Abdul Karim (A. K.) Khandker was born in a respected Muslim family in Pabna in British-ruled India in 1930. His parents are Khandker Abdul Latif and Arefa Khatun.
Khandker (also spelt Khandaker) completed his Matriculation in 1947 and ISC in 1949. Following the partition of India in 1947, Bangladesh became eastern part of Pakistan and was known as 'East Pakistan' ('Purbo Pakistan' in Bengali). Khandker joined Pakistan Air Force (PAF) College and graduated in September 1952. He was awarded the 'PSA' symbol from PAF Staff College in 1965.
A. K. Khandker married and had two sons and one daughter.
Khandker began his service career as GD (General Duty) Pilot in 1951. He served in Fighter Squadron till 1955 and became Flying Instructor. He was at PAF Academy till 1957 as flying instructor. He served as Flight Commander at Flying Instructors' School till 1958. Later he became Flight Commander at Jet Fighter Conversion Squadron where he served till 1960.
Khandker was Squadron Commander at Pakistan Air Force Academy till 1961. Afterwards, he became Squadron Commander of Jet Fighter Conversion Squadron where he served till 1965. He served as Officer Commanding of Training wing at PAF Academy in 1966.
Khandker was President of PAF Planning Board from 1966 to 1969. Later, he was posted at Dhaka as Second in Command of PAF Base in 1969.
Deputy Chief of Staff (DCOS) during 1971 Muktijuddho
Tensions between the two wings of Pakistan, separated by a 1,000 miles of India, erupted in the 1960s. In December 1970 the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led Awami League won the General Election but were denied transfer of power. Intense negotiations took place for next three months in the capital Dhaka, and Captain Khandker watched with horror at the escalating situation. Finally, war broke out on 25 March 1971 when the Pakistan Army attacked students and residents of Dhaka. President Yahya left Dhaka secretly few hours earlier, which was witnessed by A. K. Khandker. East Pakistan declared independence and 'Bangladesh' was born on 27 March 1971.
Defection from Pakistan Air Force
Abdul Karim Khandker and handful of Bengali officers and airmen defected from Dhaka base of the Pakistan Air Force and made their way to Tripura in neighbouring India on 12 May 1971. As patriotic Bengalis they wanted to utilise their skills to help their long suffering nation to gain freedom.
The officers reached Matinnagar, Tripura, three days later. By now a clandestine Government of Bangladesh was formed known as 'Mujibnagar', also referred to as 'Probashi Shorkar' (Foreign Government), with its headquarters at 8 Theatre Road, Kolkata, India.
My first two attempts to join the Mukti Bahini went unsuccessful, but on the third try on 15 May 1971, 10 of us Air Force officers finally reached Agartola of Indian state Tripura. The next day, I went to Kolkata with General Kalkat Singh of Indian army and Major Shafayat Jamil of the Mukti Bahini.
Air Vice Marshal A. K. Khandker recalls making three efforts to join the Bengali freedom fighters
Heading air operations and training Bengali muktijuddhas
Serious initiative for organising the rapidly growing Bangladesh liberation army was taken at the second and last senior officers' conference held in Mujibnagar headquarters between 11 - 17 July 1971. It was during this meeting that the Bangladesh Sena Bahini (Bangladesh Defence Forces or Bangladesh Army) was officially created. Colonel Muhammad Ataul Ghani (MAG) Osmani, a retired Pakistani Army officer from Bangladesh, was made its Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), with the status of Cabinet Minister, and had his base in India. Lieutenant Colonel M. A. Rab was appointed as Chief of Staff (COS) with his base in Bangladesh. Group Captain Abdul Karim Khandker was appointed as Deputy Chief of Staff (DCOS) with his office in Kolkata and Major A. R. Chowdhury was appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff (ACOS).
As the seniormost Bengali air officer, Khandker was given the responsibility of operation and also training of the muktijuddhas (freedom fighters). He closely interacted with the senior officials of the Indian Eastern Command located at Fort William, Kolkata about training strategies for the Freedom Fighters as well as for overall operation.
