Melancholy, Power And The Death Of General Rani

Melancholy, Power And The Death Of General Rani
Pakistan in the 1960s witnessed a simmering political cauldron. Fading echoes of the nation's adolescent recklessness gave way to the brashness and bubbling rage of a nation born from a hesitant dream.

The founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had passed away, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated. Within a decade of its birth, martial law was imposed, with General Ayub Khan taking charge to assert his vision for governing the country and sidelining the politicians.

The destined turmoil was further accelerated by the escalation during this decade, fuelled by the rise of labour movements, leftist organisations and fiery student politics, all with an atypical fervour of nationalism. The political landscape witnessed the emergence of leftist political parties such as the Awami League (AL), the National Awami Party (NAP) and Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The post-1965-war period witnessed heightened frustrations, as dissenters clung more ardently to their beliefs amidst the ruling class's attempts to suppress them.

At the risk of jesting a little, nobody embodies the aflame, ambitious, aspirational, chaotic, and somewhat cocky yet ultimately melancholic spectre of that era quite like Akleem Akhtar. She witnessed her rise during the late 1960s, when she was known by her enigmatic alias 'General Rani'.

In the 1930s, as Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley musicals took centre-stage in Hollywood, a socially conservative yet affluent family from Gujrat (Punjab) infused Pakistan's history with whimsy through the enigmatic presence of Akleem. A tomboy more interested in sports and hunting than in completing her studies, Akleem compensated for her lack of formal education with her intelligence.
Filled with rage and a sense of insult, Akleem defiantly threw her burqa (veil) into the liberating wind.

At a young age, she found herself married to Chaudry Ghulam Raza, an older orthodox Muslim police officer. However, their marriage turned out to be a desolate affair, despite the arrival of six children in their lives. Akleem's fiercely independent spirit clashed with the traditional constraints imposed by her husband, resulting in frequent fights. The facade of their marriage gradually crumbled until it eventually collapsed abruptly, leaving debris scattered along the side of Muree Mall Road.

One day, while taking a stroll on Mall Road during a vacation, "a lovely breeze" exposed Akleem's face, revealing her 'modesty.' Her husband swiftly reprimanded her with a tap of his walking stick, reminding her of her unveiled face. This incident became the breaking point. Filled with rage and a sense of insult, Akleem defiantly threw her burqa (veil) into the liberating wind.

The simmering anger had finally found an outlet. Remarkably, she restrained herself from tearing her husband's muffler to shreds, scratching his face, pulling his hair, and causing all sorts of damage to him. As she revealed in her conversation with Ayesha Nasir in the piece “Night of the General.

"The only thing that stopped me were the people on the Mall [road]."

After emerging from this sordid phase with her children and being rejected by her family, Akleem's newfound clarity led her to embrace a philosophy. After being surrounded by a multitude of powerful and influential individuals over the years, primarily due to her association with her husband, she adopted the policy of 'miyan ki joti miyan k sar' ('beat men at their own game'). Akleem recognised an opportunity to cater to and exploit the insatiable desires of these men for young women and drinks, leading her to establish an 'arranging business' in Rawalpindi. It was within the vibrant ambiance of one such club where Akleem's path crossed with General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the future chief executive of the nation, whom she affectionately referred to as Agha Jani.

Gen Yahya, at that time, was enjoying the support of a crucial clique within the army that was formed after the 1965 war. He also benefited from the mounting pressure on Gen Ayub, both from within the military and the burgeoning leftist movements across the nation. As Ayub sorrowfully acknowledged, “People were no longer willing to take a bullet for me” (he was right).

Akleem struck a chord with Agha Jani, who had a penchant for indulging in 'adult pleasures.' It is interesting to point out that when Yahya Khan fell out of power after the 1971 debacle (as a way to whitewash himself), he narrated knowing Akleem since childhood. He shared that his father, who worked in the Indian Imperial Police (IIP) and was posted in Punjab, had connections with Akleem's father, which is how they became acquainted.
Unlike a typical 'partner,' she didn't take Yahya's name but instead took his position and made it her own name – 'General Rani'

Throughout the late 1960s, leading up to Yahya's downfall, their relationship, based on speculations and Rani's own account, underwent a complex evolution. It encompassed elements of friendship, romance, a sense of siblinghood, but predominantly consisted of transactional interactions, often the case in any relationship.

