OBITUARIES: Col Ismail Khan

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The Independent Online
Ismail Khan was one of the last generation of the old school of "native" officer in the Indian army of the Raj. He loyally served British imperial objectives and yet, when independence came to India in 1947, he transferred his allegiance to another dominion.

As a Muslim, born in Peshawar, fiercely proud of his Pathan origins, he took as his new country Pakistan. His first action as a Pakistani was with the Gilgit Scouts in Pakistan's war with India over Kashmir. Like so many, he was suddenly faced with being at war with his former comrades in arms. For his services, he was awarded the Sitara e Jurat.

Khan's zest for life was typified by his willing acceptance at the age of 71 of the post of Minister of Information at the Pakistani High Commission in London. On a warm summer's day in 1989, he was attending a reception at All Souls College, Oxford, to welcome the new prime minister Benazir Bhutto to her former university. Amidst the crowd, she recognised Ismail Khan as her father's old Chief of Protocol. A quiet conversation in the gardens, while inquisitive onlookers wondered who had engaged her attention, secured him the job.

Ismail Khan was always happy to use his renowned prowess as a raconteur to explain Pakistan's at times turbulent political history, which he had witnessed through his military career. Stints abroad as military attache included Turkey in 1953 and the United States in 1961. Inevitably, with his gift for words (in several languages upon request), the story was interspersed with his personal recollections: how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had called him out of retirement to become his Chief of Protocol; how, when the prime minister was executed in 1979, he refused to work under the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, but instead retired again to farm and breed horses, until he moved to England in 1986. He loved horses, was an excellent polo player, and said he never felt happier than when he was in the saddle.

Khan's imperial experiences never left him. Conversations would mingle the practicalities of growing old, the current political situation in Pakistan (he retired for the third time when Benazir Bhutto's government was dismissed in 1990) and recollections of service in undivided India. In the comfort of his drawing room, Ismail would re-live the past with the good-humour and stoicism of one who, unlike many others, had lived to tell the tale. "Jolly good" was his usual refrain, when he was sure his listener had kept up with his narrative, before, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, he could begin on the next part of the story.

Ismail Khan was in Singapore, with his battalion of the 10th Baluch, when Singapore surrendered to Japan in 1942. It was no secret that, while the British officers were taken to Thailand to do forced labour on the Burma railway, the Indian prisoners of war were treated more harshly in order to make them join the Indian National Army, in support of the Japanese war effort. Some of Khan's fellow POWs did not withstand the pressure and joined the INA, but he resisted.

He lived to watch the VJ celebrations on television and died suddenly two weeks later.

Victoria Schofield

Mohammed Ismail Khan, soldier and diplomat: born Peshawar, India 9 March 1918; married 1949 Hashmat Din (one son, four daughters); died Oxford 1 September 1995.