Representing Bangladesh at the surrender ceremony in Dhaka on 16 December 1971
Abdul Karim Khandker established the first ever Bangladesh Air Force (BAF) in Dimapur, Nagaland, India during the war. BAF had limited manpower and resources but still gallantly carried out significant numbers of operation against the Pakistani invaders.
After nine months of fierce guerilla war, Bangladesh attained victory. A. K. Khandker represented Bangladesh in the surrender ceremony of the Pakistani forces to the allied forces on 16 December 1971 at the Race Course ground in Dhaka.
Bir Uttam award
Following the independence of Bangladesh, A. K. Khandker was awarded by Bir Uttam gallantry award by Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib in 1972 in recognition of his luminous role in the Liberation War.
Chief of Air Staff
He was appointed Chief of Air Staff of the reconstituted Bangladesh Air Force and served in this role from 7 April 1972 to 17 August 1975. During this time, he assembled a fighter squadron, a helicopter squadron, and 2 radar units to its strength.
In addition to serving BAF, A. K. Khandker was also appointed as the first Chairman of Bangladesh Biman airway for the period 1972 – 1973.
The war and multiple natural disasters took its toll on Bangladesh. The small nation was crippling under their effect. Problems were compounded by internal conflict. This led to the assassination of the Jathir Jonok (Father of the Nation) Sheikh Mujib and his family on 15 August 1975. Abdul Karim Khandker was one of the last people to speak with Sheikh Mujib. He talked to him over the telephone around 8:20pm the day before he was killed. As Chief of Air Force, A. K. Khandker had to swear allegiance to the new Khondaker Moshtaque led government along with Chief of Army, K. M. Shafiullah, and Chief of Navy, M. H. Khan. But Khandker did not stay in this setup for long. He was the first officer to step down from Government position on 17 August 1975 - two days after Sheikh Mujib was killed - as the Chief of the Bangladesh Air Force as a mark of protest. He was replaced the following day by Air Vice Marshal M. G. Towab. With that came to an end his 24 years of illustrious military career. But a new chapter was about to open a year later.
Bangladesh High Commissioner in Australia and India
The Government of Bangladesh, led by BNP founder Ziaur Rahman, a former Sector Commander who worked with A. K. Khandker during he 1971 war, appointed Abdul Karim as Bangladesh High Commissioner in Australia in 1976. He served the mission for next six years, until he became the Bangladesh High Commissioner in India for the period 1982 – 1986.
Minister of Planning
In 1986 Khandker was appointed as Adviser to the President and thereafter he served the nation as the Planning Minister up to 1990. He was elected as a member of parliament in 1998 and 2009 from the Pabna–2 constituency (Sujanagar Upazila). In 2009, he was inducted as a full cabinet minister and given the charge of Ministry of Planning.
Founder of 'Sector Commanders Forum' (SCF)
During his tenure in the Government of 2001 - 2006, Abdul Karim Khandker is credited as the main architect of establishing the "Sector Commanders Forum" (SCF), an organisation representing Sector and Sub-Sector Commanders of the liberation war.
SCF was formed on 9 December 2006 and A. K. Khandker was appointed Chairman of the Forum tasked with guiding the prestigious organisation. SCF became a powerful voice in Bangladesh. They conduct mass awareness program, organise meetings and processions across the country and form human chains to raise public awareness and glorify the liberation war that they feel is being systematically undermined by anti-liberation forces.
The Forum has led a strong movement against alleged war criminals, most famously against many of the leaders of Jamat political party whom they suspect of collaborating with the Pakistani government during the war.
SCF were pivotal in their campaign and obtained massive verdict in favour of the pro-liberation forces, which led to the victory of Awami League party in the General Election of 29 December 2008 led by Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
But A. K. Khandker was about to be embroiled in a controversy that would threaten his legacy.