the nawab of kalabagh

Written by Afifa Iqbal 11:48 am Pakistan Unveiled

Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Kalabagh

The author, Afifa Iqbal, explores the personality of Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Kalabagh, through Foucault’s power-knowledge (le savoir-pouvoir) concept.
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Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.


The Nawab of Kalabagh, Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, can best be regarded as a paradoxical character. Some historical accounts paint him as an upright and firm-handed administrator while others portray him as a classist administrator hell-bent on running the administrative unit as his fiefdom.

Consequently, a mythical aura has been created around his personality. Those who see him as an exemplary administrator extoll his many virtues while refusing to take into account his less-than-exemplary character traits and vice versa. Both exhibit a kaleidoscopic understanding of Nawab’s personality as well as his political legacy.

In order to establish a panoramic view of Nawab Malik Amir Mohammad Khan’s character, different aspects of his personality must be woven together and be seen within the context of existing socio-political structures.

Malik Amir Mohammad Khan

Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, the seventh Nawab of Kalabagh state, belonged to the Awan tribe of Punjab and was educated in the Atchison-Oxford duplex like many other blue-bloods of his time. During his political career, he played an important yet subtle role in shaping the political trajectory of Pakistan.

In 1959, he assumed charge of Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation as chairman. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed as the Governor of West Pakistan after one unit structure was imposed under Ayub Khan’s regime. He died in 1967.

According to Dawn archives, Nawab and his youngest son, Asadullah Khan, were sparring over some property issue at the breakfast table. Having lost his cool, Nawab shot his son leaving him with a wounded shoulder. In retaliation, the son lodged five bullets in his father’s body resulting in the Nawab’s death.

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Le Savoir-Pouvoir: Framing the Nawab’s Personality

French philosopher, Michel Foucault, introduced the composite term savoir-pouvoir (knowledge/power) to explain how power and knowledge work in an inter-related manner and operate across spatio-temporal planes.

Instead of thinking about history in terms of great men coming up with exceptional ideas and making great strides for the advancement of human civilization, Foucault looks at history in terms of the permeation of certain kind of implicit knowledge (savoir) that comes to be regarded as common sense for a particular period and gets encoded in academic disciplines as well as socio-political and economic institutions.

It is through these institutions, academic disciplines, and individuals that power operates. Foucault nudges people to think of power and knowledge not as something flowing from the top, but as something that exists in a dispersed form. As Ellen K. Feder writes: “It is not the knowledge that is decreed by some authoritative body ‘from on high’, but is more precisely described in the passive voice: it is the kind of knowledge that is ‘recognized as true’, ‘known to be the case’.

For Foucault, this knowledge can only exist with the support of arrangements of power, arrangements that likewise have no clear origin, no person or body who can be said to “have it.” In this regard, it becomes important to think of power/knowledge in a composite manner because they are inextricably linked with each other in terms of their operation. Savoir ossifies the structures that make the operation of pouvoir possible as it establishes those structures as ‘facts or truths’ making it easy to make sense of them.

As a post-colonial scholar, Gayatri Spivak, explains; “…you might come up with something like this: if the lines of making sense of something are laid down in a certain way, then you are able to do only those things with that something that are possible within and by the arrangement of those lines. Pouvoir-savoir – being able to do something – only as you are able to make sense of it.”

The apparent paradoxes in Nawab Malik Amir Mohammad Khan’s personality can be resolved if his personality is viewed as a product of the power/knowledge of his time. A discursive analysis of a few of his personality traits is best-suited for this purpose.

The Pedigree of the Nawab of Kalabagh

The Nawab of Kalabagh grew up a feudal lord in a caste-based society that glamorized certain castes partially due to their administrative influence and land ownership created as a result of the delineation of administrative responsibilities across ethno-tribal lines by the Raj during the colonial era, and partially due to their Arab/Central Asian lineage as well as consequent association and mastery of aesthetics/etiquettes of the Mughal court.

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So, a person of pedigree would ideally belong to a strong tribe/caste that had been in power in the Mughal era and/or the colonial period. Such an in-group would have well-defined customs (Reet Riwaj) signaling that the caste/tribe is rooted in history, unlike the ordinary people who have no sense or association with history. This signaled a sense of superiority by virtue of which tribe/caste was made to stick together and to lay claim to the public goods which were very much excludable and rivalrous during the Raj.

Hence, the following comment of the Nawab of Kalabagh (quoted by his military secretary Jahan Dad Khan) must be understood against this backdrop, “While purchasing even a horse or selecting a dog, we are so conscious of their breed and pedigree. You ignore all these factors in the army when selecting leaders of the men.”

When men like Nawab of Kalabagh talk about ‘breed and pedigree’, what they are really talking about are people belonging to certain tribes/castes who are well-versed in customs, etiquettes and workings of localized power structures; who speak their language and who make sense of the world in the same way as they do. It is not to excuse the classist and feudal bent of Nawab’s mind, but to highlight the power/knowledge composite that shaped him.

Fight against Corruption and the Use of Political Influence

The Nawab of Kalabagh took practical steps to eradicate corruption, but in the same vein, he also used his political influence to undermine his rivals and put bureaucrats in their place. The Nawab’s method for dealing with political rivals was quoted in his own words as “neither use the physical force nor torture but strike at the pocket”.

Again, it seems contradictory at first glance that a person striving to eradicate corruption would use his political office to subdue his rivals. After all, the use of a position/public office for purposes other than it is intended for can be classified as abuse of the office and political corruption.

However, it starts to make sense when the power/knowledge composite of that time is taken into account. The caste-based society in which the Nawab grew up abhors monetary corruption, but the use of one’s position to ossify the influence of one’s own self and by extension, the tribe and the caste, is not only socially sanctioned, but also encouraged.

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To this day, this binary between corruption and the use of political influence for subduing rivals exists. Even the previous government selectively used corruption charges to subdue its political rivals.

The Nawab’s Politics

Malik Amir Khan’s politics also seem quite contrary at first glance. He refused to leave Lahore during the 1965 war and showed exceptional administrative skills. His actions were such that they raised the morale of the people. For instance, he refused to go to the hospital to be treated for an injury inflicted as a result of an unfortunate accident during the war because he didn’t want to create any rumors about his health or his capacity to manage the office.

At the same time, he did hold some prejudices against Bengalis due to their agitational politics. He allegedly used his influence to support Ayub Khan against Fatima Jinnah. He also dealt with student riots in a less-than-ideal manner. Again, the answer to this contradiction can be found in colonial India.

His disciplinary style of administration — both during the war and during student riots — bears resemblance to the dilemmas and mindset of the colonial era. Bengalis were systematically marginalized for their resistance against the colonial Raj. This was done by creating a ‘feeble and impotent’ image of the Bengalis and excluding them from state machinery.

This notion persisted even after independence — as displayed by the Nawab — and so did the agitational politics of the Bengalis. His upright attitude as well as his support for the presidential rule of Ayub Khan can be traced to the notions of uprightness and acceptance of centralized power in the tribal and caste system.


Nawab of Kalabagh was an interesting character whose personality exhibited all complexities of the power/knowledge composite of his time and space. This is neither equivalent to putting a seal of approval over his personality and legacy nor equals a disregard for his personality. Instead, by grounding his personality in the power/knowledge composite of his era, it becomes easy to understand his personality and political legacy.

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