don’t make him president of the Muslim League, or you will be in trouble. He is a religious fanatic and he will work against you behind your back and he will try and control the whole government as president of the Muslim League, because he seems to think that he is no less a man than the Quaid-e-Azam. Chaudhry Mohammad Ali hummed and hawed and gave me no direct answer.
When I was in East Bengal — I had returned from the Chittagong Hill Tract to Dacca [Dhaka] — I got a telegram from Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, requesting me to return to Karachi as early as possible, as things were not going as well as they should, and there was a Muslim League agitation on minor points.
So I returned to Karachi as quickly as I could, cancelling my tour to the Sundarban, and had a talk with Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and he said, ‘You were absolutely right about Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar and now I am having all sorts of trouble.’
I said, ‘This will increase. I assure you these troubles will increase, because I know him.’ I said Liaquat Ali Khan was a clever politician; why did he take the job of president of the Muslim League when Quaid-e-Azam died? Because he knew that somebody else, whomever he appointed, will try and control the country through disorganisation.
Naturally, [he was] a wise man and he kept that up and this was also kept up by his successors as prime minister and you, for no reason at all, have divested yourself of a very strong position in the country. I said there is very little I can do to help; however, you will have to go on.
The agitation started, his house was picketed, there was police action and mullahism was increasing. And one day, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali comes to my office and said, ‘Please shoot me, I make too many mistakes.’
Now, when a prime minister of the country comes to the president and tells him to shoot him, [that] he has made too many mistakes and he is almost weeping, the only conclusion the president can arrive at is the man has lost his nerves and is no longer able to continue as prime minister. Just about then, Nawab Gurmani also came from Lahore to see me on some job and, talking about Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, I said, ‘Look, things are not too good.’
This man who has brought in the constitution has lost his nerves within a year and I don’t think, in these conditions, it is fair on the country that he should continue as prime minister. Nawab Gurmani said he quite agrees.
So I then sent for Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and I spoke to him. I said, ‘Don’t you think you should resign and go to England for treatment? He said, ‘I have no money to go to England for treatment.’ I said that can be arranged by the government and I will see that you get enough finances to get proper treatment in London.
He was quite happy about that and he put in his resignation and he was sent to London where he stayed for three or four months and got his treatment. This was the first instalment I had of trying to run the 1956 constitution, which I had, from the very beginning, told Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, [would] not work in this country.
This constitution we have brought in is just like the British constitution, but we have forgotten the main things in the British constitution, the Permanent Head of State. Countries like France, who are far more educated than we are, have failed to run this constitution. And I was telling you from the beginning to try and get some constitution which would run in this country and, to this end, I also got an American expert to advise you. But you all were determined to have this constitution, and now this is the first instalment. I said, God knows what will happen in the future.
HI: Iskander, will you kindly tell me, as briefly as you can, why you kept on changing ministers and prime ministers as often as a man changes his singlet on a hot and humid summer’s day?
IM: After Chaudhry Mohammad Ali had a breakdown, which was not caused by me but by his mental condition — which he got because he was trying to work the constitution of 1956 in a country not suited for it — I had to think whom to get as the new prime minister. I had a talk with Dr Khan Sahib and Nawab Gurmani and I said I think it would be better if we went back to the old idea of the Muslim League and get Mr Suhrawardy to form a cabinet in cooperation with the Republican Party.
Between them, they have the majority to do so. The Hindu members would also support this coalition. They all agreed that a trial should be given and, as in my opinion, Mr Suhrawardy was a brilliant parliamentarian and a very clever man, I decided to give him a try and I sent for him and I said, ‘Would you be able to form a ministry in coalition with the Republican Party and the Hindu members of the Assembly?’ He said quite definitely that he would be, and then I told him to go and then I had a talk with Dr Khan Sahib — the leader of the Republican Party — and see what he could do about it.
He [Suhrawardy] came back after a short time and he said he was ready and that he will give me names by the next day, and his cabinet was sworn in. He worked very well. He was the first man who had the courage to bring the issue of the Baghdad Pact into the Constituent Assembly and had the motion supporting the Pact passed in Parliament.
He was very fond of touring outside countries and there were a lot of troubles during those tours, but I disregarded them because he was carrying on the administration better than his predecessors.
Slightly modified from the original, this interview is excerpted with permission from from the book Iskander Mirza: Pakistan’s First Elected President’s Memoirs from Exile, compiled and edited by Syed Khawar Mehdi and published by Lightstone Publishers
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 3rd, 2023