Thursday, 14 February 2013

Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar: A man for all seasons

-ed note republished with kind permission from

by S.A Hussain

It is perhaps fitting to remember one of the towering figures from the history of the creation of Pakistan.

Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar was born in 1899 in Peshawar City. His father was a government contractor. Young Nishtar attended mission school and later Sanatan Dharram High School in Peshawar. He dropped out of Edwardes College after a mediocre performance at the end of two years. Despite has father's wish to join the family business, the youth Nishtar persisted in his studies as a private student passing Persian Honours and later in 1923 receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Punjab University. In keeping with the tradition of the new urban Muslims, he went to Aligarh and received an LL.B with honours from Aligarh Muslim University in 1925. During his stay in Aligarh he developed close friendship with Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar who later led the Khilafat Movement. His friendship with Johar would prove to be a turning point in his life. Upon returning to Peshawar he joined the law practice of Khan Bahadur Saadullah Khan, a well-known local barrister, and settled down to a leisurely life of a town gentlema.

The movement to revive the Caliphate, the Khilafat Movement, compelled a large number of Indian Muslims to migrate to Turkey. The movement was led by Nishtar's friend of Aligarh days, Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar and Nishtar became an active worker of the movement in the Frontier. He was elected to the Municipal Committee in 1929, a seat he held for a number of years.

While Congress party had a solid support in the Frontier, in the likes of Dr Khan Sahib and his brother Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Muslim League was fragmented and devoid of any substantial public support. Supporters of the Khilafat Movement were equally divided between the Congress and the Muslim League. It was around 1926 that Nishtar joined the Muslim League and along with other like-minded politicians started the formidable task of organising the party in NWFP. It was at that time that he became a confidante of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

After the independence and creation of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, Nishtar was sworn in as the minister of communications in the cabinet of Liaquat Ali Khan. He presided over a chaotic and severely disrupted railway system and in less than two years had the trains running on track and on time. It was because of his efforts that Pakistan received its due share of railways assets.

Within two years of independence Punjab was in turmoil. The refugee problem had overwhelmed the local population; tenets were up in arms; corruption was rampant and the elected officials incapable of solving the problems. Communal passions were running high and law and order situation was deteriorating. On the recommendation of Sir Francis Mudie, the English governor of the Punjab, the governor general dismissed the Punjab government and imposed governor's rule in the province. Nishtar replaced Sir Francis Mudie as the first Pakistani governor of the Punjab. His appointment was greeted by the majority.

It was perhaps the biggest challenge of his life. He diffused the explosive situation with patience, perseverance, persuasion and the touch of common man. He trilblazed the countryside, talking to people on their turf. He brought the imperial image of a colonial governor down to the level where a common man could relate to it and take pride in it. He took stern measures in curbing irresponsible journalism, served notice to the bureaucracy to stay clear off politics, issued Sharia ordinance, and expedited the rehabilitation of refugees. Intellectually he was against the governor's rule and said that governor's rule, however good, was no substitute for a representative government. He paved the way for provincial elections in 1951 that restored representative government in the Punjab.

During his three years as governor, among other things, he initiated the planning for a third medical college in the Punjab. The college was started after his tenure as governor and as a token of appreciation the college was named after him.

In 1952 after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, Khwaja Nazim Uddin assumed the premiership of the country. Nishtar was asked to return to the Center and serve as the minister of industries. This move, however, was shortlived. Ghulam Muhammad, a civil servant, who through intrigue had become the governor general, dissolved the constitutional assembly and dismissed the government. Nishtar was shocked and outraged. In his mind there was no justification for such a drastic measure. Nishtar refused the offer to join the new cabinet and decided to stay out of the government. When asked to comment on the action of the governor-general, Nishtar replied.

'Bus itni si khata per rahbari cheeni gai humse.
Ke humse qafile mazil pe lutwai nahe jaate '

They robbed me of my leadership mantle / 
for I won’t let my caravan be robbed (at the destination)

His political wit was manifest when he quoted the following on the same issue.

'Nairangi-e-siasat-e-doraan to dekheea 
Manzil unhen milli jo sharik-e-safar na thai'

Look at the turn of politics today
Those who enjoy the fruits
weren't ever part of the journey/struggle

Nishtar never forgot his roots. As governor it was his custom to hold open court and to reach out to the common man. During his stay in Murree during the summer months, he was often seen taking a leisurely walk on the mall and talk to the people. He was a man of deep religious convictions. Unbeknownst to his biographers he had a deep interest in mysticism. He was a disciple of Haji Baba Jan, an Afghan, who lived in the inner city of Peshawar in the thirties and forties. Baba Jan would spend the time between asr and maghrib prayers sitting on a charpoi in front of the neighbourhood mosque in Mohalla Gadai Khan holding court. Nobles from the city would often stop by and spend some time in his company. Sardar Nishtar on his visits to Peshawar would also pay his respects to Baba Jan. He would sit on a metal chair by the charpoi conversing with his spiritual mentor in barely audible voice. He would also attend the urs of Haji Abdul Ghafoor Sahib on North Circular (Khyber) Road where Baba Jan was the sajjada nashi.

Nishtar was a poet of some renown. Sometimes in his school days he took the pen name of 'Nishtar'. Prior to 1920 he took advice (islah) from Akbar Allahabadi who for three years corrected Nishtar's poetry. Most of his early poetry was lost in a house fire. He wrote in typical devotional style of the time. Occasionally he wrote to shake the slumbering Muslim masses from their lethargy and complacency. In some of his poems there is an echo of Iqbal.

When Nishtar died on February 14, 1958, in Karachi, the entire nation mourned his death. The Muslim League leadership wanted Nishtar to be buried in the Quaid-e-Azam mausoleum complex next to Liaquat Ali Khan. Feroz Khan Noon, the prime minister, refused to grant permission on the pretext that such burial will take away from the dignity of the resting place of the father of the nation. There were large demonstration in the country protesting prime minister's decision. The prime minister reversed himself and Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar was laid to rest under the shadow of his leader and mentor.

Most nations have a poor collective memory of the past and Pakistan is no exception. Within fifty years of the independence, the main characters of the struggle for a Muslim homeland have receded into oblivion. Despite emphasis on Pakistan studies in educational institutions, the past has been all but forgotten. It shouldn't be. Nishtar needs to be remembered for what he was. A common man who despite reaching the pinnacle of power, remained a dedicated and humble public servant.

Shakespeare sums up the persona of Nishtar:

His nature is too noble for the world:

He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,

Or Jove for's power to thunder.

(Coriolanus III, I, 254)

-originally published 3rd of may 1999, urdu translations by Dr Taqi and Abbas Nasir 
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