My father AFM Abul Fateh died on December 4, 2010. He was among the last survivors of the innermost circle of the Mujibnagar government-in-exile of Bangladesh, in which he served as adviser to the acting president and the most senior civil servant as well as being an Ambassador-at-Large. While there are several achievements in his long career to which one could point, he perhaps is best remembered for his defection in extraordinary circumstances in August 1971 to the Bangladesh government from his service as a Pakistani ambassador: the first serving ambassador to join the Bangladesh liberation movement.
For many years this was not a story I wished to write: there was the possibility that one or two individuals might still be vulnerable if too many details were given. Much of it anyway was the subject in 2003 of a National Geographic documentary (Running for Freedom: Roxanna’s Story), taking as its departure point the mixed antecedents of my brother’s daughter Roxana [correct spelling]. Now, however, four decades have passed and, before all memories die, a fuller narration of the events should perhaps be told.
My father had been serving as Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan in Calcutta before in late 1970 he moved to Baghdad as Ambassador of Pakistan to Iraq. In those days the Iraqi President was Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, but real power long had lain in the hands of his nephew-in-law and Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam Hussein. I had not completed 14 years in age but I was an avid newshound and was well aware of the brutality of the ruling Baath Party both in its internal politics and in Iraqi society, and of the unpleasant histories of many in the RCC. While the subject interested me it was not, however, something in my privileged life as the son of a Pakistani ambassador I could ever imagine to be of immediate personal concern.
On March 25 1971, my father summoned me and my younger brother Eenasul to my parents’ bedroom to listen to what was being billed as an important broadcast by General Yahya Khan, the military President of Pakistan. In slurred tones – the product presumably of the whisky of which he was overly fond – Yahya announced the end of political negotiations by his regime with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – popularly known already as Bangabandhu – and the Awami League that had won an overall majority in the Pakistani national assembly and almost every seat in East Pakistan. My father made no comment in front of me, and I left the room. Over the months to come before the defection, I would read in the foreign press and hear on the BBC World Service about the mass killings and other atrocities being perpetrated by the Pakistani army and its collaborators in the future Bangladesh. My father from time to time would ask what I thought about what was happening, but at no time did he indicate to anyone other than my mother what his own views were on the genocide of his people.
On April 17 1971, the Mujibnagar government took their oaths of office. The most significant figures in it were my father’s university friends, in particular Vice-President Syed Nazrul Islam, who was acting as head of state in the place of a jailed Bangabandhu. Hussain Ali, my father’s successor as Deputy High Commissioner in Calcutta, and the Calcutta mission promptly defected to the Mujibnagar government. Two diplomats in New Delhi (Second Secretary KM Shehabuddin and Assistant Press Attaché Amjadul Haq) had already defected to the Bangladesh movement, even before the formation of the Mujibnagar government, and other Bengali diplomats around the world now started to follow. However, no Bengali ambassador was defecting. This was to change.
We were visited by a Pathan, Malek Aman, who had served as our cook when my father had been Councillor in the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi (immediately before his posting to Calcutta). Our Pathan said with much sorrow that if only my father had continued in Calcutta then the Calcutta mission’s defection could never have happened. It was not long before he had greater cause for sorrow.
The Indian Ambassador in Iraq at the time was KRP Singh. He paid a courtesy call on my father at the Pakistani Embassy in the Karradat Mariam area of Baghdad. This was unexceptional – diplomatic niceties were being maintained even if relations between India and Pakistan were strained. Then, late one evening in July 1971, his wife arrived unheralded at our official residence in the pleasant suburb of Al Mansur City. The lateness of the evening meant that it was less likely that anyone was in the vicinity who might be tasked by the Iraqi security services to watch my father (diplomats could expect to be watched from time to time). But to any watcher it would appear that this was a social call by one ambassador’s wife on another: and my mother and Mrs Singh were indeed acquainted and on good terms. This was not, however, a social call. To my mother’s surprise, she was informed by our domestic staff that Mrs Singh was asking to see my father, rather than my mother. Mrs Singh then handed an envelope to my father. It contained a letter signed by the members of the Mujibnagar cabinet, headed by the Acting President, informing my father that they would be delighted if he agreed to join the liberation movement, and that arrangements would be handled by the Indians to get our family safely out of Iraq. On reading out the letter and without even speaking to my mother sitting by his side, whom he usually would consult on all important decisions, my father said “yes” and counter-signed the letter. Mrs Singh promptly departed with the letter, ending a visit lasting less than ten minutes.
