Liaquat Ali Khan’s Assassination: A Cold Case Of History

By Ali Hassnain

Liaquat Ali Khan was one of the founding fathers of Pakistan. His contributions are enormous. In his short tenure as Prime Minister he built a state. Yes you read that right! Built a state. India was intent on turning Pakistan into a failed state and it was touch and go for a while. We could have turned into a dysfunctional state with mostly ungoverned country, no departments and practically borderless. A lot could have happened. Thank God it didn’t. Many countries in Africa are examples of independence gone wrong. When he was assassinated, Pakistan was not only a functioning state, we had strong international presence. Everything from essential services to civil departments was functional. The bullet that ended his life changed the course of history. Pakistan, already short of leaders was deprived of the most important leader in most crucial phase. He was man of great vision qualities and intelligence.

A cold case is a crime that has not yet been solved, a case potentially open to new leads; new information could emerge from new witness testimony, re-examined archives, new or retained material evidence, as well as fresh activities of the suspect. New technical methods developed after the case can be used on the surviving evidence to re-analyze the causes, sometimes with conclusive results.

There are thousands of examples. With time people lower their defenses, they are not afraid to say what they were in the past. People get old, they confess to their folks who speak up. There are technological advances. New evidence emerges all the time. Especially with the new forensic techniques it is now common. However the case must be open, a closed case is not a cold case. Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination is a cold case in history but in letter it is a closed case. Pakistan government should recollect all the available evidence and relook at it.

I believe Liaquat Ali Khan is wrongly accused of many things including allegations of ignoring Soviet request for a visit. One can disagree on some of his policies and decisions but in retrospect I believe most of the rather recent allegations are absolutely rubbish, borderline slander at times. Nehru and Congress brought Cold War to the sub-continent way before independence. However that’s another topic.

Let’s analyze the circumstances that surround Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination. We have little facts and many theories. I would rely on circumstantial evidence because that is what is available to us. Liaquat Ali Khan was addressing a meeting in Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi, after he said “Biradraan e Millat” a man named Said Akbar Babrak a.k.a Said Akbar shot him at least twice.

Police shot the assassin. Motives behind the assassination remain murky to this day. The man was identified and apparently he was known to police. He was an Afghan named Said Akbar (sometimes spelled as Saad Akbar). I find the question rather out of place that why did police shoot the assassin. Remember we are talking about an armed man who just shot the Prime Minister, and it’s the police of 1951. I find it only natural that they would shoot the assassin in panic. Was there a larger conspiracy behind it? I don’t think so but it cannot be said for certain.

If it was planned; they were more likely to come up with a better plan, policemen who shot Said Akbar lived their natural lives and died natural deaths. It is likely one of them would have eventually said something or acted out of place. There are no deathbed confessions, neither are there any claims by their friends or relatives even after their deaths.  I am of the opinion that it was probably a knee jerk reaction on that particular moment. What is police going to do if someone stands up and starts shooting at Prime Minister? Of course they would take him out.

Then there is talk of a high level investigator dying in a mysterious plane crash. Plausible but it is not likely that a person of this caliber would risk carrying all the relevant important documents with him in a single journey. Even if important documents were lost to crash it is likely he had fellow investigators and copies elsewhere or at least shared information verbally with a fellow. In any case the next government in power should surely have reopened the case. Especially Ayub Khan would have looked into the matter as he had great personal admiration for Liaquat Ali Khan which he penned in his autobiography and talked about it on various public events.

The question is often raised that how was assassin able to reach so close to prime minister at the first place. In those days head of states did not have that kind of security protocols they have today. At the height of cold war in 1981 a supposedly mentally unstable man was able to plan and shoot US President Reagan despite all the secret service security protocols. 18 years old German named Rust was able to avoid all Soviet defences to land illegally in red square Moscow in his modest Cessna flying all the way from Finland! While it is likely that Said Akbar had fellow conspirators who plotted the assassination, it is not highly unusual for an assassin to sneak in. However it is not possible to say if he had help from the inside.

Next big question, which party or individuals benefitted from the act? Certainly no one in Pakistan! A few middle level Muslim League ministers did get promoted after short period of time. It is unlikely that one of them was the mastermind behind this conspiracy. Who wanted instability in Pakistan? India? Afghanistan? USSR?  India did have a nexus with Soviet Union which almost had a puppet regime in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the only country which voted against the inclusion of Pakistan in UN, a move best explained by Afghan authorities at times.  Some elements in Pakistan did have links with Afghan government at the time, however they were in minority.  Lot of people were on KGB payroll in the Cold War days, especially in N.W.F.P (now KPK) due to porous border with Afghanistan. However for reasons given below I have some doubt that Indian government was behind Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination. At the same time it cannot be ruled out that Indians would help anyone trying to destabilize Pakistan.

