First Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan’s Murder: What’s the Mystery?

Revisiting the ‘mysterious’ murder of former Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan on his death anniversary. 

10 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was first published on The Quint on 1 October 2019. It has been reposted from our archives to mark the death anniversary of Liaquat Ali Khan.)

On 16 October 1951, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in Rawalpindi's Company Bagh (also known as East India Company Garden) during a public meeting of the Muslim City League. He was a close aide to the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and it was during his rule that religious parties begin to take foothold in Pakistan.

To thwart their designs, Liaquat Ali Khan had introduced the Objective Resolution in the Constituent Assembly. Apparently it was aimed at checking the influence of religious groups, but Khan’s detractors would say that the resolution, instead of erecting a barrier, provided religious parties with a constitutional base to impose their ideologies on the rest of Pakistan.

The same Objective Resolution was later made part of the country’s Constitution by military ruler General General Zia-ul-Haq, to enforce his self-conceived version of Islam.

After Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder, the Company Bagh was renamed as Liaquat Garden. Exactly 55 years later, in this very Liaquat Garden, another prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was to be assassinated.


Liaquat's ‘Afghan’ Assassin

In his book, The American Role in Pakistan, MS Venkataramani writes that a single bullet from Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassin proved to be the catalyst of change. Pakistani officials quickly declared that the assassin Said Akbar was an Afghan national.

An Afghan government spokesman insisted that Akbar had already been stripped of his Afghan citizenship for his anti-national activities, and that the British rulers of pre-partitioned India had given him refuge in the North Western Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Soon it was revealed that the Pakistani government continued to pay Said Akbar his welfare allowance, as determined by the English masters of the sub-continent.

The New York Times ran an Associated Press story which quoted Pakistani officials as saying that Said Akbar, the Afghan national who had assassinated the prime minister, had been receiving a monthly allowance of Rs 450 (USD 155) from the government of Pakistan.

It is an undisputed fact that Liaquat’s assassin Said Akbar was sitting in front of the stage in a row of chairs designated for the Crime Investigation Department (CID) police officers.

The place he had positioned himself in, allowed him to target Liaquat Ali Khan.


How Did Liaquat Ali Khan’s Assassin Reach Vantage Point?

It is a question that remains unanswered, and a subject of speculation even after nearly 59 years. Akbar was shot dead by police at the same spot, minutes after he had assassinated the prime minister; his death deepened the mystery surrounding this high-profile murder.

The New York Times reported that, moments after Akbar had fired two shots, people sitting nearby pounced at him and dismembered him; he was also shot at, and at least one bullet was fired by a police officer, who later testified that he was ordered to shoot the assassin by a senior police official.

By killing Said Akbar, instead of arresting him, police officers eliminated a crucial piece of evidence.

Similarly, when Benzair Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 as she left Liaquat Garden after a public gathering, Rawalpindi’s Fire Department was quick to wash the crime scene, depriving investigators of important evidence. It placed another question mark on the country’s history of unsolved assassination cases.


Recalling Liaquat's Soviet Invitation

Liaquat Ali Khan is often accused of initiating the policy of Pakistan’s tilt towards the United States, by preferring Washington, DC over Moscow, for his first state visit. He is also accused of rejecting the Soviet invitation. Historical evidence, however, suggests that it was Jinnah who had decided that Pakistan would join the American — rather than Russian — block. He had made up his mind even before Partition.

Dennis Kux, a former State Department South Asia specialist, writes on pages 12-13 of his book The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies, that US Diplomat Raymond Hare “met Jinnah in May 1947 in New Delhi, and asked him about Pakistan’s future foreign policy.”

“Responding to Hare’s query,” writes Kux, Jinnah said that, “Pakistan would be oriented toward Muslim countries of the Middle East. Since they were weak, ‘Muslim countries would stand together against possible Russian aggression and would look to the US for assistance.’ The Muslim League leader said that although he did not personally share the view, most Indian Muslims thought the United States was unfriendly. They had the impression that the US press and many Americans were against Pakistan.”

Jinnah grew more suspicious of the Russians after Partition; his mistrust of a super power next door will be discussed later.

First let’s examine the charge against Liaquat Ali Khan — that he had snubbed the Russian invitation.

Contrary to this popular belief, he was, in fact, never invited by the Russians in the first place; instead, the invitation was extracted by Pakistan with some diplomatic manoeuvres.


How Liaquat’s Soviet Visit Came to be Cancelled

In 1949, US President Truman had invited Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a state visit to Washington, DC. It irked the Pakistani prime minister, who was known for his pro-West policies. Because, instead of inviting a proven ally, Washington had bestowed the honour of state visit on Nehru, who was perceived to be a socialist and communist leader.

