The Quaid’s tragic last hours

By Zuhair Siddiqui

geust-contTHE obscurity that still partly shrouds the childhood and earlier years of the creator of Pakistan is understandable. Some of the story will ever remain untold. The child who was destined to carve out a new State was born to an ordinary family of Khoja tradesmen practically unknown outside business circles in Karachi and Bombay.

The young Mohammad All was no prodigy and his name does not feature on the roll of honour of any school. The records of the schools that he attended tell us little beyond his registered date of birth and the dates of his joining and leaving. He left his last school, and the country, before matriculation.

With the Quaid-i-Azam during his last days by Lieut. Col. Ilahi Bakhsh published by Oxford University Press
With the Quaid-i-Azam during his last days by Lieut. Col. Ilahi Bakhsh published by Oxford University Press

Later, when he had attained eminence at the bar and in public life, he told others little about his earlier years. He was not fond of talking about himself. He never encouraged anyone to write a comprehensive biography; even if he had done so, thick skins of reserve would perhaps have inhibited the kind of catharsis involved in unfolding the story of his childhood and formative years in long, intimate sessions with the prospective biographer.

Unfortunately, not enough is known even about his later years, when he lived in the focus of contemporary history. The lack of a full-length biography has for years been the refrain of speeches and writings on his birth and death anniversaries. The centenary celebrations two years ago stimulated interest in the subject and aroused hopes of an earnest beginning without further delay, but nothing positive is yet in sight. All that we have in hand is a reprint of a booklet on the last days of the leader by his last physician, the late Lieut. Col. Ilahi Bakhsh.

By this slim volume (with the Quaid-i-Azam During his Last Days), now reprinted by the Quaid-i-Azam Academy, hangs a tale, long since forgotten but significant for the political historian as well as the biographer. The book, based on a day-to-day diary maintained by the physician, first appeared within a year of the leader’s death, with a foreword by Miss Fatima Jinnah. It was an authentic and faithful account, and at once became a bestseller; but it also raised disconcerting questions with political overtones.

It showed that the Quaid-i-Azam did not take Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan into his confidence about the gravity of his illness. It also showed that neither the Prime Minister nor any of his cabinet colleagues, nor even the Secretary-General to the Government of Pakistan, was at the airport to receive the flight that brought the dying leader and the sorrowing companions of his last days from Quetta to Karachi.

Ilahi Bakhsh “saw the Military Secretary to the Governor-General, Col. Knowles, standing by an ambulance, but no nurse.” (The one nurse on the flight was apparently considered enough by the authorities at the receiving end). According to Bolitho, “the Prime Minister had been telephoned from Quetta and asked not to come to the aerodrome.” But he has not recorded, nor has any other researcher tried to find out, who had issued those orders and why.


The doctor’s experience at the airport was not the end of his agony. At the Governor-General’s House there was no night nurse and Ilahi Bakhsh was driven from pillar to post in his search for one. He rang up another doctor, Col. Shah, for help; he was not at home. He then called a surgeon, Col. Saeed; he was found in the middle of a major operation and therefore inaccessible. He then went out himself in search of Col. Shah; he was still not traceable. Ilahi Bakhsh then rushed to a nursing home but “found the matron out and no experienced nurse available — I wished I had insisted upon Miss Jinnah to bring the night nurse from Quetta, but how could I imagine it would be so difficult to find one at Karachi.” The only thing that he could then do was to curse the city of Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan. It was only at about 8.30, more than two hours after the Quaid-i-Azam had reached the Governor-General’s House, that Ilahi Bakhsh found that “the Military Secretary had succeeded in unearthing a nurse.”

But some more frustration was in store for the colonel. The authorities in Karachi were fully aware of the precarious condition of the Quaid-i-Azam, but it appears that no local doctor was consulted about the arrangements and facilities that would be needed for his proper care at the Governor-General’s House. Ilahi Bakhsh “ordered a circulatory stimulant to be given to the patient by mouth, but he could not swallow and the medicine dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. I then sent for bricks and blocks of wood to raise the foot of the bed, and bandages for his legs to increase the flow of blood to the vital centres. It was difficult to find these things in the House, so I tried to lift the foot of the bed myself. The bed was extremely heavy, and though I succeeded in lifting it up by about six inches or so, I could not maintain it for long. Miss Jinnah tried to help me, but I requested her not to exert herself and get some books to be used in place of bricks.”