However, it cannot be simply reduced to a dynamic of muse and master or even a partner. Unlike a typical 'partner,' she didn't take Yahya's name but instead took his position and made it her own name – 'General Rani' – after Yahya came into power in 1969. This title, according to various conjectures and accounts, including that of renowned lawyer SM Zafar, who handled most of Rani's cases, was bestowed upon her by none other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As both the Bhutto and Rani stories unfolded, their relationship grew progressively more estranged, starting with a deep friendship that Rani believed to be more genuine than her connection with Yahya (spoiler alert: Bhutto emerges as the villain in Rani's narrative).

After General Yahya assumed power in 1969, Rani became the corridor through which influential people gained access to him. Many politicians, bureaucrats, military officials, and celebrities would often traverse those corridors to meet Agha Jani, seeking favours and drawing his attention to the pressing matters of the country. Most of the time, these characters would linger within Rani's corridors, beseeching her to orchestrate parties and indulging their various appetites.

One of the most renowned characters in this saga of corridors was Malika-e-Tarannum, Madame Noor Jehan, who, contrary to commonly held beliefs, was much more 'complicated.' Noor Jehan and Rani had a strong camaraderie, while Noor Jehan's connection with Agha Jani was even more intricate and, at the time, highly controversial (often referred to as an affair).

At General Yahya's birthday celebration, Madame Noor Jehan had her first interaction with the general, thanks to Rani. After witnessing the joy on Agha Jani's face while he listened to Madame Noor Jehan's charming song “Meri Chichi Da Challa” from the movie Dhee Rani, Rani took the initiative to arrange this memorable meeting.

Later, she met him through Rani again to address and sort out her tax case. These encounters led to the formation of a provocative bond, a subject of gossip that lingered long after those years.

General Rani wielded considerable power and was regarded as the brains behind even the political decisions during Yahya's brief yet impactful stint in Pakistan's history. She catered to all of General Yahya's ravenous desires (a monumental task).

However, the inevitable downfall of both General Yahya and Rani was sealed after the devastating defeat in the 1971 war and the secession of East Pakistan. The downfall of both Yahya and Rani marked the end of an era, forever etching their names in the tumultuous history of Pakistan.
General Rani wielded considerable power and was regarded as the brains behind even the political decisions during Yahya's brief yet impactful stint in Pakistan's history

Following the overthrow, Rani faced the consequences as Bhutto, the one who had given her the title and had enjoyed many of her arranged parties, put her and her family members under house arrest, citing concerns about her being a potential threat to the country's defence.

The guidelines imposed various restrictions on Rani, including meeting people and talking to relatives. Her phone was tapped, and eventually, her phone-lines were even cut off. Although some of these restraints were gradually eased, she was never freed. She was finally released from house arrest after the toppling of Bhutto in 1977 by Gen Zia-ul-Haq.

Despite the brief respite, she found herself embroiled in further adventures, ultimately leading to her arrest and imprisonment on charges of drug trafficking during Zia's regime. These shenanigans of Rani were perfectly captured by SM Zafar's remark during her house arrest under Bhutto's governance. In a moment of exasperation, after listening to her rant and lament against Bhutto, he said, "Bhutto nay apko sahi General Rani kaha tha" (Bhutto rightly called you General Rani).

By the time she phased out of all these legal constraints, she had lost all her money and power. General Rani was dead. The same old Akleem was lost, and there was no trace of the once "lovely breeze" to be found. She lived the rest of her life as a recluse, leading a solitary existence detached from the bustling world.

But mysterious myths have a way of captivating cultural fascination, preserving the presence of avatars even when the individuals themselves have faded.

Dawn reported on 2 July 2002, in a headline that read “Gen Rani dies of cancer.”

This strangely echoed a headline from Nawaiwaqt dated 30 December 1971:

"Rani jo kabhi Pakistan ki Malika thi, apne ghar mein nazarband hai." (Rani, who was once the Queen of Pakistan, is under house arrest in her own home).

Long live the Rani!