If there is anyone in Pakistan’s history who is bypassed by state historians, it is the wife of Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister who was assassinated in 1951. Her ignored life is being recalled by a much-awaited book, and the facts revealed about Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan will bemuse most Pakistanis.
The story is told in the biography, The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady (OUP 2019) by Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub. She was born as Irene Ruth-Margaret in 1905, in a Brahmin clan whose founder, Taradutt Pant, her grandfather, had turned Christian, dooming his offspring to lifelong ostracism by the Hindu upper caste community.
Pushing back against this legacy, Irene grew up as a fiercely independent person unafraid of challenges. She went to Lal Bagh High School in Lucknow, and passed school standing first in her class before moving to college. Here she was in outstanding company: Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Rashid Jahan and Attia Hosain.
Irene passed BA in first class and joined MA economics, for which she had to move to Lucknow University where her thesis on “Women’s Labour in Agriculture in the United Provinces”, was adjudged the best in the university. After MA, she entered the Diocesan College in Calcutta for the Graduate Teachers’ Training Course. Here too, she stood first, both in the theory and practice of teaching in the Licentiate of Teaching Examination of the Calcutta University. After that, in 1930, she got appointed as a lecturer in economics at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi, at a salary of Rs 200.
This was the year when she met the upcoming politician from Karnal, Liaquat Ali Khan, deputy president of the UP legislative council, who was, needless to say, struck by her personality and ready wit. They were married in 1930, Ra’ana converting to Islam, changing her name from Irene to Ra’ana. At Partition in 1947, the Liaquat Alis, instead of selling their grand Delhi residence on Hardinge Road, willed it to Pakistan as the permanent ambassadorial residence, now renamed Pakistan House.
In Pakistan, things got off to a bad start. Jinnah went back on earlier pledges and declared, on August 11, 1947, that Pakistan would be a secular state and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had to live with it. After his assassination in 1951, Ra’ana devoted herself to social work and created the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in 1969 on Jail Road Lahore. As economist of the All-India Muslim League — appointed by Jinnah — she knew the nitty-gritty of running organisations, and was indefatigably devoted to the upliftment of women in Pakistan. Her husband, the late prime minister, had left her precious little to survive on.
In 1954, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was sent to The Hague as Pakistan’s first ambassador to Holland where she was to spend two tenures lasting six years before being sent to Italy on her second posting.
Back in Pakistan after her diplomatic stint, Ra’ana was made the governor of Sindh and Chancellor of Karachi University in 1973 by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1980, she fell and suffered a hip fracture while travelling abroad and never recovered her health after that. It didn’t stop General Zia from suspending her monthly official support of Rs 2,000 which compounded her problems. She witnessed the Islamisation of Pakistan in the years that followed, and was able to comment on it before she died in 1990, when she was buried alongside Liaquat Ali Khan next to the mausoleum of Jinnah in Karachi:
“The idea of Pakistan when it first started was completely different from what we see today. There was no question of religion coming into politics. Everybody was free to follow their worship as they pleased, nobody interfered; it was between you and your God. We never talked of religion: there were Shias and Sunnis, we didn’t know who was who; we were just working together. Quaid-e-Azam himself said the basis was religious but Pakistan was visualised as secular and democratic.”
Way back in 1950, she had clarified in Town Hall, New York: “In Pakistan, we are not going in for any sort of domination by priests or fanaticism or intolerance. What we wish to emphasise are the basic Islamic principles of equality, brotherhood, and social and economic justice.’’
Alas, she was wrong. Pakistan went the way she didn’t want it to go and betrayed her.
The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan
An earlier version of this article listed Namita Gokhale as the author of the book. It has been corrected to Deepa Agarwal. The error is regretted.