My parents were now in a difficult position. There could be no doubt that the Iraqi government, which was anxious to have friendly ties with the Pakistani government after a minor spat over alleged support by Iraq of Baluch rebels in western Pakistan, would hand over my father to Pakistan at the first hint of support by him of the cause of Bangladesh. But at the same time how could he leave Iraq with his whole family, freely and without suspicion?
My parents gave out that they intended to send my brother and me to boarding school in England. This was a perfectly logical choice, because we were being taught by my father (a teacher before he became a diplomat) under correspondence with an English long-distance tutorial institution, the Parents’ National Educational Union, and had from time to time attended British schools. Things were crated in our house, ready to be taken away. Supposedly, this was being done for my brother and me, going to England in advance of our schooling there. But not the things only of my brother and me were crated. British visas were obtained so that my parents could accompany my brother and me to England to start our schooling. Meanwhile, it was necessary for my father to deceive everyone else as to his true allegiances.
My father continued to put forward the views of the Pakistani military regime to other foreign ambassadors and government officials in Baghdad. Perhaps, however, my father was not always able to appear as enthusiastic as required in his support of the government in Islamabad. His personal secretary, a Bengali man, seemed to suspect something because he insisted with much feeling on giving my father an expensive pen set.
During this time, my father spoke to the Iraqi Health Minister – one of the few women in senior positions in Iraq – to secure some local tuition for me in Physics and Chemistry, subjects in which for many years I had not studied. The Health Minister arranged that I would go to Baghdad University to be taught by the Dean himself of that institution. Consequently, at under 14 years of age I started making regular visits to Baghdad University. My father even was present as an honoured chief guest and prize-giver at the main annual event of the university. Unknown to me, my father was using my regular visits to Baghdad University, which indicated that he felt comfortable in Baghdad, as part of the smokescreen of his true intentions.
Small was the number of people who were apprised of his intended defection: my mother, members of the Indian and Bangladeshi cabinets, a few Indian intelligence officials, and of course Mr and Mrs KRP Singh and a few others in the Indian Embassy in Baghdad. My father would meet Indian Embassy intelligence personnel secretly from time to time. Armed with a flashlight to signal his presence, he would leave our house in Al-Mansur City late at night and go to a small nearby park, then return with his contact to discuss and make the arrangements for our family’s departure. I remember waking up once in my first floor bedroom in the small hours of the morning, and hearing voices. I went to the top of the staircase and looked down towards the lit doorway of the study, from where the voices came. Too sleepy to think much of this, I went back to bed.
Soon there was bad news. The Pakistani Foreign Minister was summoning a gathering of regional Pakistani ambassadors in Tehran, where a meeting of the Central Treaty Organisation (an alliance of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan) would be taking place. My father was among the ambassadors summoned. The Indians by now had come to fear that my father was under suspicion. He would not, they feared, be returning from Tehran to Baghdad. But the summons could not be refused. An abrupt, drastic change in plans was needed.
My father informed his officers that he would take his official car and travel by road from Baghdad to Tehran. This was a distance of around 700 kilometres. His date of departure was to be 15 August 1971.
The day came. The embassy’s bank account was with the Karradat Mariam branch of Rafidain Bank, and my father as ambassador was able to transact over his sole signature. My father informed the bank manager that he would need to withdraw the embassy’s funds, and would come a little before the bank closed. There was some construction work at the embassy, and my father showed such interest in it that the appointed time with the bank passed. My father then turned up a quarter-hour after the bank closed. He knew that the bank manager would wait for the Pakistani Ambassador, and that the lateness of the hour would ensure there were no witnesses. My father withdrew the entirety of the embassy’s funds, totalling the equivalent of £28.000 (a substantial sum in those days), and departed home. Fortunately, as it appears, the bank manager did not report this rather unusual transaction immediately to the attention of the Iraqi authorities, who would certainly have been curious. The money came to be allocated via the Indian Embassy to the use of the Mujibnagar government.
