The five rivers’ famous son

Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan was known as united Punjab's premier politician, and not without reason says Dr. Jeanne Zaino

The five rivers’ famous son
Exactly how many Shamianias (canopies) with silver poles and covered in gold filigree had been brought in from the Indian states is unknown. There were enough, however, to accommodate the thousands of distinguished guests who arrived in Lahore in late December 1942 from across greater India to celebrate the weddings of the three children of the Premier of Punjab, Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan.

The grand reception, hosted by the Premier the day after Christmas, is said to have included special trains run between Lahore and New Delhi to transport the guests. The celebrated Punjab Police band provided the music. The young brides, all dressed in white, and their new husbands in their Army uniforms, greeted each guest after they had paid their respects to the Premier. Little could anyone imagine that it was the last time they would see him alive.

Sir Sikander with his eldest two sons (Shaukat and Azmat) on the day of the wedding celebration and the night he passed, December 1942, Lahore

It was, by all accounts, a joyous day. The fifty-year-old Premier, then the senior most elected government official and a leading Muslim figure in greater India, was exuberant – and with good reason. He had a lot to celebrate. In addition to the weddings of his three beloved children, Shaukat, Azmat, and Tahira, his sons had returned home from the War, he was in his sixth successful year as the Premier of the Punjab, and he was making real progress toward his primary goals: independence from Great Britain and establishing an equal voice for Muslims across the Indian Subcontinent.

When the reception began to wind down that evening, Sikander insisted on hosting a large dinner party for the family, many of whom had come from far away. That lasted until about 11 pm, after which in accordance with custom he gave his five daughters gifts and then insisted on going through the list of Tambol (family’s cash gifts) and prepared to return most. At Sikander’s insistence, the wedding invitation had included the following rather unusual notation: “No presents please for my children!” It was in keeping with his view that as Premier, a government official, he did want to impart the appearance of impropriety, or set a false precedent in which other government officials began accepting gifts.
The people of the Punjab prevailed in their insistence that he be interred at the steps of the Badshahi Mosque

Around midnight an exhausted Premier finally retired to his bedroom. What happened next remains, to this day, largely a mystery. We know that it was within a short time that Lady Sikander, his wife, went into the room and discovered that he was not breathing. Alarmed, she called for help, for someone to fetch a doctor. Two of their sons, Izzat (who would later become Pakistan’s Ambassador and special envoy to the Arab League) was just 13 at the time and his older brother Riffat, ran to the house of Dr. Lorbeer a German doctor – quite possibly with Nazi affiliations at the time – who lived nearby; but he coldly refused the young boys’ pleas for help. At this point the Premier had been lying still in his bed for more than a couple of hours, surrounded by his panic-stricken loving family when their long time Hindu physician Dr. Maharaj Krishan finally arrived. They were rubbing his feet and chest, now cold, when the doctor lifted Sir Sikander’s eyelids, then in a signal that death had beset him, made the announcement of his passing and stepped back from the bed in tears.

As Sir Sikander’s young family struggled to make sense of what had happened, word of the Premier’s death spread throughout the Punjab, greater India and around the world. The Civil and Military Gazette ran with the headline “Untimely Death of Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan: Irreparable Loss to Punjab, India, and Empire”. The article began by quoting Sir Winston Churchill’s tribute to the leader he last met with on the battlefield in Cairo, just four months earlier. “To the Government and People of the Punjab and India,” Churchill began,

My sincere sympathy with the great loss they have sustained by the premature death of their wise and valiant leader…a gallant soldier and a true statesman with a broad and valiant outlook: loyal to his province, loyal to India and to the common cause of Freedom.

Never one to miss an opportunity to push for independence, Sir Sikander had used the occasion of their last meeting not only to proudly celebrate the achievements of the millions of Indian soldiers, but to advocate for a free, democratic, and autonomous Indian federation post-War. Reports are that he took Churchill step by step through the plan he committed himself to writing in 1939, known as the “Outlines of a Scheme of Indian Federation.”

The outpouring of grief at the sudden loss of this promising and young leader was profound. Testimonials poured in from leaders from within greater India, and from around the world, and Punjabis struggled to make sense of their immense and unexpected loss. Thousands, who had just hours earlier gathered for the large joy filled wedding celebration, now had to begin the process of bereavement. It was a twist of fate for the future of the Indian Subcontinent, for the Punjab, and most assuredly for the Premier’s young family.

