By Jamsheed Marker*
The international galaxy, a firmament charged with bright stars, is one to which Pakistan has made a considerable contribution. These include Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, and the equally prestigious International Court of Justice; and Nobel Laureates Professor Abdus Salam and Malala Yusufzai. In the field of international diplomacy perhaps the most outstanding is the contribution of Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, who was its long serving, and perhaps most eminently successful, foreign minister.
The scion of a noble family from one of the princely states in the north of the former British India, Yaqub had his early education at the Royal Indian Military College (RIMC) at Dehra Dun, a prestigious institution established for the training of young Indian civil and military officers.
Upon graduation he was posted to an elite Indian cavalry regiment, and almost immediately found himself with the British VIII Army in North Africa, fighting Rommel’s Afrikacorps in Toburk, where he was taken prisoner-of-war and subsequently interned in Italy. Whilst planning his escape from the POW camp, Yaqub polished his skills in languages, so that in addition to Urdu and English he became fluent in French, German, Russian, and Italian: to these he later added Arabic and Bengali. Commenting upon his achievement in later years, Henry Kissinger said that these linguistic skills were one of Yaqub’s greatest advantages over his diplomatic contemporaries and colleagues.
Once he was embarked upon diplomacy, Yaqub occupied some of the highest and most prestigious chancelleries in the world – Washington,Paris, Moscow – and filled these posts with distinctions. He then became the special representative of the UN Secretary General for the Western Sahara, and next was recalled to Pakistan as foreign minister, where his government, by now thirsting for his services, retained him for a considerable period of time. Yaqub’s reputation as an international diplomat had by now assumed a legendary status, and remained so for the rest of his career.
At the time of the crisis that eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh, Yaqub was the Pakistan corps commander in East Pakistan and strongly opposed any military action, urging a peaceful solution to the problem. History has proved him to be so right, and the diplomat in him prevailed over the soldier, as always.
I recall an incident, many years later, when I was Pakistan’s ambassador in Paris. I had given a dinner in honour of Yaqub khan, our visiting foreign minister. Also present was the German ambassador,Graf von Staden, who told me that he had first heard about Yaqub during World War II, when there was a report about an Indian cavalry captain who was taken prisoner of war at Tobruk. An examination of the contents of his kitbag revealed a copy of Schopenhauer, in its original German version. Yaqub was much too modest to ever mention this to me, but the German ambassador had carried his astonishment for almost fifty years… a young Indian cavalry officer, fighting the Germans with a pistol and a copy of Schopenhauer in his kitbag!
Farewell, dear friend, companion and soul mate. Thank you for so much more than I can ever express. May Allah keep you close to him, always.
*Jamsheed Marker is a Hilal-e-Imtiaz recipient and a former Pakistani diplomat. He is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as having served as “ambassador to more countries than any other person”.