Revisiting a Conspiracy

Recalling a conspiracy
By Anwar Syed, Dawn, July 27, 2008

WHEN two or more persons make plans to commit a crime, they may be said to have hatched a conspiracy.

Discussion of the project does not become a conspiracy unless the participants have agreed to carry it out.

It has been said repeatedly in recent weeks that conspiracies are being hatched in the presidency to disrupt the rapport between the PPP and PML-N. If this is indeed happening, the enterprise may be called dirty politics but, strictly speaking, it is not a conspiracy since breaking a rival coalition is not a crime.

We have had only a few known conspiracies in our history. There was the Rawalpindi Conspiracy to overthrow Liaquat Ali Khan’s government in 1951, a conspiracy between President Iskander Mirza and Gen Ayub Khan to dismiss the civilian regime and bring in military rule (1958), and a conspiracy between Gen Yahya Khan and some of his associates to use military force to crush the separatists in East Pakistan (1971). One may also refer to a conspiracy between Gen Ziaul Haq and his commanders to overthrow Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government (1977). Participants in only one of these cases, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, were arrested, tried and convicted. The specifics of this case are not generally known and I should like to share them with readers.

Maj Gen Mohammad Akbar Khan was its author. Born into an affluent Pakhtun family in 1912, he went to Islamia College, Peshawar, after finishing high school, entered the British Indian Army, graduated from the famous Sandhurst Military Academy, returned to the Indian Army as a commissioned officer (1934), fought the Japanese in Burma during World War II, received a gallantry award, and joined the Pakistan Army as a brigadier after independence. He commanded the regular and irregular forces fighting Indian forces in Kashmir, did not approve of the ceasefire and wanted the fighting to continue.

He was greatly dissatisfied with what he considered was the inadequate support the government extended to the Pakistani men fighting in Kashmir. Gen Douglas Gracey, chief of the Pakistan Army at the time, and on his advice the prime minister, did not want the army to get too deeply involved in Kashmir. That is why they were circumspect in their support of the operation.

Akbar Khan was inclined to be impulsive and rather indiscreet, and he talked too much. He freely conveyed his criticism of the government to fellow officers. His wife, Nasim (daughter of the celebrated woman politician Begum Jehan Ara Shahnawaz), was even more of a talker. She too went around criticising the government. Word of their talking eventually reached the intelligence agencies, who began to watch them.

Akbar Khan was nevertheless promoted to the rank of major general in December 1950. Gen Ayub Khan, who was now commander-in-chief, posted him as chief of the general staff at the headquarters, partly to keep an eye on him and partly to keep him away from officers out in the field. This, however, did not stop his tirades against the government. In fact he now began to discuss with friends a plan to overthrow the government.

On Feb 23, 1951 about a dozen officers (ranking from major general to captain) and three civilians met at Akbar Khan’s house. The civilians included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Syed Sajjad Zaheer (general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan) and Mohammad Hussain Ata. Akbar Khan presented his plan: Governor General Nazimuddin and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who were expected to be in Rawalpindi during the following week, would be arrested. The governor general would be forced to dismiss the government and install an interim regime headed by Akbar Khan. Elections would be promised but no definite date given. The new regime would set things right (eradicate corruption, provide education, healthcare and other amenities of life to the poor). The meeting lasted more than eight hours, and reportedly the participants agreed that the plan should be implemented.

Akbar Khan had reached an understanding with the Communist Party along the following lines: he would stop the intense persecution to which the party leaders and workers were being subjected at the time, and he would let the party function like any other political organisation. This guarantee included the right to contest elections. In return the party and the trade unions affiliated with it would welcome his government, and The Pakistan Times, of which Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the chief editor, would support it.

A senior police officer in the NWFP, Askar Ali Shah, had been Akbar Khan’s friend and confidant for a time and had known of his opposition to the government. He did not participate in the meeting on Feb 23 but learned of its proceedings, got cold feet, and blurted them out to the provincial IGP. The latter reported them to the governor, who promptly informed the prime minister.

On the morning of March 9, Maj Gen Akbar Khan and three of his co-conspirators, including Faiz, were arrested. Begum Nasim, Sajjad Zaheer and several others were arrested a few days later. They ended up in Hyderabad jail (where a wing had been specially prepared for them) and were tried on the charge of “having conspired to wage war against the king.” A special tribunal consisting of Sir Abdul Rahman of the federal court, Justice Mohammad Sharif of the Lahore High Court and Justice Amir-ud-Din of the Dhaka High Court was constituted to try the accused. The trial began on June 15 and lasted several weeks. A.K. Brohi appeared as the chief prosecutor while Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Z.H. Lari, and several other well-known lawyers appeared for the defence.

The defence argued that while the accused had met and talked, they had not all agreed to take any action. But two of the conspirators (Col Siddique Raja and Maj Mohammad Yousuf Sethi) turned approvers and were persuaded to testify that the accused had indeed come to an agreement. Gen Akbar Khan and the other officers were sentenced to imprisonment for 12 years but the civilians got away with four years in jail.

‘Enemies of the king’ are usually made reasonably comfortable in prison. Forced solitude gives them time to reflect. Faiz wrote some of his finest poetry during his years in jail. The charge of conspiracy did not lower these men in public esteem, Faiz continued to be honoured after his release and Akbar Khan landed a high post in the national security apparatus in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of


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