[L-R] Riffat Hyat-Khan, Shaukat Hyat-Khan, Ghairat Hyat-Khan, Azmat Hyat-Khan, Izzat Hyat-Khan
In the centuries old tradition, family members wanted to carry Sir Sikander’s body back to his ancestral village of Wah. However, the people of the Punjab prevailed in their insistence that it was only proper that he be interred at the steps of the Badshahi Mosque. After all, when he assumed office, the Mosque, once used by the Sikhs as a stable and later as an arsenal, was rundown and dilapidated. Sir Sikander worked tirelessly to restore the historical monument, a credit to his administrative acumen. He was finally able to pass a small tax on land revenue paid by Muslims to fund the successful and much needed restoration.

On the evening of the 27th, his four eldest sons helped carry the Janaaza on their shoulders for five miles: from his residence at 108 Upper Mall in Lahore to the Mosque. Long poles were tied to the Janaaza for the wailing crowds that had lined the streets all the way as the funerary procession passed. People of all faiths and from all walks of life, representing all nationalities, including British military and civilians, turned out to express their condolences. Members of the Khaksar Movement, who had long clashed with the Premier over their violent tactics, that day lined the procession and symbolically pointed their shovels toward the ground. Black and white video of what was at that time the largest funeral procession Lahore had ever witnessed still exists and is chilling to watch.
Members of the Khaksar Movement, who had long clashed with the Premier, that day lined the procession and symbolically pointed their shovels to the ground

After the funeral, Sir Sikander was laid to rest at the foot of the Badshahi Mosque and just across from the tomb of another founder of Pakistan, his contemporary, and friend; and someone who had inspired to a great extent his call for a Federation in “Outlines” – the poet Allama Iqbal.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of his untimely death, the unfortunate reality is that his grave-site has largely been neglected. Farid Ahmed described the “reprehensible manner in which Government departments, responsible for overall caretaking of this fabulous and unique premises… have shown sheer negligence towards this burial place of Sir Sikander.”

These government entities certainly bear their share of responsibility and blame. However, they are not alone. Scholars and academics, librarians and archivists, and the community itself, also must take responsibility for not having done enough to recognise and put in context the genius of this man, who played such a pivotal role in pre-Partition politics; and who in word, thought, and deed, had an outsized and under-appreciated impact on the push towards independence and the creation of the new nation. We must do a better job in educating people about the fact that it was Sir Sikander, who after the Muslim League’s poor showing in the 1936-37 elections, helped convince other Muslim leaders to attend the conference in Lucknow. It was Sir Sikander who, with the signing of the Sikander-Jinnah pact in 1937, helped resurrect the fledgling party and set the stage for the creation of Pakistan. It was Sir Sikander who, against the calls of Gandhi and Nehru, convinced the Muslim League to support the Commonwealth war effort (in the Second World War) for both philosophical and pragmatic reasons. It was an exasperated Sir Sikander who, just a few months after his last meeting with Churchill, called the press together in Simla and demanded an explanation from the British government for the Prime Minister’s “embarrassing” statements suggesting that the third principle of self-determination detailed in the Atlantic Charter did not apply to India – to which an apologetic explanation was subsequently provided in the House of Commons by Mr. Amery. And it was Sir Sikander who authored the first draft of the Lahore Resolution (aka Pakistan Resolution), and who authorised and supported the meeting venue where the Lahore Resolution was passed in 1940.

The site of his grave

Like all great, young, and promising leaders, Sir Sikander was not un-controversial. He was a man of principle, a pragmatic level-headed thinker and a statesman who sought to drive balanced opinion even when it was unpopular. All the more reason to reclaim and celebrate his legacy now at the end of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the nation. As Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman wrote of Sir Sikander, “But for his support to the League cause, even the Pakistan Resolution would not have been passed at Lahore. All of his services to the cause of the Muslims of the subcontinent seem now to be forgotten but I hope that Pakistan will acclaim him some day as one of the great men coming from the land of the five rivers.”

Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor of political science and international studies at Iona College, NY, USA. She is currently writing a book on Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @JeanneZaino