Forgotten Hero: When Zafarullah Khan Powerfully Presented Palestine's Case To The UN

Forgotten Hero: When Zafarullah Khan Powerfully Presented Palestine's Case To The UN
Chaudhry Muhammad Zafarullah Khan was Pakistan’s finest foreign minister. Mr. Jinnah considered him the most able Muslim in all of South Asia. Not only did his famous memorandum in 1940 become the basis for the Lahore Resolution but it was Zafarullah Khan who was tasked with pleading Pakistan’s case before the boundary commission.  

Only two months after independence, he represented Pakistan at the UN which opposed the partition of Palestine. Obviously some considered this rich coming from a country that itself had been born of a partition. In his speech in October 1947, Zafarullah Khan spoke in detail on the differences between the partition of India and the proposed partition of Palestine. He pointed out that there was a huge disparity between Pakistan and the proposed state Israel in terms of population and area. This was unassailable. Pakistan was a country of approximately 70 million people.  Proposed state of Israel was going to be at best 933000 people. All of India itself stood at in excess of 300 million people. There just wasn’t any comparison in terms of sheer magnitude. 

The second point in his speech was that partition of India had happened through mutual consent and no such agreement existed in Palestine.  The Muslim minority in India was indigenous to India and had not been resettled from outside as in Palestine and that Pakistan was created out of contiguous areas where Muslims formed a majority which of course was not true of the proposed state of Israel. Obviously Pakistan was not the result of a theological belief of return to Zion but rather a case of a minority trying to escape majority rule.

The Statesman, an Indian newspaper based out of Delhi wrote the following editorial on 8 October 1947:

“For the first time the voice of Pakistan was heard in the counsels of the United Nations on a burning topic of world-wide significance when leader of this country’s delegation, Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, addressed the United Nations Palestine Committee at Lake Success on Tuesday. It was a telling speech which tore into shreds the specious pleas put forward by the advocates of the partition of Palestine. Chaudhry Zafarullah did not merely indulge in rhetoric when he described the partition plan as `physically and geographically a monstrosity’, he proceeded to prove this by unassailable arguments. Answering the contention that the migration of more Jews into Palestine should be permitted because the Jewish displaced persons desired to go to that country, Pakistan’s spokesman asked whether the Americans would consent to relax or abrogate their own immigration laws if displaced persons of various other nationalities desired to enter the United States and settle there? Would America, he further asked, agree to take in the five million displaced persons of the Punjab if they desired to leave the scene of their suffering and cross over to the United States. We have little doubt that the Arabs will rejoice to find the voice of Pakistan so powerfully raised in the United Nations in defence of their cause. The addition of the independent sovereign state of Pakistan to the comity of free Muslim peoples of the World is already beginning to have its effect on international affairs.”

High praise coming from a newspaper of a country that itself was to face the full brunt of Zafarullah Khan’s advocacy on the Kashmir issue, as Shaikh Abdullah would attest later.

On 28 November 1947, Zafarullah Khan rose again to speak. In this speech he knocked down one by one the claims of fairness that the partition plan was supposed to signify. He said:

“Let us now consider the boundaries for a moment. How about the area? Jews constitute 33 per cent of the population and Arabs 67 per cent, but 60 per cent of the area of Palestine is to go to the Jewish State. Moreover, what is the character of the area, excluding for the moment the desert waste to which I shall refer later? Of the cultivable area of Palestine the plains, by and large, go to the Jewish State, the hills to the Arabs. There was a document circulated to members of the Committees by the United Kingdom representative showing that, of the irrigated, cultivable areas, 84 per cent would be in the Jewish State and 16 per cent in the Arab State. A very fair division for one-third of the population to receive 84 per cent while two-thirds receive 16 per cent.”

He went on to describe the absolute unfairness of the partition plan that was being forced on the Arabs.  He spoke of two extreme positions, unitary state and partition plan. There could be a middle ground he said. 

“Has the United Nations made any effort to bring the Arab and the Jew together, to find a middle way which might provide a solution on which both peoples might combine to work— the only solution that could have any possible chance of being successfully worked out?”

While he doesn’t clarify what that middle ground could be, it is clear to the students of history that he was speaking of a consociational solution such as the Cabinet Mission Plan in India which Muslim League had accepted as a compromise in 1946, only to be rebuffed by the Indian National Congress. That was a last ditch effort to keep India united. 

He continued: “Our vote today, if it does not endorse partition, does not rule out other solutions. Our vote, if it endorses partition, bars all peaceful solution. Let him who will shoulder that responsibility. My appeal to you is: do not shut out that possibility.”

The sheer power of Zafarullah Khan’s advocacy won him praise both internationally and at home. Two weeks later, Mr Jinnah appointed him the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. During his time as Foreign Minister which lasted into the 1950s, he stood for the causes of Kashmir, Palestine and all Afro Asian countries breaking away from imperialism. He played a leading role in the independence of Morocco, Tunis and Libya. He did so with grace and brought high honours for Pakistan. The last official document that Jinnah would sign on his death was to vest plenipotentiary powers to Zafarullah Khan on behalf of Pakistan.

The famous Egyptian president Gemal Abdel Nasser, said, “Some people say Zafrullah is not a Muslim, well, if he is not a Muslim, I am not one either.” Nasser was very impressed by Sir Zafrullah’s advocacy of the Arab causes in the UN and considered him a great friend and ally. 

The same Sir Zafarullah was abused by our mullahs on the streets time and again. He was accused of being a stooge of the west not just by Islamists but also by some “leftists”. Whether the Muslims of Pakistan consider him Muslim or not, he will remain the pride of all Ummah and a champion of Kashmiris, Palestine and other nations who were decolonizing in the 1950s and 1960s.  No one can take this away from him.  

The writer is a lawyer and commentator. He is also the author of the book 'Jinnah: Myth and Reality'.