The First Lady of Punjab
NEW DELHI: I first met Aroosa Alam years ago as a very attractive member of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) that was very busy promoting peace and amity between India and Pakistan scribes in particular. SAFMA hosted considerable to-ing and fro-ing of journalists, and often politicians, between the South Asian countries with Alam emerging as one of the functionaries of SAFMA set up by Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam.
She was friendly, hospitable and we soon learnt that she was on her own, had two sons--one of them a musician with his own band. We met him as he escorted some of us and senior politicians around Rawalpindi in a coach many years ago, and later impressed a Congress leader with us so much that she promised to host his band in Goa. Later we learnt that he indeed had visited Goa. Alam at that time was very keen that the powerful visitors facilitate, somehow, her son’s visit to India “as he loves your country.”
Alam was fairly open about her antecedents, particularly her age that always had people exclaiming how young she looked. That indeed she did, and does still. But it was the whispers in Pakistani media corridors that acquainted us with the fact that her mother was the famous General Rani, who was Pakistan leader Yahya Khan’s mistress and whose rise is a legend in itself.
General Rani as she is still referred to was born Aqleem Akhtar, and as the story goes she started calling herself the Queen General somewhere in the 1960’s, an epithet that stuck though in a slightly varied form. She was considered the most powerful woman in Pakistan between 1969 till 1971, being described by the Pakistani media as the “muse and mistress” of Yahya Khan, who was seen as the brain behind him, and certainly the access. As a result she became the gateway to the General, and her importance in political circles those days rose to new peaks.
She was married to a policeman, had six children, and one fine day as the story goes just decided to walk out on him when he insisted she wear her burqa properly. She reportedly took the entire garment off, threw it at him and walked away taking her kids with her. She began visiting nightclubs, started arranging dance parties for men bored with their wives, with the powerful army gentry forming a substantial percentage of her clientele.
Somewhere along the way Yahya Khan, very fond of his booze, fell in love with her and to cut a long story short, he rose to be the dictator of Pakistan and Alam his mentor, muse, and companion.
Aroosa Alam too was married, shed this burden, has two sons and a husband no one now really remembers. In Pakistan many scribes saw her as very close to the military establishment, with different rumours making different aspersions. She does take the credit of ‘investigative ‘ reports on the Agosta-90B submarine deals that reportedly led to the arrest of then Pakistan naval chief Mansurul Haq in 1997.
However, what one does know is that she rose rapidly in the profession---more in the spotlights after she joined SAFMA---and of course covered the military from the inside. She is well connected in her home country. And while not seen by her colleagues as a sharp reporter, was generally well liked. She did not seem passionate about causes although at the time she was perforce wedded to peace. Alam was particularly interested in India and Indians, with much of her conversation revolving around the possibilities of a visit.
Amarinder Singh met her during one of his visits, and somewhere as they say history repeated itself. He was at the time married, without any real controversy, to Preneet Kaur who went on to become the Minister of state for External Affairs in the Congress Manmohan Singh government. By this time her husband’s affair with Aroosa Alam was an open secret, with neither of the two denying the rumours beyond a point. Alam has been fairly forthright throughout the relationship, refusing to hide it after the initial awkwardness. The wife obviously was very upset and eventually agreed that while Alam could visit, she would not get a visa for Punjab.
Singh and Alam have over the past ten years become a fixture in Chandigarh. And now in Punjab with Alam campaigning for him regardless of the trolls, and the raised eyebrows. While the Chief Minister of Punjab still prefers not to talk about his muse, she has no such compunctions now and is open about her relationship with the Congress leader. Her family is a regular visitor to Punjab, they entertain in style, and she is often seen in the charmed Chandigarh elite circles speaking of her love for yoga, and of course for Singh. She was very visible at a recent event where a book on Amarinder Singh was released, giving interviews and posing for photographs.
In an environment where every Pakistani is facing the heat of bad relations with India, in getting visas etc, there seems to be no such restrictions on Alam who is almost a permanent resident. She visits Pakistan regularly, but is now the first lady of the Chief Minister of an Indian state. She said in an interview to the Hindustan Times, that she was aware of the buzz about her and Singh: “It’s a sensitive issue, I am a Muslim woman, and you know how people back home think. There are fundoos (fundamentalists), there are terrorists. Women are in trouble in Pakistan.” She has taken care not to take on the Indian critics, either directly or through interviews.
The relationship that many Singh supporters had given a “few days” at the onset, has not just lasted over a decade but is now at the point where Aroosa Alam is playing the first lady of Punjab. She is by Amarinder Singh’s side, as indeed her mother was by Yahya Khan’s at a time when Pakistan was even more conservative, braving the criticism and the charge of being from the Pakistani military establishment. The muse and the mentor of an Indian leader in the 21st century.