From our house my father set off with his driver on the road to Tehran. As they approached the border with Iran, however, my father told the driver that he was experiencing chest pains. The driver drove back home as ordered. It was evening as the car reached Al Mansur City. My father then said that he was feeling much better. He would make arrangements to leave the next day, he said, by plane for Tehran. The driver was no longer needed: he could go to his own home.
I was surprised to see my father back, but he went up to my parents’ bedroom and lay down on the bed without a word to me. My mother told my brother and me that my father was not feeling well. After some time he came down. Our two domestic staff members, as it happened both Bengalis, were given the evening off with some money to see a movie in a local cinema. They went out of the main house to their quarters at the back, and my mother locked the back door.
My parents then summoned my brother and me to their bedroom. Calmly my father informed us that we were leaving Iraq that evening for London, because he was joining the Bangladesh freedom movement. Everything was ready for us to go, but meanwhile we must not answer any phone calls to the house.
There were several phone calls that night to our house, to the ringing of which I listened with great apprehension. I did not know it at the time, but my father’s driver had contacted the First Secretary in the embassy, and informed him how the Ambassador had returned and that my father would need to take a plane the next day to Tehran. The First Secretary was most concerned, and was trying to reach my father both to check on his health and to take instructions for the flight to Tehran. Fortunately, after his unsuccessful calls, the First Secretary did not decide to visit our house just yet.
My father went out of the house to his usual rendezvous place, returning with his contact from the Indian Embassy. Soon afterwards a van drew up to our house, and loaded up those of our things that would be shipped. My mother had readied suitcases for the things that we would take with us to London. A large black car also arrived at our home. The front door of the house was locked, and we were driven off to the Indian Embassy.
A vast and elaborate buffet had been laid out in the garden for our dinner. The Indian Ambassador, his wife, and the other Indians present plied all four of us with attention, seemingly unable sufficiently to express the joy and honour they were declaring they felt by our presence. Unfortunately, I at least had lost all appetite.
The dinner to me seemed interminable. But eventually we climbed back into our assigned car, which was preceded by another carrying an Indian intelligence officer. We set off for the border with Kuwait.
The sounds of frogs and insects accompanied us as we made our dark journey through the Basra marshes to the border with Kuwait. Every now and then lights from other vehicles would shine behind or before us, leading me each time to wonder if the Iraqi security services had discovered our flight and would stop us. Soon after dawn on August 16 1971 we reached the Iraqi border post.
Our timing was good, because we were among the first travellers of the day. Our intelligence man got out of his car, and took our family’s Pakistani diplomatic passports. I was horrified. Whatever would the border officials think when the Pakistani ambassador’s passport was presented alongside an Indian diplomatic passport? I decided that I would rather face discovery at the desk than await our fate passively in our car. So I accompanied the intelligence officer into the post.
My horror increased as my companion warmly greeted the border official to whom he handed all the passports, and then laughingly told me that the official was a Pakistani. The official laughed with him. Then I realised what was happening. The Pakistani was working as an agent of Indian intelligence, and was present to ensure we got over the border safely. As it transpired, he also ensured that there was no Iraqi record of our family’s exit that morning through that post.
Fortune remained on our side, and no Iraqi official wandered up to inquire why two diplomatic cars were present at the post so early in the morning. We drove into Kuwait City, to the local office of Indian Airlines. The manager had been instructed that some special visitors would be arriving who had to be kept from public view, and we accordingly were confined to the back rooms of the office. From there we were driven to Kuwait Airport. Seats had been readied on a BOAC flight for us to London.
In Baghdad that morning, things were turning interesting. With no response still to phone calls to our number, the First Secretary and the military attaché turned up at our house. Our domestic staff were waiting outside, locked out. The two officers broke into the house, and found it empty of us and our belongings. Soon they were rushing away, to inform the Pakistani and Iraqi governments of our disappearance. It was not long before they also discovered that the embassy’s bank account had been cleaned out.
As my father later was told by the Iraqi Ambassador in Paris (who at the time was head of the Foreign Ministry), the Iraqi government had a collective fit. They and the Pakistani regime of course suspected strongly that my father had defected to the Bangladesh movement, but they had no information of where we had gone. The Iraqis also suspected that we might have been taken by Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, whether voluntarily or as bargaining chips. The entire Iraqi intelligence network was ordered as a matter of the highest priority to search for us throughout the country. At the same time, Baghdad Airport and planes awaiting departure from it were searched, and planes that had departed were recalled on some pretext and also searched.
