People & Society

Liaquat Ali Khan: The founding father of Pakistan's state policies

Updated Oct 16, 2017 06:49pm

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Liaquat Ali Khan at the Punjab Regiment | White Star
Liaquat Ali Khan at the Punjab Regiment | White Star

After Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan has been the most influential politician in Pakistan’s history. In 1943, Jinnah called him “my right hand” and he was. A loyal supporter of Jinnah since 1928, he was appointed by the Quaid as general-secretary of the All-India Muslim League in 1936. For a decade before independence, he was at the centre of all the League’s activities. He had acquired a considerable amount of experience as a legislator in the United Provinces since 1927 and, since 1941, in the Central Legislative Assembly where he was Jinnah’s deputy. He was also finance member in the interim government of the still-united India between 1946 and 1947. For all these reasons and more, Jinnah appointed him as Pakistan’s first prime minister.

Personally and intellectually, he was ideally suited for the role and he handled it with skill and distinction for four years until he was assassinated on October 16, 1951. Lord Wavell, the penultimate British viceroy of India, recorded that Liaquat Ali Khan, with whom he had a number of long talks, was one of the few politicians who could discuss a wide range of topics and carry on a serious conversation for hours on end. Wavell had a high opinion of him as an administrator and a person of intellect, character and common sense. This was shared by a number of people who came to know him well; some of his colleagues and friends were devoted to him.

Liaquat Ali Khan would need all of these attributes as Pakistan’s first head of the government. Leaders who follow great charismatic figures have a hard time being accepted as their equals. This was true of Harry Truman who followed Franklin D Roosevelt, Clement Attlee who succeeded Winston Churchill, and Liaquat Ali Khan who came after Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Truman’s presidency, however, has been ranked highly and Attlee has been viewed as one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers.

The United States came out of World War II a superpower under the former and Britain, headed by the latter, was able to obtain loans from the United States to maintain its global position. Liaquat Ali Khan’s task was harder and more taxing than either Truman’s or Attlee’s but he should be ranked with them. Pakistan in 1947 had nothing. A state had to be created from scratch at a time when people predicted that it would collapse like a tent. It was Liaquat Ali Khan’s great historical achievement that four years after independence no one was expecting Pakistan to collapse. If Muhammed Ali Jinnah was the designer of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan was its architect.

Liaquat Ali Khan with President Harry Truman in Washington DC | Creative Commons
Liaquat Ali Khan with President Harry Truman in Washington DC | Creative Commons

In addition to ensuring Pakistan’s survival and the creation of government institutions such as the civil service and the military, he was responsible for creating Pakistan’s national policies that mostly remain intact 70 years after Partition. First of all, there was the establishment of the economy along global capitalist lines allied to the Western world. Desperate for support, Pakistan had little choice but to turn, like Europe and Japan, to the United States for assistance (which in the end, like Great Britain, provided very little). Liaquat Ali Khan also nurtured relationships with nations in Europe and the Middle East to ensure Pakistan’s economic development. Its industrial development in the 1950s and 1960s and later was a result of his early policies.

Secondly, Liaquat Ali Khan created Pakistan’s foreign policy that the country has largely followed ever since. The first hurdle he had to cross in this respect was to have a stance over Kashmir. He refused to accept Kashmir as part of India and spent a considerable amount of time and effort over a number of meetings in India, London and in Pakistan trying to reverse its status. His stance on Kashmir has been followed by every Pakistani leader since and it has always been Pakistan’s major foreign policy aim to make all of Kashmir Pakistan’s.

The second feature of Pakistan’s foreign policy is its alliance with the United States and the West. As with the orientation of its economy, Pakistan had little choice. In 1947, the Soviet Union could offer very little financial support to its allies; in fact, it was draining its East European allies of their assets to build up Soviet industries.

Allying with a state based on godless communism was also unacceptable to most Pakistanis and had Pakistan done so it would have been isolated diplomatically by the West at a time when the newly independent country desperately needed support. But what made the choice inevitable was that only the United States and Great Britain and countries of the British Commonwealth were able to provide the economic and diplomatic assistance Pakistan requested. As a member of the Baghdad Pact between 1955 and 1979 and a frontline state in the war in Afghanistan after 1979, Pakistan still largely follows Liaquat Ali Khan’s foreign alignment although in 2017 it is trying to develop closer ties with China.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

The third plank of Pakistan’s foreign policy is its relationship with Muslim states in the Middle East. Liaquat Ali Khan sought good relations with all Muslim countries including Iran, which was the first country in the world to recognise Pakistan, and he welcomed the Shah of Iran to Pakistan in March 1950 as the first foreign head of state to visit the country. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pakistan further strengthened its Middle Eastern connections; in 2017, the country looks increasingly for assistance to the rich Arab states and seeks to play a significant role in military affairs in the Middle East.

Finally, Pakistan has also followed the path set for it by Liaquat Ali Khan with regard to its form of government. He had always been committed to democracy and sought to make Pakistan a parliamentary system in line with the Westminster model in Great Britain. But this had to be done recognising and honouring the sensibilities of Pakistan’s Muslim inhabitants. This he did through the passage of the Objectives Resolution on March 12, 1949, envisioning a constitution that mandated a parliamentary system but also paid heed to the Islamic tenets. The resolution, although amended, is still part of Pakistan’s constitution.

Liaquat Ali Khan was educated at Aligarh. He was a devoted follower of its founder, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and his modernist philosophy of integrating Western and modernist Islamic learning. He, therefore, fully supported women’s education as well as the activities of his second wife, the dynamic and remarkable Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, who founded the All Pakistan Women’s Association in 1949.

From the creation of a modern military and educational system to the establishment of a civil service, a state bank and an entire economy, Liaquat Ali Khan was at the centre of all these activities and the inspiration for many of them. He believed he could go on to write a constitution, establish a sound democratic system and create a vibrant Muslim League party as its president, besides being able to institute respect for all sects, creeds and viewpoints. Had he been allowed to do so, Pakistan would have been a happier land, truer to the principles of the liberal Muslim democracy for which it was created by the Quaid-e-Azam and his “right hand”.


This was originally published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.