November issue 2006

By | News & Politics | People | Profile | Published 18 years ago

Ghulam Ishaq Khan, or GIK as he was commonly known, took many national secrets to his grave. This was typical of the man, who lived by the book and shunned controversy. Penning his memoirs would have been a deviation from this trait as it would have generated a myriad controversies.

One major reason that GIK chose not to write his autobiography was his concern that it may compromise national security and harm Pakistan’s interests. Perhaps he could have skipped certain issues or facts too sensitive to be disclosed, but then the memoirs would have become a pale shadow of reality. This fact alone explains the wealth of information that GIK possessed after having served in almost every important government post. He was, in fact, a repository of national secrets and the custodian of Pakistan’s vital security interests.

GIK’s life is the story of a self-made man who rose from obscurity to occupy the most powerful position in the country. He came from humble origins, hailing from a middle-class Pakhtun family in Ismailkhel village near Bannu city in southern NWFP. He lived an eventful 91 years and not only witnessed, but actively shaped, Pakistan’s destiny at crucial periods in its history. Forty-nine of those years were spent in the civil service, in roles as diverse as running the administration of a district, heading the State Bank of Pakistan and Wapda, and managing the financial and defence matters of the country. He was one of the few bureaucrats who held every office to which a civil servant could aspire.

Later in life he became a reluctant politician and was elected Senator unopposed through the efforts of the then NWFP Governor, Lt Gen Fazle Haq, and then landed the coveted job of Chairman of the Senate as a nominee of President General Zia-ul-Haq. The General admired GIK’s qualities of head and heart and was impressed by his loyalty to him and the country. Here was someone he could trust, because GIK was apolitical and not very ambitious in seeking political office. As luck would have it, General Zia-ul-Haq’s death in a mysterious air crash on August 17, 1988, paved the way for GIK to replace him, first as acting president and then as an elected head of state. To his credit, this was one of the few occasions in the country’s painful, military-dictated democratic journey that a president was elected through a proper constitutional process.

GIK began his career as a bursar in the historic Islamic College, Peshawar, where he had earlier studied and done his BSc in chemistry and botany. Looking after the accounts of Islamic College exposed him to the world of finance. This was to subsequently remain his life’s passion.

In 1940, GIK qualified for the civil service examinations and his first posting was as extra-assistant commissioner in Haripur. For the next 15 years he held jobs in revenue and other departments mostly in his native NWFP. His first big break came in 1955 when he was appointed secretary of irrigation for West Pakistan, and was also chosen to represent West Pakistan in the Federal Planning Commission. This brought him into contact with planners and economists and groomed him for future higher responsibilities. In 1958, GIK was made Member Wapda, an important assignment for planning and executing big water and power projects at a time when Pakistan was showing promise as a rapidly developing country.

By 1966, GIK had moved up in the bureaucratic hierarchy and was now secretary finance. He shaped some of the country’s economic policies and tightly held its purse. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made him secretary general defense, a newly created position to bypass bureaucratic red-tape and tackle crucial aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear and defense policies. Mr Bhutto is justifiably credited with launching and accelerating Pakistan’s nuclear programme despite US and western pressures not to do so, but GIK too played a vital role in it without ever claiming credit. GIK was reportedly assigned the task to coordinate with different organizations involved in the nuclear programme, ensure smooth flow of funds and remove obstacles that hindered the work of nuclear scientists.

When General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup d’etat on July 5, 1977, after overthrowing the Bhutto government, GIK was ready to serve a new boss as adviser finance. Subsequently, General Zia dug his feet in as the country’s ruler, ignoring his promise to hold elections in 90 days, constituted a cabinet and made GIK the finance minister. When he held partyless polls in 1985, the General ensured that GIK was elected Senator so that he could be later elevated to the position of Chairman Senate. The rest, as they say, is history.

From a non-controversial bureaucrat who avoided the media and restricted himself to his work, GIK as a politician was thrust into limelight while chairing the Senate, and later, as Pakistan’s president. His new role was bound to make him controversial. As acting president, he deserves credit for holding largely fair and transparent general elections in late 1988, in which Benazir Bhutto’s PPP emerged the winner. But GIK, with the military’s support, ensured that Benazir Bhutto backed his candidature as president, instead of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, and he took over the reins of government as president on his terms and conditions. GIK was formally elected president on December 13, 1988. GIK was now a powerful president, armed with article 58 (2) B, which he used first on August 6, 1990, to dismiss the Benazir Bhutto government and dissolve parliament. He used it again in 1993 to pack up the Nawaz Sharif government and send the lawmakers home. On both occasions, he charged the democratically elected governments with misrule and corruption. Proving those charges and seeking convictions of the two dismissed prime ministers and their aides was never going to be easy. In the second case, the Supreme Court of Pakistan restored the Nawaz Sharif government, much to GIK’s embarrassment, and prompted him to sponsor measures that restrained the Prime Minister from regaining control of the administration, particularly in his native Punjab.

The political crisis on that occasion became so serious that the Pakistan army had to intervene and its commander, General Abdul Waheed Kakar, reluctantly assumed the task of arbitrator. He came up a with a solution that sent both GIK and Nawaz Sharif home and paved the way for holding fresh polls under a caretaker government. Despite promises, Benazir Bhutto didn’t sponsor GIK as the PPP candidate for president after winning the 1993 elections, choosing Farooq Leghari instead.

It was the end of the road for a dejected GIK and soon afterwards he shifted to Peshawar to spend a quiet retired life in his six-kanal bungalow in the posh University Town. He had no home in Islamabad and didn’t possess any other visible property. Any other person having occupied such high positions would certainly have amassed much property and wealth. But GIK was a different breed and financial integrity was an essential part of his character. The fact that his only son, Mamoon Ishaq Khan, is employed as an engineer far away from home, in an oil company in Oman, also explains GIK’s strict principles not to unduly help his kith and kin in grabbing top government jobs or obtaining licenses or loans to set up lucrative businesses. Though he was occasionally accused of coming to the rescue of a few of his five sons-in-law, the allegations were never proved, and it often turned out that they had built careers as politicians or civil servants on the basis of their own influence or calibre.

For the next 13 years, GIK gracefully faded into obscurity. He would occasionally attend weddings and funerals and took an active interest in the affairs of the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Science & Technology, or GIK Institute as it is commonly known. This was GIK’s one solid achievement, who was often accused of having done nothing for his native province. In fact, villagers in Ismailkhel, where GIK was born, and Bannu district to which he belonged, were more vocal in voicing this complaint. But GIK, who was above provincialism and believed in doing everything according to rules and merit, didn’t want to do anything that would have made him look like a provincial politician or bureaucrat. The GIK Institute in Topi in Swabi district was built with donations that he raised from friends and well-wishers, including the late Agha Hasan Abidi of the defunct BCCI, and it is an institution of high academic standards. Selecting Topi as the site for the institute was also GIK’s way of paying tribute to the late Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Khan, who hailed from Topi and was the founder of Islamic College, Peshawar, the first college in the NWFP and the fountainhead of modern education in the province.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.