To soothe Liaquat Ali Khan’s hurt pride, Raja Ghazanfar Khan, a senior Muslim League leader, came up with an alternative. Raja Ghazanfar was Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran, and enjoyed a warm relationship with a Russian diplomat. He threw a dinner party, where the Russian diplomat Ali Alvi and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan met.

The prime minister expressed his desire to visit Moscow. On 2 June 1949, Liaquat Ali Khan received an invitation from the Soviet Union which he duly accepted after five days. Now, he was all set to visit Moscow. But Pakistan’s pro-West bureaucracy was unhappy with the proposition.

The Americans and British, too, were not pleased. The United States was tolerant enough to not to voice its anger, but the British were unequivocal in their show of displeasure.

The British High Commissioner in Karachi, Sir Laurence Grafftey-Smith, warned Pakistani Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan that the upcoming visit to Moscow would be seen with mistrust by American and British populations.

Finally, the visit was cancelled.


Liaquat Had a ‘Genuine’ Desire to Visit Soviet

The popular belief that Liaquat Ali Khan had received both Soviet and American invitations at the same time, and that he had snubbed the Russians is wrong. Liaquat Ali Khan had extracted the invitation from Moscow, and when the visit was cancelled, it was not solely his decision.

Dennis Kux writes on page 33 in his book: “After Pakistan initially suggested that Liaquat arrive in Moscow on 20 August 1949, the Soviets proposed that he get there on 15 August. Pakistanis countered that this was physically impossible because the prime minister had to be present on Pakistan’s Independence Day celebration the day before, on 14 August. The Soviets then suggested a two-month delay and eventually agreed to an early November arrival date. They also insisted on having resident envoys in place before the visit, but delayed giving agrément for the Pakistani ambassador until 28 October, and failed to nominate a Soviet envoy to Pakistan.”

“By the end of October 1949, a perplexed foreign secretary Ikramullah, confided to British High Commissioner Grafftey-Smith, that Moscow was dragging its feet on the trip and had even allowed the prime minister’s passport to languish for three weeks at the Soviet Embassy in New Delhi.”
Dennis Kux in his book ‘The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies’

Kux’s account suggest that Liaquat Ali Khan had a genuine desire to visit the Soviet Union, but Soviet officials had set an arrival date that was impossible to follow for the Pakistani prime minister.

After Partition, Russians had aligned themselves with India and understood that she would be their natural ally. It is also possible that Indian officials were involved in the delay of the visit which eventually had to be cancelled.


Pakistan-US Friendship

Liaquat Ali Khan had inherited a pro-America policy from Jinnah, who never hesitated to reach out to the United States. On 5 October 1947, his personal envoy Laik Ali had presented a communiqué to American officials, requesting a loan for Pakistan.

Revisiting the ‘mysterious’ murder of former Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan on his death anniversary. 
Liaquat Ali Khan meets US President Harry S. Truman. 
(Photo courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

MS Venkataramani writes in his book The American Role in Pakistan, 1947-1958 that Laik Ali presented two other documents to the US Department of State outlining Pakistan’s needs.

The documents said Pakistan required USD 700 million for industrial development, USD 700 million for agricultural development, and USD 510 million to boost its defence. In total, a five-year loan of around 2 billion dollars was requested by Pakistan. It is clear that Liaquat Ali Khan had not laid the foundation stone for the “Pak-US friendship”, and that the process had begun before Partition under Quaid-i-Azam, who sped it up after Independence.

In the early months after Pakistan came into being, Liaquat Ali Khan was overshadowed by a very powerful Governor-General, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would preside over the cabinet meetings and make most of the decisions.


Liaquat’s Political Insecurity

Pakistan, under Liaquat Ali Khan, failed to draft its Constitution. The first prime minister also experienced political insecurity. He was fully aware that his contemporaries such as Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy enjoyed popular support. He was extremely careful in the selection of his staff, effectively excluding anyone who had both Indian and Pakistani citizenship, though he himself had migrated from India to Pakistan.

In Pakistan Ke Pehle Saat Wuzra-E-Azam (‘The First Seven Prime Ministers of Pakistan’), Naem Ahmed et al. write on pages 39-40:

“The prime minister was extremely careful in the selection of his staff. When the workload increased, he added another member to his staff to work as his deputy private secretary. The officer was selected on the basis of his place of birth. The prime minister was presented with three names, out of which he chose Mian Manzoor Ahmed because he hailed from East Punjab. The other two hailed from UP (in India) and their relatives still lived in UP. The decision did not spring from any regional biases; there was a good justification behind it. Since Pakistan had newly come into being and the prime minister's office contained classified and important documents, a man with the least possible connection to India was preferred, because officers with relatives in India were deemed as divided Pakistanis, or the ones sailing two boats at the same time. There was a possibility that Indian agents could easily buy their loyalties.”

