Obituary: Ambassador Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan’s best

Jamsheed Marker, who passed away on Thursday at 95 in Karachi, was Pakistan’s most famous diplomat, a cosmopolitan scholar of refined tastes who witnessed his country’s evolution over seven decades

June 22, 2018 10:53 am | Updated 10:53 am IST - New Delhi

 Jamsheed Marker. File photo.

Jamsheed Marker. File photo.

In the run up to the 1971 war with India, General Yahya Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan failed to deal with the pressure of his job. One evening, at a high-spirited social event for Soviet and Chinese guests, he challenged the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to a war. The person who dealt with the situation and spared the military ruler any embarrassment was Pakistan’s ambassador to Moscow, Jamsheed Marker.

Mr. Marker, who passed away on Thursday at 95 in Karachi, was Pakistan’s most famous diplomat, a cosmopolitan scholar of refined tastes who witnessed his country’s evolution over seven decades from a privileged vantage point.

Early life

Born in 1922 in pre-Partition subcontinent, Mr. Marker, a Parsi from one of the oldest families of Quetta, served in the Royal Indian Navy during the World War II. He returned to the newly-created Pakistan and became a household name as a cricket commentator on radio and a noted businessman.

In 1964, he became the envoy of General Ayub Khan to Ghana in Africa where he laid the foundation of Pakistan’s ties with Africa, post-decolonisation. Thus began a career of nearly continuous ambassadorship of Pakistan that earned him a world record.

Among best friends, he counted the famed General Sam Maneckshaw of India. A few weeks before the 1971 war, General Maneckshaw, the chief of the Indian Army, went to Moscow for an urgent consultation with his counterparts in the Soviet military. The Soviet hosts took the visitor to the famed Bolshoi theatre where they were stunned to find the Pakistani ambassador waiting to meet Mr. Manekshaw. To the utter surprise of the KGB minders, the ambassador and the Indian general broke into friendly chat in Gujarati and hugged warmly. The Soviets were left mystified by two Gujarati speaking Parsis in the midst of India-Pakistan tension.

 Jamsheed Marker with Ronald Reagan.

Jamsheed Marker with Ronald Reagan.

High-profile career

Given his high profile career, Mr. Marker was full of stories about the likes of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan who gave him accreditation as Pakistan’s ambassador on his birthday in 1986. He also counted among friends the enigmatic oil czar Armand Hammer of Occidental petroleum. His friendship with the oil czar prospered over lunches fuelled by their mutual love for rare wine and western classical music.

In the 1980s, he got his chance to settle scores with India. As news spread of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear network in the West, India increased pressure on the U.S. to stop General Zia’s march to get nuclear weapons. To counter India, Ambassador Marker launched an information blitzkrieg with interviews on U.S. mainstream radio and TV channels. In the end, he outwitted Indian diplomacy with a clever mix of policy advocacy among the U.S. Congress and the people. He went on to support General Zia and Sahabzada Yaqub Khan in negotiating the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1988-’89.

Diplomacy in Pakistan

Jamsheed Marker regretted that the democratic experience of Pakistan remained less than perfect and blamed both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for not finding a solution to the internal crisis in pre-1971 Pakistan. He shone as a diplomat handling State secrets in the field of nuclear technology as General Zia ul Haq took charge of Pakistan following military coup that overthrew Prime Minister Bhutto.

He remained tightlipped about the secrets that he handled but opened up with friends. In his latest book, Cover Point: Impression of Leadership in Pakistan , he wrote about how, as General Zia’s ambassador, he quietly allowed his embassy staffers to engage in “a bit of James Bond stuff” in cafés in Switzerland and Germany as Pakistan gained nuclear technology from the European market.

Apart from his achievement in overt and covert diplomacy in Pakistan, and subsequently in East Timor where he found a solution to the festering conflict, he was noted for his generosity for friends. His friends on both sides of the border could trust him with sagacious advice on serious issues regarding the affairs of the state, that he extended with cups of tea and his legendary St. Bernards by his side.

Mr. Marker was wheelchair bound in recent years, but he remained a giant of his generation all throughout.

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