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A PAKISTANI REMINISCES
- The story of Mohammad Aslam Khan of Peshawar

Mohammad Kuli Khan of the Khattak tribe was a political agent in the Northwest Frontier Province — he helped manage the relations of the British with tribesmen. Iskander Mirza — who later became President of Pakistan — was joint secretary in the defence ministry in Delhi. Early in 1946, Mirza called Kuli Khan over to Delhi, gave him a large sum of money, and told him to organize an invasion of Kashmir by frontier tribesmen on the night Pakistan was created. It was. But two tribal leaders, on reaching Muzaffarabad, had a row about who would be the Amir of Kashmir. There were also enticing homes of Pandits to loot and women to rape on the way. So valuable time was lost. Still, the tribesmen got up to Srinagar airport when they were told to draw back. They never understood why; they thought they had nearly taken Kashmir when they were ordered to leave everything and go home. There was a rumour that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had sent a message to Jinnah through Mian Iftikharuddin that he could have Kashmir if he would leave Hyderabad to India. Jinnah apparently replied that Kashmir was theirs and Hyderabad a legal issue. He lost both.

Kuli Khan sent his son, Mohammad Aslam Khan, to Oxford in 1928. There he made friends with S.S. Dhawan of Dera, Ismail Khan and the Sheikhzada of Mangrol in Kathiawar, amongst others. With his Pathan friends he formed a Khyber Union; he published a pamphlet in which he invented Pakistan, name and all, and made a case for dividing India. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whom he went to meet in London, was indignant; at that time Jinnah believed in indivisible India.

Aslam Khan failed the civil service examination; on returning home, he joined the political service like his father. Those were early years of radio. The NWFP was given a Marconi transmitter, and Aslam was put in charge. When World War II started, he was given a job in All India Radio, Delhi, to broadcast propaganda in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Pushtu. He took a big house near the ridge (probably on Rajpur road), which soon became a haven for Pathans when they were visiting Delhi. Amongst them were Congressmen like Dr Khan Sahib, which sullied Aslam’s image in British eyes. So he went back to Peshawar and did odd jobs in the NWFP government.

Once Pakistan came into being and Jinnah made himself its Governor General, he dismissed the Congress ministry headed by Dr Khan Sahib and replaced him by Abdul Qayyum Khan. He made Aslam’s life difficult, so Aslam got himself transferred to the central government in Karachi (Islamabad was still to be built then).

In 1953, a friend of Aslam’s was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, and took Aslam with him. The Afghans were extremely suspicious of Pakistan; they knew that the A in Pakistan stood for Afghanistan. Aslam Khan explained to them that Pathans and Afghans were the same thing; that he had himself coined the term Pakistan, and that A stood for Pathans. The Afghans also thought that Punjabis were Ahmediyas and oppressed the Sunni Pathans. They were incensed when, in 1955, Pakistan decided to merge all provinces of the west into one as a counterbalance to East Pakistan; they thought it was a plot of Punjabis to subjugate the rest of the provinces.

Aslam Khan decided that the best way to lay these suspicions to rest was a merger of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He convinced Huseyn Shahid Suhrawardy, who was then Prime Minister of Pakistan, and began to work on Afghan leaders. He arranged a visit to Pakistan by King Zahir Shah, who was delighted to converse in French with Suhrawardy. When Sardar Daud, the Afghan Prime Minister, congratulated Suhrawardy on his French, Suhrawardy replied, “Your Royal Highness, once upon a time when I was a young man I was in Paris. Believe me that the urgency to learn French was constantly great.” Suhrawardy was a famous womanizer.

The Americans were consulted about the proposed union, and strongly supported it. They promised to enlarge the Karachi harbour and build another port for Pakistan, to supply 50 railway engines and 500 wagons, and to extend the Chaman railway to Kandahar and the Torkham railway to Jalalabad. Those plans are now being realized in Gwadar port.

Finally all pieces were in place, and Daud was invited to Pakistan to finalize the merger. Aslam Khan took him to the Karachi naval base to see a military exercise. There, a shot rang out. It ricocheted off the hull of a ship and hit Aslam Khan in the hip. Daud was convinced that the bullet was meant for him. Soon thereafter, Iskander Mirza turfed out Feroze Khan Noon as Prime Minister, and was himself then turfed out by General Ayub Khan. Ayub sent his own son-in-law to replace Aslam Khan in Kabul, thus ending Aslam’s dream of Greater Pakistan. Ten years later, Zia manufactured the Taliban in his new Madrassahs, got the Americans to arm them, and used them to take over Afghanistan. Another decade later, the Americans bombed out the Taliban and took over Afghanistan while Musharraf watched.

Aslam went home and got a Coca Cola franchise. When Bhutto became President of Pakistan, he made Aslam governor of the NWFP. But then Bhutto began to suspect that Aslam wanted to remove him and usurp power, so he sacked him, accused him of bottling cockroaches in his Coca Cola and closed down his factory. But two years later in 1974, Bhutto had a change of heart and sent Aslam to Iran as ambassador. There Aslam put it to the Shah that Iran and Pakistan should federate. The Shah was not too forthcoming. He told Aslam that no country in South Asia — not even Iran — could match India’s military power and that Pakistan should settle the Kashmir problem by accepting the line of control as frontier. Aslam got quite close to the Shah, as he had earlier to Daud in Afghanistan and General Qassim, the dictator of Iraq. The Shah’s fondness for Aslam made Bhutto jealous, and Aslam resigned his ambassadorship.

When Zia staged a coup against Bhutto, he made Aslam minister home minister. In 1987, tension between Pakistan and India rose; Rajiv Gandhi staged a huge military exercise, Operation Brasstacks, on the border of Pakistan. To defuse the tension, General Zia decided to go to India and watch the India-Pakistan test match in Bangalore. He took Aslam with him. They landed in Jaipur on the way, where they were received by Rajiv Gandhi. The cricket diplomacy ended the confrontation.

Now Pakistan has another dictator who has no use for Aslam, so he lives a quiet life in Peshawar. He has written an autobiography, A Pathan Odyssey (Oxford University Press). What stands out in his story is how concentrated power is in Pakistan, and how arbitrarily it is exercised. The ruler of the moment is all powerful; he raises people like Aslam to power, and as suddenly drops them. If they annoy him, he drops a cluster bomb and blows them to smithereens — as happened to another grandee who had had a career very similar to Aslam Khan, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.

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