Liaqaut Ali Khan is accused of favouring Muhajirs (people who migrated from India to Pakistan) but the above example shows that as prime minister of the country, he was not willing to trust anyone whose relatives still lived in India after the Partition.

Bringing Religion into Politics

As discussed earlier, Liaquat is blamed for introducing religion into politics, but he purged his office from people with links to religious groups.

Naem Ahmed et al. have recounted one such episode on pages 19-20 in their book:

“In the Prime Minister Branch, a clerk named Rehmat Elahi was tasked with book-keeping. He was a very serious and tacit man. He had worked for a few months, when an intelligence report revealed his affiliation with Jamat-e-Islami. The man was asked to disown his link with Jamat-e-Islami and assured that by doing so he would be able to keep his job. But he was a very brave man. He countered that a similar report had led to his dismissal from the army which he had joined as commissioned officer. ‘I am only a clerk here,’ he said. ‘I can’t tell lies.’ Eventually Rehmat Elahi tendered his resignation. It was the same Rehmat Elahi who is now ranked among the top activists of Jamaat-e-Islami. Under General Ziaul Haq's military rule, he briefly served as minister for power and water.”


Liaquat’s Assassination: An Unsolved Mystery

From Liaquat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan has a history of unsolved assassinations. In Liaquat Ali Khan’s case, the officer investigating his murder and vital documentary evidence met their demise in an air crash.

Syed Noor Ahmed in his book Martial Law Sey Martial Law Tak (‘From Martial Law to Martial Law’) details the circumstances of the air crash. He writes on pages 396-7:

“Nawabzada Aitzazuddin, who was travelling to meet Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin having been summoned by him and who was carrying important documents about the investigation of this case, was killed in an air crash. The aeroplane crashed near Jhelum after developing a mechanical fault, which started a fire onboard, and all the passengers, their luggage (including documents on Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination) were burnt. After Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination, when a new cabinet was formed, Nawab Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani, who was minister for Kashmir affairs in the old cabinet, became the country’s new interior minister. When an investigation into the assassination was initiated, Gurmani came under sharp criticism. To ward of the censure, he, after much delay, sought help from the Scotland Yard, hiring an experienced investigator to solve the case. But this was only an attempt to save face. The motives behind Liaquat’s murder would never come to light.”


A ‘Strange’ Revelation

Then, a strange revelation was made. In February 1958, a defamation suit, Gurmani vs ZA Suleri, was being heard by a Lahore High Court bench. The court wanted to see an investigation file about Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination. The Attorney General, who was present in the courtroom, was asked if it was possible to present the file in the court; he promised to supply all the necessary information by 25 February. When the Attorney General failed to live up to his promise, the court sent him a letter, to which he replied that the Chief Secretary West Pakistan was holding the file.

The court issued a summons, and on 1 March 1958, an Additional Advocate General testified that the file had gone missing, and that a search was underway. On 8 March, a CID officer informed the court that the government was unable to locate the file and, hence, unable to present it in the court.


‘Muted’ Response to Liaquat’s Assassination

Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination was met with a somewhat muted response from the country’s other politicians.

Ayub Khan, in his autobiography, Friends, Not Masters writes on page 41:

“When I returned to Pakistan, I met several members of the new Cabinet in Karachi — Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani and others. Not one of them mentioned Liaquat Ali Khan’s name, nor did I hear a word of sympathy or regret from any one of them. Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad seemed equally unaware of the fact that the country had lost an eminent and capable Prime Minister through the fell act of an assassin. I wondered how callous, cold-blooded, and selfish people could be. It seemed that every one of them had got himself promoted in one way or another. The termination of the Prime Minister’s life had come as the beginning of a new career for them. It was disgusting and revolting. It may be a harsh thing to say, but I got the distinct impression that they were all feeling relieved that the only person who might have kept them under control had disappeared from the scene.”

Translated by Arif Anjum from the original in Urdu here.

(This piece was first published on Dawn on October 16, 2015, and has been republished with permission. You can read the original here.)

(Akhtar Balouch is a senior journalist, writer and researcher. He is currently a council member of the HRCP. Sociology is his primary domain of expertise, on which he has published several books. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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