Born on 13 November 1899, in Murshidabad, Bengal Presidency of British Indian Empire, Iskander Ali Mirza, was a career army officer, who reached the higher rank of major-general in Pakistan Army. He was the last Governor
Iskander Ali Mirza
Born on 13 November 1899, in Murshidabad, Bengal Presidency of British Indian Empire, Iskander Ali Mirza, was a career army officer, who reached the higher rank of major-general in Pakistan Army. He was the last Governor-General of Pakistan (1955 to 1956) and the first President of Pakistan, serving from 1956 to 1958.
He was the eldest child of Sahibzada Sayyid Muhammad Fateh Ali Mirza (b. 1864–d. 1949) and his first wife, Dilshad Begum (b. 1869–d. 1924). The Mirza family was an extremely influential and wealthy feudal family in Bengal, with close ties with British monarchy. His father, Fateh Ali Mirza belonged to the ruling house of Murshidabad, grandson of the first Nawab Mansur Ali Khan.
His paternal ancestor was Mir Jafar, generally known to Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis as a traitor. Mir Jafar had played an integral role bringing down Siraj ud-Daulah of Bengal, with the British East India company serving as the informant and leading provider of intelligence to company official Robert Clive.
Iskander Mirza grew up in Bombay, receiving his early education at Elphinstone College, part of the then University of Bombay. He then joined the British Army and was educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, becoming the first Indian graduate of the college, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on the unattached list of the British Indian Army on 16 July 1920. Iskander Mirza was promoted to lieutenant on 16 July 1921 and admitted to the Indian Army from 30 December 1921.
His military career was spent in the military police and he was attached to the second battalion, Cameronians starting 16 July 1920. His service saw extensive operations in North West Frontier Province. He went on to serve in the ‘Operation Khodad Khe’ in 1921, and in the Waziristan war in 1920. He was transferred to the 17th Poona Horse (Queen Victoria's Own), as an army inspector. However, his career was short-lived and Mirza left active service to join the Indian Political Service in August 1926. He was first posted to Aligarh as an assistant magistrate and collector before being posted to Hazara in the North West Frontier Province as an assistant commissioner.
However, he kept his army commission, receiving a promotion to captain on 17 October 1927. His career was spent in the troubled Tribal belt. From 1928 to 1933, he served as an assistant commissioner in the districts of Dera Ismail Khan (April 1928), Tonk (May 1928), Bannu (April 1930) and Nowshera (April 1931).
In 1931, Captain Mirza was appointed a district officer. He was promoted to deputy commissioner at Hazara in May 1933, where he served for three years until a posting to Mardan as assistant commissioner from October 1936 (deputy commissioner from January 1937). Promoted to major on 16 July 1938, he became the Political Agent of the Tribal Belt in April 1938, stationed at Khyber. He remained there until 1945.
Iskander Mirza was appointed and served as the political agent of Odisha and North West Frontier Province from 1945 until 1946. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on 16 July 1946. His ability to run the colonial administrative units had brought him to a prominence that prompted the British Indian Government to appoint him as the Joint Defence Secretary of India in 1946. In this position, he was responsible for dividing the British Indian Army into the future armies of Pakistan and India. In 1947, Iskander Mirza became Pakistan's first defense secretary in the government of Liaquat Ali Khan.
Upon the establishment of Pakistan, Iskander Mirza was one of the highest ranking government officers in the nation. As the defense secretary, he oversaw the 1947 war with India, as well as the Balochistan conflict. In 1950, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan approved the recommendation of his appointment as honorary active duty major general in Pakistan Army, commanding the Military Police as its second General Officer Commanding.
In 1951, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan appointed him as the director of the Department of Kashmir and Afghanistan Affairs (DKA). His stint also saw the redeployment of Military Police in East-Pakistan as a result of the Bengali Language Movement, during which the East Pakistan Army fatally shot four student activists. Within a short span of time, the Military Police had the control of the state and its officer commanding submitted the report of their course of action to Major General Iskander Mirza in 1954.
Iskander Mirza’s rapid control of the province brought him to national prominence, leading to national recognition. Upon the dismissal of United Front, Governor General Ghulam Muhammad decided to declare governor's rule in the state, with the incoming prime minister asked to appoint a governor. Appointing a new cabinet, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra named him the governor of East Pakistan.
Taking the oath from the Chief Justice Muhammad Munir, Iskander Mirza arrived to East Pakistan in May 1954. After landing at the Dhaka Airport, Iskander Mirza sharply announced in Bengali language to the Pakistan media representatives, that he would not hesitate to use force in order to establish peace in the province. On the first day of his charge, he ordered the arrest of 319 persons, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Yusuf Ali Chowdhury.