We should also see that who had the resources to carry out the assassination and get away with it. If Said Akbar did not act alone, it can be either KGB or CIA. CIA is not very likely to be involved as discussed earlier and it is possible KGB had an indirect role or facilitated the assassination. But that’s another one of the going theories. MI6 had probably realized England was not a world power anymore and it is unlikely they would be involved.

Before we look at Indian angle, let’s look at the conspiracy theory that ambitious Pakistani bureaucrat /politicians were behind the assassination. It is almost out of question that Muslim League benefited from it, nor did Sikandar Mirza or Ghulam Muhammad directly or immediately.  Most of the people who were promoted after the assassination were already in the good books of Liaquat Ali Khan administration.  Commander In Chief of Armed Forces General Ayub Khan was a confidant of Liaquat Ali Khan in his last days. Ayub Khan had great praise for Liaquat Ali Khan till the day he died. He thwarted a coup in 1951 against Liaquat Ali Khan government. He turned out to be the most powerful man in Pakistan after Liaquat Ali Khan. It would have been predictable. However the 1950s in developing countries were uncertain times. After 7 years of short successive short term administrations, Ayub Khan eventually became President. Muslim League had almost collapsed by then and General Ayub Khan created a new party named Convention Muslim League. The man did not believe in political assassinations and should be ruled out as potential suspect for various reasons.

Novice politicians, those who were not big names like Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, Khan Abdul Qayum or Liaquat Ali Khan were no match for Ayub. They lacked public support. And Ayub would not let them usurp power for long. After all if they were going to do this in his name why wouldn’t he very well run things directly? It is unlikely they would attempt to assassinate Liaquat Ali Khan, and do it with such success and secrecy. Plus it’s Pakistan, and it has been good 65 years or so since assassination. After a while people talk. If they don’t, their children or associates do. It is almost impossible for conspiracy of such magnitude to remain hidden for such a long time. In Pakistan conspiracies, almost nothing remain a secret. Benjamin Franklin said “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead” and I agree with Mr. Franklin.

With years turning into decades tongues get lose and people do share which they for whatever reason did not share at the time of assassination. I would frankly give benefit of doubt to political rivals; more or less same is the case with India. With Pakistani intelligence penetrating Indian government at different levels time and again it is almost impossible that such a conspiracy would go unnoticed by the ISI. If they were to know, eventually someone would leak it. Not to mention possible retribution. It is however worth mentioning that assassinating opponents is part of culture in India. Congress is no stranger to this phenomenon but political assassinations are less common in Pakistan and public always sympathizes with the victims. The concept of sympathy vote for assassinated politicians is a strong one in Pakistan. Even in the darkest of hours political rivals have recognized this phenomenon and in general refrained from it.

Then there is the popular conspiracy theory target, CIA and USA. Frankly from the limited information we have it is nearly impossible to doubt or exonerate CIA. There is talk of a declassified cable from USA embassy quoting a Bhopal based newspaper. I am unable to find a single reference to the actual document. The alleged cables give a totally different direction to the assassination. However I am unconvinced. Firstly USA or UK are highly unlikely to declassify such a cable. Secondly had the theories mentioned in the alleged cable are true, truth would have come out. There are generals, bureaucrats and ministers, they get old, they retire and they talk. If Liaquat Ali Khan was about to make radical changes to policy, many in government would have known.

Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan became a stateswoman after her husband’s death, appointed to several important positions including those at UN. Liaquat Ali Khan’s son passed away this very year. None of them ever claimed Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was going to take some drastic measures that made his assassination imminent.

Liaquat Ali Khan was pro democracy, and he did join the US block. CIA was 4 years old at the time of Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination. Initially CIA was formed for intelligence gathering in an organized way. Assassinations, espionage, coups and counter coups became their signature in the Cold War. After the JFK assassination, Truman wrote a letter to a newspaper. Ironically Truman is the one who ordered the creation of CIA. According to him, the reason behind the creation of CIA was better intelligence input to President. He wrote:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.”