This tragic, story, told by the physician plainly and without any comment or insinuation, was obviously very damaging to the government of the day, particularly the Prime Minister, Mr Liaquat Ali Khan. People began to ask awkward questions with disturbing political overtones. Some of the facts were too glaring to be explained away, and the Government, taking advantage of the fact that Ilahi Bakhsh, a government servant, had skipped the formality of seeking leave to publish the book, put the heat on him. He was forced to withdraw the book from circulation, but meanwhile it had sold widely, and, as the colonel himself told the present writer some time later, had “served its purpose.”

The book thus forms part of the political history of Pakistan, and the Quaid-i-Azam Academy has done well to reprint it. But the publication would have been far more useful and valuable if it had been accompanied with the other available material on the subject, so as to make a complete story of the last days of the Quaid-i-Azam; for instance, Hector Bolitho’s account, based almost entirely on reports of, and interviews with, Col. Ilahi Bakhsh and Sister Phyllis Dunham. This account brings to light many significant facts which the colonel had, for obvious reasons, refrained from including in his book but later narrated to Bolitho, who met him after Liaquat Ali Khan was gone.

The most important of these facts, from the political historian’s point of view, is the not very pleasant conversation between Ilahi Bakhsh and Liaquat Ali Khan and Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, who visited the Quaid-i-Azam at Ziarat three days after the physician had told his patient that he was suffering from a grave disease of the lungs. When Liaquat asked the doctor for his diagnosis, he first evaded, and ultimately refused, an answer. “The doctor,” writes Bolitho, “believed that, as he had been summoned by Miss Jinnah, not by the State, he was justified in refusing an answer.” He replied that he had not made his diagnosis. When Liaquat asked him what he suspected, the colonel answered that he had ten diseases in mind and must be certain before he pronounced his diagnosis. Chaudhry Mohammad Ali pursued the inquiry: “It is your duty to tell the Prime Minister exactly what is wrong with Quaid-i-Azam … we in the Government must be ready for any consequences.” Ilahi Bakhsh, however, told him that he “would not disclose anything without the permission of the patient.”

“Next morning,” writes Bolitho, “the Quaid said to him (Ilahi Bakhsh): ‘What did the Prime Minister ask you about me?’ The doctor answered that he had ‘told him nothing,’ and Quaid-i-Azam said, ‘Congratulations. I, as head of the State, shall tell the nation about the nature and gravity of my illness when I think it proper’.”

But the most painful part of the story told by Ilahi Bakhsh relates to the leader’s last but one journey — from the Mauripur airport (later named Masroor air base) to the Governor-General’s House. Everyone in Karachi who mattered knew that the creator of Pakistan was dying, but only one ambulance was placed at his service, without any stand-by arrangement. According to protocol, a head of State is entitled to a breakdown car on motor journeys even when he is in normal health.

“We had gone hardly four miles,” writes Ilahi Bakhsh, “when the ambulance stopped — there had been a breakdown due to engine trouble. The driver fiddled with the engine for about twenty minutes, and The ambulance would not start. Miss Jinnah sent the Military Secretary to fetch another ambulance … It was very oppressive in the ambulance and the Quaid-i-Azam was perspiring … What a catastrophe if, having survived the air journey, he were to die by the roadside. I felt utterly forlorn and helpless … After an excruciatingly prolonged interval the ambulance arrived at last … We reached our destination at 6.10 (p.m.), almost two hours after we had landed at the Mauripur aerodrome.”

Bolitho has described the “terrible hour of waiting” at the airport in the touching words of Sister Phyllis Dunham, the nurse who attended Mr Jinnah during his last illness:

“We were still near enough to the refugee camp, and the mud, to be pestered with hundreds of flies. I found a piece of cardboard and fanned Mr. Jinnah’s face, to keep the flies away. I was alone with him for a few minutes and he made a gesture I shall never forget. He moved his arm free of the sheet, and placed his hand on my arm. He did not speak, but there was such a look of gratitude in his eyes. It was all the reward I needed, for anything I had done. His soul was in his eyes at that moment.”

The Quaid’s refusal to disclose the gravity of his illness to the Prime Minister surely does not reflect the best of relationships between the two.

There can be no doubt about the authenticity of Bolitho’s record of his interview with llahi Bakhsh, who lived for nearly six years after the publication of Bolitho’s work but did not contradict any of the statements attributed to him in it. Nor has Chaudhri Mohammad Ali questioned the account of the doctor’s conversation with Mr. Liaquat Ali and himself.

Unfortunately, the day-to-day diary of the treatment that Col.Ilahi Bakhsh has mentioned in his book has not been preserved by his heirs; it might hive given a lot more information than the doctor thought it advisable to reveal in the book or even in his conversations with Hector Bolitho. However, it may still be useful to obtain Chaudhri Mohammad Ali’s version of the story of the Quaid’s last days; one wishes that the Academy had arranged to, have him interviewed on his recollections and records of those days and appended the transcript to the present reprint.