By mid-June 1954, the number of arrests reached 1,051, including 33 assembly members and two Dhaka University professors. Although the peace was restored and law and order situation improved, such actions had sown a permanent seed of hatred for the federal government in the hearts of the people of East Pakistan.
The same year, he was called to continue his service in federal government being appointed the minister of the interior and minister of commonwealth and Kashmir affairs in Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra's cabinet. He was one of the most senior bureaucratic ministers in the Bogra government, and was extremely influential at that time. Due to a long illness, Governor General Ghulam Muhammad went on a two-month leave to the United Kingdom, leaving the office of governor general to Iskander Mirza.
On 7 August 1955, Iskander Mirza assumed the office of governor general. Immediately after being administered oath by chief justice of Pakistan, he spoke to the nation on radio. Owing to the continuing political instability, he forced Prime Minister Bogra to resign from his office, despatching him as Pakistan Ambassador to the United States in 1955.
Iskander Mirza was a big supporter of the ‘One Unit Programme’, a programme of integrating the provinces of West Pakistan and East Pakistan into one single entity. This programme met with harsh criticism led by the nationalists, particularly in Sindh and the N.W.F.P.
On 12 August, 1955, Iskander Mirza appointed Chaudhry Muhammad Ali as the interim prime minister. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the leader of the Awami League took over as the fifth prime minister of Pakistan on 12 September 1956, after his party formed an alliance with the Republican Party.
The 1956 Constitution of Pakistan replaced the position of governor general of Pakistan with the President of Pakistan. For almost nine years after the nation's independence, the country's political system was driven by Parliamentary democracy. The Pakistan Parliament unanimously elected Iskander Mirza as the first President of Pakistan.
President Iskander Mirza, an Establishment-backed president, widely lacked the parliamentary spirit, distrusting the civilians to ensure the integrity and sovereignty of country. His presidency was marked by great political instability, civil unrest, and immigration problems. The electricity problems in West Pakistan brought his government nearly to an end, prompting Prime Minister Suhrawardy to establish the plan for nuclear power in the country. Relations with the United States and Soviet Union deteriorated quickly, and problems with India also mounted. Under his presidency, Iskander Mirza dismissed his elected prime ministers, including Suhrawardy, also a Bengali from East Pakistan.
The Awami League began negotiating a power sharing programme with the Muslim League, reorganizing after the 1954 elections. This attempt of the Awami League threatened Iskander Mirza and his political influence nearly bringing the Muslim League to come to its end. Therefore, on 7 October 1958, Iskander Mirza issued an executive decree and a state presidential proclamation abrogating the 1956 Constitution. The Pakistan Parliament, provisional assemblies were dissolved, and the government of Prime Minister Sir Feroz Khan Noon came to an end.
On 7 October 1958, Iskander Mizra announced via national radio that he was introducing a new constitution ‘more suited to the genius of the Pakistan nation’, as he believed democracy was unsuited to Pakistan ‘with its 15% literacy rate’. Upon abdicating, Iskander Mirza took the nation into confidence, saying that:
Three weeks ago, I (Iskander Mirza) imposed martial law in Pakistan and appointed General Ayub Khan as Supreme Commander of the [Armed Forces] and also as Chief Martial Law Administrator. By the grace of God, this measure which I had adopted in the interest of our beloved country has been extremely well received by our people and by our friends and well-wishers abroad. I have done best to administer in the difficult task of arresting further deterioration and bringing order out of chaos. In our efforts to evolve an effective structure for future administration of this country. Pakistan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad. However, Bhutto in 1967 countered Iskander Mirza's views after pointing out that ‘the same problem of low literacy also existed in India which had opted for democracy’.
This martial law imposed by country's first Bengali president was the first example of martial law in Pakistan, which would continue until the dissolution of East Pakistan in 1971. Iskander Mirza appointed then Army Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Ayub Khan, as the chief martial law administrator (CMLA), which proved his undoing within three weeks.
President Iskander Mirza and his Army Chief General Ayub Khan had begun the new era with apparent unanimity, which was described as a two men dictatorial regime that evolved under the ‘Establishment’, and the Pakistan Armed Forces. However, the two had very different views on dealing with the new situation, even though they were responsible for bringing about the change.
