By Nadeem F. Paracha
28 Mar 2014
Her real name was Aqleem Akhtar. In the late 1960s she began being called General Rani (the Queen General). Between 1969 and 1971 she was considered to be perhaps the most powerful woman in Pakistan.
A muse and mistress of Pakistani dictator, General Yahya Khan, and many-a-times the main brain behind the swinging General’s regime, General Rani was the person a number of bureaucrats and politicians approached when they wanted Yahya’s attention.
Born in the Pakistani city of Gujarat into a well-to-do but conservative family, Aqleem was married off early to a policeman who was twice her age. For years she played well the role of a good wife, bearing six children and never venturing out of the house without a Burqa (veil/Abaya). Then one day in 1963, while holidaying with her husband in the cool hills of Murree, something snapped in her. Walking with her husband among the tall pine trees of the hills, a gust of wind blew away the Burqa from her face. Enjoying the wind softly breezing across her face, she let it make her Burqa flap away and expose her face.
Agitated by her callousness, her husband admonished her. She stopped walking. She stared back at him and then casually proceeded to take off the Burqa from the rest of her body. Then after tossing it at him, she walked away, asking him to wear it himself! She also took the couple’s six children with her but struggled to make ends meet when her parents insisted that they would only help her if she got back with her husband. Alone, with six kids and without a job, Aqeel plotted to get close to powerful, rich men.
She began visiting those nightclubs in Karachi and other such clubs in Lahore and Rawalpindi that were frequented by the political, military and business elite. Finding the men bored with their wives she began arranging ‘dance parties’ for them. She used beautiful young women who had run away from their homes after facing poverty.
But instead of doing her ‘arranging’ business from the country’s two most famous red light districts (Karachi’s Napier Road and Lahore’s Heera Mandi), she operated from an apartment in Rawalpindi. It was at a club that was frequented by the country’s top military men in Rawalpindi where Pakistan’s future dictator, General Yahya Khan, fell for her. A compulsive drinker and womaniser, Yahya began an affair with Aqleem sometime in 1967. But throughout her relationship with Yahya, she kept insisting that they were ‘just friends.’
When a leftist movement between 1968 and 1969 forced General Ayub Khan to resign as head of state, he installed Yahya Khan as the country’s new Martial Law Administrator. It was at this point that Aqleem began being called (in the press), ‘General Rani.’ It is believed that apart from looking after Yahya’s ferocious appetite for booze and women, she also began ‘advising’ him on policy and political matters.
Those who met her in those days described her to be far more informed and astute in the field of politics than Yahya.
Soon she was being visited by all kinds of politicians, bureaucrats and military men, some asking her to arrange her now-famous parties for them, or get the General to meet them or do certain favors for them.
One of her clients was also Pakistan’s legendary singer and actress, Noor Jehan. She had approached Aqleem after the Income Tax Department had charged her for withholding thousands of rupees worth of income tax. Noor Jehan asked Aqleem to request Yahya to intervene. Aqleem did. The General asked the income tax people to back off and then proceeded to begin an affair with Noor Jehan.
The daring woman who had rebelled against her husband’s conservative and demeaning behavior towards her, and then was left with nothing more than six hungry children, and no consistent source of income, became a powerful, influential and rich woman during Yahya Khan’s short dictatorship.
The good fortune lasted till early 1972. Yahya, after leading Pakistan into a disastrous war against India in December 1971, was disgraced when asked by the military and political parties to step down. He died in seclusion in 1980.
Z A. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party that had won the majority of seats in West Pakistan in the 1970 election took over the reigns of power from the military. Bhutto at once began to arrest military men, bureaucrats and politicians who had supported Ayub and Yahya’s dictatorships.
And even though it is believed that Bhutto was on good terms with Aqleem, he did not hold back and asked the police to put her under house arrest as well. During the Bhutto regime (1972-77), Aqleem was constantly shuttled between house arrest and jail. Her cases were mostly contested in the courts by famous lawyer, S M. Zafar.
She was finally released from house arrest when in July 1977 General Ziaul Haq toppled the Bhutto regime in a military coup. But by then, she had lost most of her wealth and property and was back to being a pauper.
In the early 1980s someone advised her to get into a new kind of business that had begun to thrive during the reactionary Zia regime: drug smuggling and trafficking. Though it is not known how much she got involved, it is believed that after having a fall-out with some of Zia’s top military men, she was charged with drug trafficking and jailed. She was bailed out by a few friends and the cases against her were quashed at the end of the Zia dictatorship in 1988.
Though, all her children had by now established themselves and become independent, Aqleem became a recluse, living alone and disallowed (by her children) to speak to the media or anyone who was not family.
She outlived most of her friends and foes, but it was largely a lonely, broken life. Suffering from cancer in the later days of her life, she quietly passed away in 2002 at the age of 70.