CIA was flexing their muscles in 1951, they did have the capability but it is doubtful if they had anything to gain from the assassination. In retrospect an unstable Pakistan could have been beneficial to Soviets, but Americans had everything to lose and nothing to gain by the assassination. Internet is full of revelations about the declassified documents that blame US for Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination but they don’t sound very authentic. US government usually declassifies documents after 25 years, some after 50 years and with special permission even beyond 75 years. Most of the documents are heavily redacted. They just put a black marker over some content before releasing it. View of US government from declassified documents and cable leaks can be researched, but it needs organized extensive time and resource consuming research. I doubt anyone has made the effort. One might find some clue about their opinion but it is unlikely that CIA was behind the assassination and even so it is impossible to find proof in declassified documents. Who would expect CIA to shoot itself in the foot?

Now what’s left is the most likely scenario. The communist and pakhtoon nationalist angle. Afghan government was dominated by communists and lived under the shadow of KGB. They had started a Pakhtoon nationalist movement after the creation of Pakistan. Pakhtoon nationalist movement leaders and communists were usually the same or connected.  A communist coup had been thwarted by Liaquat Ali Khan and Ayub Khan the same year. Figures like Faiz Ahmad Faiz were involved in what was later to be known as “Rawalpindi Sazish case”.

General Akbar, the mastermind of coup was disillusioned by acceptance of ceasefire in Kashmir at UN, and he had views and allies on left. The coup failed and thank God it did. We didn’t turn into a communist tyranny. It is not clear if KGB engineered the coup or supported it, but it is likely they had support in the KGB if they were plotting a socialist coup against a pro-American democracy in the 40s. Soviets were not happy with the pro-American stance of govt. of Pakistan and Pakistani ideological similarities with the west (capitalist). Again this requires extensive research of declassified documents from Soviet days.

Soviet Union ceased to exist in the 1980s and most of the classified KGB documents have since surfaced. Government of Pakistan should appoint a researcher, but to the best of my deficient knowledge nothing has come up on Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination yet. It would never come up if Russians decided to destroy it or keep it classified. Not very unlikely as Pakistan was actively supporting the Mujahedeen at the time Soviet Union was dissolved, and if it was an off book black op then there would be no record.

As discussed earlier there were communist sympathizers in NWFP (Now KPK) at the time of assassination. Said Akbar is said to be an ultra-Afghan Pakhtoon nationalist and a professional assassin, a gun for hire. That is probably the only concrete established fact. Afghanistan was in communist (Soviet) sphere of influence and supported the creation of a greater Afghanistan, possibly with the Soviet instigation and definitely with Soviet backing. The movement was named Pakhtoonistan; they raised objections over the Durand Line which is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the bone of contention for a while between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan supported Islamists in the 1970s in Afghanistan to counter the growing threat from communists. Back in the 1950s KGB was planting ground assets in NWFP through Afghanistan.

Now, who did it? A question I have no answer to. Neither does history at this point. Educated guess? Probably some rogue elements in India with the help of KGB Afghanistan and sympathizers in Pakistan. Possibly the KGB. Mostly non-state actors and some elements in the government without sanctioning it from the top. Probably some people in some government knew, but hiding behind plausible deniability. But that’s another one of the going theories.

Afghanistan government and its records were destroyed in the Afghan civil war in late 1980s and early 1990s. I do doubt if they even kept good records back in the 1940s. Our border with Afghanistan was more porous at that time than it is today. It was merely a formality even then.

Only government of Pakistan can figure out who was behind the plot, and it is not unreasonable to appoint a few researchers or form a tribunal to look into it. There are dozens of useless projects resources can be diverted from.  A high level commission headed by Chief Justice Munir was formed at the time of assasination. I haven’t read the report but from the looks of it, it sounds like the Warren Commission on JFK assassination which was an alleged cover up. I believe commission has not released the name of some conspirators citing national security as the reason. From that and the lack of effort to find out the facts about assassination and laid back approach, I suspect Government of Pakistan either knows or has pretty good idea what actually happened and who was behind it.

A new commission can be formed; responsible current or retired employees of agencies like ISI and MI with security clearance at the highest level can be nominated and this topic can be closed for good. After 65+ years people do have a right to know, and I seriously doubt there would be national security implications at this point in time. It is very possible all pieces of puzzles are lying in some government warehouse, waiting to be put together.

Introduction to Business Management

Categories: Analysis, History, International Affairs

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