Disrespect and apathy and ingratitude have somehow become part of life in Bangladesh. You only need to take a look at how people have responded to the news of the death last month of K.M. Shehabuddin. The former diplomat, revered for his courage in turning his back on Pakistan and its foreign service in early April 1971, was the subject of a commemorative discussion organised by the Liberation War Museum last Saturday. That was all, apart from a few tributes to him in some newspapers. No one else has remembered him or his sheer act of patriotism.
At the Liberation War Museum discussion, not a single serving officer of the Foreign Office was in attendance. Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, away from the country on an official visit abroad, did not think it necessary to call a condolence meeting at the Foreign Office after Shehabuddin’s death. Ali and Shehabuddin joined the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1966. Both defected in favour of Bangladesh in April 1971. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ali served as high commissioner to Britain and Shehabuddin was ambassador to the United States. And yet Ali felt no necessity of a collective paying of tributes to Shehabuddin at the Foreign Office.
But why blame the Foreign Office only? None of our ubiquitous television channels has ever felt the need for programmes on those illustrious sons of the soil who, having served the country with distinction, pass into the Great Beyond. Nearly every television discussion, or talk shows as they are known, focuses on politics. Nothing else matters. It is almost always the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party which is the subject matter. There are hardly any programmes on new books or on authors. Nothing of international significance is projected in the electronic media. Yes, there are all the music programmes, with anchors who clearly have no clue to the background of the artists or the songs they have on offer. You do not have Syed Abdul Hadi everywhere.
So we are not really surprised that the Foreign Office did not have the time or the intention to mourn one of its own. You might now be tempted to ask: how many of its past luminaries does the Foreign Office remember? Hossain Ali, the man who made history in Calcutta in 1971, is buried in Canada. Have we ever asked ourselves why he became disillusioned with his country and showed not the slightest inclination of coming back home? And then there was the brave Iqbal Athar, the Pakistani diplomat who had no roots in Bangladesh and yet who decided in 1971 to reject his country and stand beside the struggling people of occupied Bangladesh. Bangabandhu’s government gave him Bangladesh’s citizenship and sent him out as ambassador. He died some years ago, but no one knows where his final posting was, where he died, and how. Chances are the Foreign Office will not be able to fill you in on the details.
Our governments have not had any worries or pangs of regret about their failure to acknowledge the services of our tried and tested diplomats. Khaleda Zia’s government dismissed the outspoken Mohiuddin Ahmed from the Foreign Service. That was a gross instance of political misbehaviour. But when Mohiuddin Ahmed, who was instrumental in developing public opinion in favour of the War of Liberation after walking out of the Pakistan High Commission in London in 1971, was reinstated in service in 1996 by the Sheikh Hasina government, the move did not amount to much. Ahmed was never made foreign secretary, was never given any ambassadorial position. He did not complain, he did not indulge in sycophancy. And he developed a new career in writing, endlessly reminding people of the ethos which went into the creation of Bangladesh and which continues to sustain it. Our secular governments have ignored Mohiuddin Ahmed’s contributions and expertise, to our undying shame.
And yet there are all those people who have felt little or no shame in having worked diligently for Pakistan, to the point of denigrating the Bengali struggle for freedom in 1971 and then going on to rise in Bangladesh’s diplomatic service. That has been the irony. At a time when Shehabuddin and Mahmood Ali were saying farewell to Pakistan, Reaz Rahman, serving at Pakistan’s Delhi mission, went to Islamabad to spend his annual leave. In the process, in newspaper interviews, he castigated the War of Liberation as the work of miscreants and collaborators. In independent Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia made him foreign secretary and subsequently minister of state for foreign affairs. That, of course, was natural for the Begum, given that her husband General Ziaur Rahman felt little compunction in catapulting Tabarak Hossain, the Bengali Pakistani diplomat who accompanied Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on a Yahya Khan-sponsored delegation to Beijing in November 1971, to the position of Bangladesh’s foreign secretary. Note the irony. But, then again, irony has played a huge part in the shaping of our post-Liberation history. Those who sat on the fences in 1971 and those who had a poor opinion of our armed struggle for liberty were to be the ones to take over the state eventually. Most of our heroic battlefield leaders have died. Those who came back from Pakistan have lived to old age.
When you think back on the nation’s diplomatic service, you cannot but be amazed at the brazen manner in which many of our diplomats have, once their services came to an end abroad, chosen to stay back in foreign land. Take a survey of the many former Bengali diplomats today settled in such places as America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. They never came back home, which makes you wonder whether they actually served their country in the way they should have. There are instances of press ministers, appointed from political considerations, staying back illegally in the countries they had been posted in, and then somehow coming by citizenship in those countries. You question the judgement, indeed the patriotism, of these individuals. At the same time, you have serious doubts about the wisdom of the government which dispatches such ambassadors and press ministers abroad.
Reflect now on those Bangladeshi diplomats who have kept on serving abroad, never returning to postings at home. What could be so special about them that they cannot be brought back home? And why must the rules pertaining to diplomats marrying foreigners while in service be changed only because a woman ambassador is intent on tying the knot with a man not of her country or race? There are other problems as well. The last two Bangladesh high commissioners in Delhi both decided, once their tenures came to an end, to stay back in India through linking up with international organisations there. That certainly does not convey a good image of the country, for it is a bad sign of how our diplomats are unhappy about going back home.
The country is not served when the ambassador to Vietnam pulls out all the stops in his quest for a freedom fighter’s certificate from the government only because he needs an extra year in service. Fifteen years ago, our ambassador then serving in Hanoi approached yours truly, wondering if a good word could be put to the Prime Minister about his desire to be taken away from an ‘unimportant’ country like Vietnam and sent instead to the West. In subsequent times, this important envoy in unimportant Vietnam retired from service and became foreign affairs advisor to the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
One last point: you do the Foreign Service huge disservice when you pluck men who went into retirement from the diplomatic service years ago and send them off as ambassadors and high commissioners abroad once again. Such acts undermine the spirit of those diplomats in service who have in them the ability and the intellectual qualities necessary to speak for Bangladesh abroad. The pursuit of foreign policy is or ought to be a thoroughly professional affair. It is a task which may be not be done well by men and women who, having gone into superannuation, find themselves on the advisory boards of political parties or serve as ambassadors-at-large to heads of government.
That is all, for today. And tomorrow is another day.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.