April issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 9 years ago

Is there any room for principled politics in Pakistan’s chequered history?

One needs only to look at the failed octogenarian politician M. Asghar Khan’s political journey to get an answer to that question. In fact, by his own account in his latest book, Milestones in a Political Journey, comprising his selected letters, speeches and party papers, his principled politics was laughed at by his contemporaries.

Narrating an incident from 1968, Asghar Khan writes (on page 180) that he was asked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to join hands with him. “He [ZAB] said that we both, he and I, had large followings and together could dislodge Ayub Khan. I asked him what his programme was if he came to power. He laughed and said that I was ‘naïve.’ ‘My programme is to fool the people.’ They are ‘fools’ and I know how to make fools of them. Join me and we will rule for 20 years.”

Another time, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan asked him about his political intentions. “I told him I was thinking of forming a new party,” Asghar Khan replied. Qayyum Khan smiled and asked ‘who will be in this party?’ I said I would make every effort to ensure that good people join this party. He smiled, and bringing his forefinger and thumb together said, ‘it will be a small party — where are these good people?’”

Prophetic words. One may disagree with Asghar Khan’s politics, but he must be given credit for sticking to his principles and speaking his mind without fear or favour — and without resorting to any political opportunism. In his letters to General Yahya Khan in July 1971, after his visit to East Pakistan, he wrote: “I am convinced that time is running out and a change of approach is necessary if the situation is to be saved.” He also made public his views against the military operation in then East Pakistan. In response, Lt. General K.M. Azhar Khan, who was governor of the NWFP, wrote back in September 1971 that the president “has taken serious note of the views expressed by you.” The letter not only suggested that Asghar Khan should refrain from making such speeches, but in a sense, threatened him. But the politician remained undeterred.

In a letter to the editor in Dawn in October 1972, Asghar Khan had lashed out against certain observations made about him in the column, Between the lines. The column had belittled him, saying that he “lacks political acumen” for a suggestion he had made to the government regarding the new state of Bangladesh’s recognition. Asghar Khan had proposed that Bangladesh be recognised as, through this action, “Pakistan would have retrieved much of the lost ground.”

Though he led a strong PNA movement against Bhutto, Asghar Khan did not hesitate to demand Bhutto’s release publicly in a detailed letter written to General Zia-ul-Haq. In the letter, he had also lashed out at the martial law government for not holding elections in 90 days as promised and for turning Islam “into a mere penal code of crime and punishment.”

The book is a compendium of articles and speeches of Asghar Khan spread over almost four decades. Khan may have failed to form a large party for lack of ‘good people’ in politics, but his stand on the issues of secular democracy, federalism and Kashmir has always been progressive.

The book also includes a statement of Gohar Zaman Khan, former I.G Police NWFP, on the death of his dear son, Omar Asghar Khan. The statement raises several pertinent questions about the ‘so-called suicide’ of Omar. It clearly points out that Omar, who was one of the country’s finest and most progressive politicians, was murdered and it was no suicide.