Back in Kuwait, we turned up at the BOAC counter in Kuwait Airport. A BOAC agent checked the passenger list against our passports. Our names were not on the passenger list. Then an Indian hastened to the desk, and waved away the agent. He was the Assistant Manager of BOAC in Kuwait. Our names replaced four false names on the passenger list, and we were escorted to our seats. Iraqi agents were plentiful in Kuwait, and Indian intelligence had made every effort to hide our departure from Kuwait Airport.
Our flight touched down at Heathrow Airport the afternoon of August 16 1971. I have never been so grateful for a touchdown as I was then, and I imagine the relief was the same for my father.
Others in the liberation movement went through greater dangers than us, as my father would tell even my mother. But surely few others could voluntarily (rather than out of necessity) have risked as much danger both to themselves and their children as did my father for the sake of his country. Our family was used to a comfortable existence, indeed a privileged one, which could have continued indefinitely. If we had been detected, as could easily have happened several times on August 15-16 1971, life for us abruptly would have been rendered singularly unpleasant. In my father’s case at least, life might even have been abbreviated, in an unfortunate accident such as the Iraqi authorities were perfectly able to arrange. As it was, fortune indeed favoured the brave.
The Pakistani regime was enraged as the details of my father’s departure came to light. It was bad enough that he was the first ambassador to have defected, and that too in so dramatic a fashion. But insult was added to injury by the emptying out of the embassy funds. They demanded that the British government extradite my father to Pakistan for the “crime”. Of course, as a British Foreign Office official assured my parents would be the case, the British government absolutely refused. The fury at my father lasted for some time yet. A Pakistani terrorist group called Black December came to be created after the liberation of Bangladesh, and an Independence Day reception in 1973 given by my father as Bangladesh Ambassador in Paris was surrounded by French police after Soviet and Indian intelligence suspected that he would be targeted at the reception by Black December.
It was perhaps fortunate that my father never sought recognition by his country after 1971, whether for his contributions to the liberation movement in 1971 or for later contributions to his country’s interests, because none was ever given. Rather, my father shrank from public life, with the character of which he became ever more disillusioned as time passed. Bangabandhu in 1972, after unsuccessfully proposing that my father continue as Adviser to Bangabandhu, had asked him to become Foreign Minister, which offer my father declined so as to be Ambassador in Paris. Bangabandhu then said that the position of Foreign Minister would be kept warm for my father until he was ready to cease being an ambassador. But this was the last time that my father considered a public role, as he saw standards in national life start an almost continuous deterioration. He was horror-struck by the murders of Bangabandhu and most of his family on 15 August 1975, the news of which broke just as Bangabandhu’s two daughters were to set out from Brussels to stay as family guests in our home in Paris. (Bangabandhu had attended my parents’ wedding in January 1956 and he and my father had an oft-renewed friendship.) This was to be followed on November 3 1975 by the murders of my father’s friends in the Mujibnagar government. Subsequent developments showed to my father that Bangladesh was not leaving the depths in public character demonstrated by these events. Bangladesh was changing in its governance, but not for the better, while my father stayed unchanged with the ideals for which he had risked his family in 1971. My father insisted against then President Ershad’s wishes on retiring from service in 1982, and he returned to live in Dhaka. He retreated into intellectual interests, of which he had a broad range, and lived on quietly with my mother in Dhaka for 10 years.
Memories of his actions in August 1971 became tinged ever more with sadness for him as my father witnessed the ever-growing contrast between what he then had hoped for his country and the actuality of the society in which he and my mother were living. Eventually he found this insupportable, and in 1992 he emigrated with my mother to live near my brother and me in London. It was in London, therefore, and not in the country for which he had risked much, that he died.
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A(bul) F(azal) M(uhammad) Abul Fateh – 16 May 1924 (Kishorganj, Bangladesh) to 4 December 2010 (London, UK) – Ambassador of Pakistan in Iraq 1970-1971; Adviser to the Acting President of Bangladesh 1971-1972; Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh 1971-1972; Ambassador of Bangladesh in France 1972-1976 and to UNESCO 1974-1976; High Commissioner for Bangladesh in UK 1976-1977; Ambassador of Bangladesh in Algeria 1977-1982.
Anatul Fateh is a London-based lawyer.