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Hilarious and ultimately tragic lives of leaders who ruled Pak

By INDRANIL BANERJIE

At the Helm by Tilak Devasher is an utterly compelling book that takes the reader down the tumultuous, often hilarious and ultimately tragic life and times of the diverse men and women who have ruled Pakistan since 1947.
The book is not aimed at readers wanting an introduction to Pakistan but for those who know something about that country and its tortuous history. This book, the author warns in his preface, is “neither a conventional history of Pakistan nor a biographical one. It does not go into details about the administration and policies of each of the rulers…what this book does provide is a riveting glimpse into the history of Pakistan through the prism of anecdotes about those who have been at the helm and about a few seminal events that have impacted Pakistan’s destiny.”
The book then is essentially a collection of anecdotes but not without structure or underlying theme.
As the author sketches a series of snapshots on the workings of Pakistan’s rulers, beginning from the creator of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to its last dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf, what emerges is the growing tendency of all the country’s rulers to use personal power at the cost of institutional authority. This has become the norm in Pakistan and its biggest contributor to instability. This trend was started by Jinnah who was convinced that he single-handedly had wrested Pakistan from the British Empire and that he alone would control its future. The last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, the author writes, believed Jinnah was “suffering from megalomania in its worst form”.
When Mountbatten suggested it would be better for Jinnah to be Pakistan’s first Prime Minister rather than its Governor-General as that would place all constitutional power in his hand, Jinnah shrugged off the advice, making it clear that he would wield total power no matter what position he held: “In my position, it is I who will give advice and other will act upon it…”
Devasher’s account of Jinnah’s tragic end is nothing short of astounding. Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first Prime Minister and others, quickly began to dislike the imperious Jinnah. “While Jinnah could forge the Muslim League as an instrument for the creation of Pakistan, his disparaging attitude towards it resulted in the instrument beginning to crumble even before his demise”, the author writes. Jinnah, who was dying of consumption, made a last journey on 11 September 1948 from Quetta to Karachi. “There was no one to receive him in at Mauripur airport (Karachi’s military airport) barring his military secretary Col Geoffrey Knowles and an army ambulance, sans any nurse”, according to the book. “The ambulance would break down halfway to his residence and it took Col Knowles two hours to fetch another, from the local Red Cross. Meanwhile, Jinnah was stranded in the road for two hours in an ‘oppressive’ ambulance that completely exhausted him…Jinnah was to die later that night.”
Jinnah, according to the author, had to have two funerals: “one according to the Sunni rituals in the open and the other before that according to the Shia norms in his home.” Worse was to follow. His sister Fatima, who wanted to make public the rift between her brother and Liaqat Ali Khan, was systematically gagged; even her speeches in Radio Pakistan were cut off the moment she tried to criticise Liaqat Ali. She died a recluse, shunned by the powers of the country her brother had founded. Nobody was around when she died and it was left to a servant to alert the neighbours.
Many believed that Fatima had been murdered but no official investigation was allowed. The story of Jinnah was rewritten and a version peddled to the Pakistani masses to suit Jinnah’s successors.
The last days of Pakistan’s first President, Iskander Mirza are equally heart-rending. Mirza, a descendant of the infamous Mir Jafar of Plassey notoriety, was a major figure in the history of the creation of Pakistan. A former Army officer, Mirza served as the country’s defence minister and a key leader during the period of instability following the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan.
Mirza, like many Pakistani leaders who followed him, made the mistake of trusting an Army general, in this case Ayub Khan. Mirza had saved Ayub Khan from a court martial and had pushed his career.
In the end, when Gen Ayub Khan seized power in 1958, one of his first acts was to exile Mirza and his wife. They were not even allowed to take their belongings with them but bundled off to London with only a few suitcases containing their clothes.
Mirza spent the last 11 years of his life in virtual penury in London, supported by a meagre pension and handouts from friends which included the then Iranian Ambassador to the UK, Ardeshir Zahedi. Despite requests, Pakistan Army dictators never allowed Mirza to re-visit Pakistan.
“While in hospital in London, the Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi visited Iskander Mirza frequently. On one such occasion, as he approached the room, he overheard the former president tell his wife Nahid, ‘We cannot afford medical treatment, so let me just die.’ The ambassador was so overcome with emotion, that he turned away without visiting his friend.”
Mirza died shortly thereafter in his sleep on his 70 th birthday leaving behind a paltry sum of 859 pounds. The Pakistani generals refused to allow his burial in Pakistan and it was left for the Shah of Iran to accord Pakistan’s first president some honour after his death. Mirza was accorded a state funeral in Tehran. Mirza’s family, still living in Pakistan, was not even allowed to attend the funeral.
Reading the book suggests that this cruel strain in Pakistan’s rulers is yet to be effaced. For those acquainted with Pakistan’s history, the book is a joy to read, especially as Devasher, a former intelligence official, unlike the average Indian bureaucrat, has a natural flair for writing. He admits also to have spent long hours in his study to put together a collection of diverse anecdotes into a structured and meaningful narrative. The result is an outstanding book that all readers familiar with Pakistan ought not to pass.