The Academy might also have addressed itself to a rather puzzling question raised by the dramatic story of the Quaid’s illness in Collins’ and Lapierre’s controversial work, Freedom at Midnight. That account, purportedly furnished by Dr. Patel of Bombay and the Quaid’s daughter, is at variance in some significant respects with those of Col. Ilahi Bakhsh and Hector Bolitho. According to Freedom at Midnight, Dr. Patel, one of Mr. Jinnah’s principal physicians during the years immediately before Independence, had found in the summer of 1946 that his lungs had been practically, destroyed ‘by tuberculosis and that he was “living under , a sentence of death” with “barely two or three years to live.” If that “extraordinary secret” it says, “had been known to Mountbatten or Gandhi or Nehru, it “could have upset the Indian political equation and would almost certainly have changed the course of Asian history. Yet so precious was the secret that even the British CID, one of the most effective investigative agencies in the world, was ignorant of its existence.” The X-ray film on which that secret was frozen had been “sealed in an unmarked envelope.”

Now this same Dr. Patel had been interviewed by Bolitho during the early nineteen fifties, more than twenty years before Freedom at Midnight appeared. Bolitho has reported a detailed account by the physician of his treatment of the leader between 1944 and 1946, including the X-ray examination of the patient’s lungs in June 1946. It does not reflect the kind of grave diagnosis attributed to Patel by Collins and Lapierre and does not mention the doctor’s grim foreboding. According to Patel’s account, as narrated to Bolitho, he had first examined, Mr Jinnah in 1944, during the crucial negotiations with Gandhiji and found “signs in the base of his lungs of unresolved pneumonia. He showed me an X-ray picture of his chest: it confirmed my diagnosis. I gave him calcium injections, tonics and short-wave diathermic treatment. The cough subsided, and he went off to the hills for a rest. He came back, having increased his weight by eighteen pounds.”


About the Quaid-i-Azam’s illness in the summer of 1946, immediately after his talks with the British Cabinet Mission, all that Patel told Bolitho was this: “Again it was bronchitis … It is possible that he had always had lung trouble.” No mention of the secret film foreboding the death of the patient within two or three years.

What is far more significant, there is nothing in the Quaid-i-Azam’s own account of his medical history, as recorded by Ilahi Bakhsh, to corroborate the story told in Freedom at Midnight. He told his physician about “annual attacks of fever and cough” which his doctors in Bombay had “regarded as attacks of bronchitis.” He also told him that, during the past year or two, they had increased both in frequency and severity and become much more exhausting. But he insisted that there was nothing organically wrong with him.

Now, if the Collins-Lapierre story is true, what the patient himself told Col. Bahl Bakhsh six weeks before he died does not make sense. Mr. Jinnah was no fatalist, and when the colonel first examined him he had not despaired of life. Indeed, the whole story of the leader’s last illness reflects his strong will to live, which survived until a fortnight before the end. When the physician conveyed his terrible diagnosis to the patient, he asked, “How long have I had this disease? What are the chances of my overcoming it? How long will the treatment last? I should like to know everything and you should not hesitate to tell me the whole truth.” Nearly a fortnight later, when Ilahi Bakhsh informed the patient that a fresh X-ray picture showed a 40 per cent improvement in the condition of his lungs, he asked, “How long will it take to be a hundred per cent?”

It was only on August 29, after he had been under the colonel’s treatment for over a month, and barely a fortnight before his death, that the Quaid-i-Azam lost all hope. “You know,” he told his doctor, “when you first came to Ziarat I wanted to live. Now, however, it does not matter whether I live or die.” The doctor noticed tears in his eyes and “could not help feeling that something had happened which undermined his will to live.”


If the Quaid had the will to live when he was first examined by Ilahi Bakhsh, why should he have tried to conceal from him the most important fact of his medical history and thus misdirect his diagnosis and subsequent treatment? In any event, it must have been obvious to him that an X-ray examination would reveal to the physician the true nature and full gravity of the disease.

Freedom at Midnight appeared about three years ago, when preparations for the Quaid-i-Azam centennial were in full swing, several persons in Pakistan were busy with biographical writings on the leader, and in India Dr. Patel was still alive. But it did not occur to anybody in this country to check the veracity of the Collins and Lapierre story. Now, unfortunately, Patel is reported to be dead and one does not know what has happened to the X-ray film. Nevertheless, an attempt might still be made to trace the film and any clinical record about the Quaid-i-Azam that Dr. Patel may have left.

Source: Herald, October 1978