President Iskander Mirza had not envisaged any change in his previous powers; he wanted to retain the ability to manoeuver things in keeping with his own whims. Judging from the situation, the things, however had changed as the time and situation both were demanding the complete solution. General Ayub Khan came to an understanding that the real political power and might rested with the Armed Forces, and the CMLA General Ayub Khan was determined to assert himself. Within a week of the proclamation of martial law, President Iskander Mirza realized the delicate position he had got himself into. In an interview with Dawn, President Iskander Mirza regretted his decision saying: ‘I did not mean to do it’ while offering assurances that the martial law would be for the shortest possible duration.
The sharing of power soon led to the intensification of the tug-of-war between the two men. This deadly game produced negative results for President Iskander Mirza after he tried to balance the power structure by illegally appointing General Ayub Khan as Prime Minister on 24 October 1958. The new cabinet that President Iskander Mirza had formed consisted entirely of non-political members, mostly technocrats, one of them being Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The new cabinet did not satisfy General Ayub Khan who had more powers as the chief martial law administrator.
In order to secure him-self, President Iskander Mirza made a last-ditch effort by trying to get the support of Ayub Khan's rivals within the Army, Navy, and the PAF. This move backfired on President Iskander Mirza when senior military officers informed General Ayub Khan of his schemes. With the consensus of senior military officers, Ayub Khan forced President Mirza to resign on 27 October 1958. Within days, he was exiled to London, making Ayub Khan the sole power in Pakistan.
Iskander Mirza lived in exile in London, England, until his death. It is reported that Mirza struggled financially while living in London trying to run a small Pakistan cuisine hotel. Here he lived in poverty until his death. His only regular income was an annual pension of £3,000 as a former military officer and president. People like the Isphahanis, Ardeshir Zahedi, the ambassador and later Foreign Minister of Iran, the Shah of Iran, Lord Inchcape, Lord Hume and other heads of European governments made his life in exile tolerable. At the London hospital where he died, he once said to his wife, Nahid: ‘We cannot afford medical treatment, so just let me die.’
He died of a heart attack on 13 November 1969. President Yahya Khan denied him a burial in Pakistan. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sent his personal plane to London to bring President Mirza's body to Tehran, where he was given a state funeral. Hundreds of Iranians, including Prime Minister Abbas Hoveyda, and Pakistani expatriates in Iran bade farewell and offered their prayers.
The funeral ceremony was marred by the absence of Iskander Mirza's relations living in Pakistan. The military government barred them from leaving Pakistan in time despite the best efforts by Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran's foreign minister, and President Iskander Mirza's friends in Pakistan and Iran. There are unfounded rumours that after the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), his grave was desecrated.
Iskander Mirza was married twice: his first marriage took place on 24 November 1922, when he married a Bengali woman, Rifaat Begum (1907-23 March 1967). The couple had two sons and four daughters.
Humayun Mirza is the only surviving son of Iskander Mirza. He was born in Poona, India, and was educated at Doon School. He also studied in the UK, before moving to the USA, where he earned his MBA from Harvard. He married the daughter of Horace Hildreth, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. He retired from the World Bank in 1988. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of a book ‘From Plassey to Pakistan: The Family History of Iskander Mirza.’ Humayun's younger brother, Enver Mirza, had died in a plane crash in 1953.
In October 1954, while in West Pakistan, Iskander Mirza's second marriage took place in Karachi after he fell in love with an Iranian aristocrat, Naheed Amirteymour, daughter of Amirteymour Kalali. She was a close friend of Begum Nusrat Bhutto. It was this friendship that brought Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into the political arena of Pakistan.
Iskander Ali Mirza is often criticized for imposing martial law. Historians have noted that Mirza held that Pakistanis lacked the parliamentary spirit and because of the lack of training in the field of democracy and the low literacy rate among the masses, democratic institutions cannot flourish in Pakistan. He believed that the judicial authorities should be given the same powers which they used to enjoy during the British Indian Empire.
Iskander Mirza's political ideology reflected secularism, and an image of internationalism, strongly advocating the religious separation in state matters. He had never had a high opinion of politicians. He was well known for his conviction that the politicians were destroying the country. He felt that in order to work towards real and responsible democracy, the country must have what he called the controlled democracy.
Historians also asserted that his role as the head of state led him to play an active part in power politics, building an image of being a kingmaker in the country's politics. Iskander Mirza took full advantage of the weaknesses of politicians and played them against each other, first offsetting the influence of the Muslim League by creating the Republican Party.
During his short span of four years as the head of state, four prime ministers were changed, three of them were his appointees, while the only popularly elected Bengali prime minister was dismissed. Iskander Mirza is thus widely held responsible for the instability that brought the active role of Pakistan armed forces in politics.