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Once a diplomat

S.M. Khan combined sharp statecraft for Pakistan with a large heart.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
November 12, 2010 4:55:23 am

Sultan Mohammed Khan,who died at age 91 in Karachi on Monday,was one of Pakistan’s most distinguished and highly respected diplomats who won accolades for vigorously defending Pakistan’s interests without ever being offensive,something that cannot be said of many of his colleagues before or after him. I discovered this attribute of his at the height of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971 which,everyone knew,was hurtling towards war when I attended his press conferences in Paris and London. It was in the ’90s,however,that I really got to know him and found that he was both an erudite expert in international affairs and a thorough gentleman. He was then living a retired life in Washington DC,after having been his country’s ambassador to the United States,not once but twice. At the turn of the century,however,he went back to Karachi because of the illness of his wife,a daughter of the Nawab of Jawda in central India. Married to him for 68 years,she passed away only a few months earlier.Born in 1919,S.M. Khan studied at Allahabad University and joined the army to fight in World War II,in the rank of major. At the end of the war there was a special recruitment to the Indian Administrative and Indian Foreign Services from among the wartime candidates. He made it to the IFS,together with Jagat Mehta,Ram Sathe,Ishi Rahman. At the time of Independence and Partition,he opted for Pakistan but remained in New Delhi because his government posted him to the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi. His next postings were in Egypt,Italy and Turkey.It was in China that his talent as a practitioner of diplomacy won appreciation. He was deputy chief of mission when General Raza was ambassador to Beijing. Yet,Zhou Enlai became so fond of Mr and Mrs Khan that he once invited himself to dinner at their house. Soon enough,Khan went back to Beijing as ambassador and China-Pakistan relations blossomed. Needless to say,India’s relations with China were then the exact opposite. Ram Sathe was then in Beijing. Yet Sultan Khan’s children were friends of Sathe’s offspring.In 197l,on the verge of the Bangladesh war,Khan went to the Chinese capital for talks with Chinese leaders. Pakistan’s ambassador to China then was K.M. Kaiser,a Bengali,who naturally accompanied the foreign secretary to his meeting with the Chinese prime minister. Zhou made some polite talk and then said to Khan that he must be very tired after the long journey,so their talks could take place the next day. Late in the night,a Chinese official came and told the Pakistani foreign secretary that the prime minister wanted to see him immediately. Zhou explained that he did not want to “embarrass” both him and the ambassador by talking to them together.In 1960,Khan was director-general in charge of the Soviet Union when the famous U-2 affair — an American spy plane that took off from an American base near Peshawar was shot down while flying over the Soviet Union — took place. Pakistan vehemently denied any role in the episode. Soviet Ambassador Mikhail Kapitza came to see Khan,and asked whether he still denied any responsibility. “I am denying it categorically,” was the reply he got. Kapitza looked rather pleased,took out a piece of paper and handed it over to his interlocutor. It was the confession of the U-2’s pilot,Gary Powers. When Khan met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (then a minister) and the operational headed of the ISI (then a colonel),they claimed that they,too,had never been taken into confidence. At the time of then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore,which aroused very high hopes,I was in Washington. Sultan Sahib advised me not to take the prevailing euphoria seriously. “Nothing will come of it for the simple reason that the army is not on board.”

When Khan was a reasonably senior member of the Pakistan embassy in Ankara,the father of Pervez Musharraf (then a schoolboy) was a junior member of the embassy staff. For all the seven years that General Musharraf was president of Pakistan,on every visit to Karachi,he made it a point to call on Sultan Mohammed Khan. Given his qualities of head and heart,Khan’s death will be widely mourned. He is survived by his four children,two daughters and two sons. Three of them are settled in the US; the fourth in Europe.

The writer is Delhi-based political commentator

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