The Vanguard Diplomats of the Liberation War
On April 6, 1971, two young Bengali diplomats, Mr. KM Shehabuddin and Mr. Amjadul Huq, announced their decision to defect from Pakistan and pledge allegiance to Bangladesh at a press conference in New Delhi:
We have severed our connection with the fascist military dictatorship in Islamabad, as our conscience no longer permits us to act against our deepest convictions. From now our allegiance is to Bangladesh, which derived its authority from the unambiguous mandate of the 75 million Bengali people.
Prior to their defection, Mr. Shehabuddin, who had joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 1966, occupied the post of second secretary and Mr. Huq the post of Assistant Press Attaché at the High Commission of Pakistan in New Delhi. In “KM Shehabuddin – in whom patriotism was all,” Syed Badrul Ahsan insightfully described the context of the very first diplomatic defection in favor of Bangladesh:
At the time Shehabuddin spoke to the world, the whereabouts of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were unknown, the Mujibnagar government was yet to take form and substance and the Mukti Bahini was still in the future. These were the realities which underpinned Shehabuddin’s boldness in as much as they pointed to the grave perils he had put himself and his family in. Away from his home in occupied Bangladesh, no longer in allegiance to the state of Pakistan, without a job in a foreign land, Shehabuddin and Amjadul Huq were lonely crusaders. Not until the Mujibnagar government emerged before the global community on 17 April 1971 would these two brave Bengalis know that they were truly on a powerful movement into the future.
As the first Bengali diplomats to repudiate Pakistan, Mr. Shehabuddin and Mr. Huq played a pivotal role in launching and shaping the diplomatic front of the Liberation War. Born nine years after the War, I would learn about the contributions of my father, Mr. Shehabuddin, in bits and pieces from my parents, my father’s memoirs, and his colleagues.
At an event organized by the Association of Former Ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry on December 3, 2015, Mr. Huq recounted how my father apprised him of his decision to resign from the Foreign Service of Pakistan back in March 1971. After receiving news of the military crackdown in Dhaka and hearing the declaration of independence, my father went to Mr. Huq’s office at the Pakistani High Commission and informed his colleague of his decision to resign from the Pakistan Foreign Service and work for Bangladesh’s liberation.
Mr. Huq said, “I am with you. You have my full support. But I have some questions. You have a family. Have you thought of your wife and two little daughters? Your father-in-law must have had certain hopes when he agreed to your marriage with his daughter. He must have expected that you would one day become an Ambassador of Pakistan. If you defect, that will never happen. If Bangladesh isn’t liberated, you may be tried and executed for treason. What will happen to your wife and children?”
When my father said he and my mother had taken this decision together, Mr. Huq responded he wished to discuss this with my mother in person. My father asked Mr. Huq to come home with him and speak to my mother. Mr. Huq said it would not be prudent for both of them to be seen leaving the High Commission together. He asked my father to go home and said he would come over soon. As my father left his office, Mr. Huq looked out of his window to check whether my father was heading to his car or had rushed off to report his colleague’s seditious intentions to the High Commissioner. To his relief, he saw my father go straight to his car and drive off. After a few minutes, Mr. Huq discretely made his own way out of the compound.
When Mr. Huq arrived at my parents’ home, he asked my mother if she understood what my father’s defection would mean for her, their family, and their future. My mother was adamant: they could no longer associate themselves with a state that had rejected peaceful negotiations and taken to brutally repressing and killing its own citizens. She was confident her father and the rest of her family would understand and support their decision to defect. Moved and inspired by my mother’s determination, Mr. Huq worked with my father to figure out how to execute the defection and support Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation.
On March 28, my father met with Mr. AK Ray, a senior officer at the Ministry of External Affairs, to inform him of their decision and to request authorization to openly work for Bangladesh in New Delhi. Indian authorities were initially apprehensive about the effect that the defection of Bengali diplomats in India might have on the security of Indian diplomats and citizens in East and West Pakistan. Nevertheless, they eventually gave permission for the two diplomats to openly work in New Delhi for the cause of Bangladesh’s liberation. On April 6, 1971, the first diplomats to have pledged allegiance to Bangladesh stepped into a life of both uncertainty and tremendous hope.
Over the next nine months, my parents and Mr. Huq worked tirelessly to build support for Bangladesh. On April 9, my parents met with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who assured my father that he “could work freely for Bangladesh on Indian soil”. After the formation of the provisional Mujibnagar government in mid-April, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad appointed my father to the Bangladesh Foreign Service and Mr. Huq to the Bangladesh Information Service. He asked my father to open and head a mission called the Bangladesh Information Center in New Delhi. My father and Mr. Huq worked from New Delhi to support the liberation effort through press conferences, statements, protests, and cultural events. Even my sisters Elora and Farhana, then toddlers, were conscripted to participate in demonstrations with small placards around their necks. At the flag hoisting ceremony at the mission in New Delhi on August 30, my father arranged for readings from the Quran, Gita, Bible, and Tripitaka to emphasize the secular character of our state. To him, as to many involved in the liberation struggle, secularism connoted religious pluralism. On December 6, 1971, Mr. T.N. Kaul, the Indian Foreign Secretary, handed over copies of the letter stating India’s formal recognition of Bangladesh to my father, who forwarded them to the Mujibnagar government.
The Impact of the Defection
The defection of the two young diplomats on April 6, 1971 undermined the legitimacy of the Pakistani state on the global stage, served as an expression of solidarity with freedom fighters within Bangladesh, and inspired other Bengali diplomats in Pakistani missions around the world to use defection as a tool of protest. Just as 40 years later, defections by Libyan and Syrian diplomats in 2011 would signal cracks within their respective states, these defections showed the world that the Pakistani state had engaged in acts so heinous that it could no longer count on even the nominal allegiance of its own officers.
To freedom fighters within Bangladesh, the defection came as an invaluable expression of solidarity and reassurance that provided momentum for collective action. In “Portrait of a Patriot”, Dr. Mozammel Khan wrote, “The news of his cutting ties with the Pakistan High Commission along with his colleague, the assistant press secretary, Amjadul Huq, was like music to the millions who were on the way to join the muktibahini”.
In addition to reinforcing the confidence of freedom fighters within Bangladesh, the defection in New Delhi showed other Bengali diplomats a path through which they too could register their protest and join the struggle for Bangladesh’s liberation. After the formation of the Mujibnagar government, the Government of Pakistan had to wrestle with one public relations disaster after another as diplomatic officers and staff around the world renounced Pakistan: the defections of Mr. Hossain Ali, Mr. Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, and 63 other Bengali personnel in Calcutta on April 18, Mr. Mahmood Ali in New York on April 26, Mr. Muhith in Washington DC on June 30, and Mr. Mohiuddin Ahmed in London on August 1 embarrassed the Pakistani regime and bolstered efforts to build international support for Bangladesh. Another milestone was achieved when Mr. Abul Fateh, then Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iraq, defected on August 15. In “The Defection”, Mr. Anatul Fateh, his son, managed to convey some of the awe-inspiring audacity and courage Ambassador Fateh showed.
Life after Liberation
After Bangladesh’s liberation on December 16, 1971, my father proudly spent the next 30 years of his life in the Foreign Service of Bangladesh. He went on to serve as Ambassador to Poland (1983-1987), Kuwait (1987-1991), France (1991-1996), and the United States (1996-2001).
It was during my father’s term in Kuwait that the Iraqi invasion took place in August 1990. Many diplomats rapidly left Kuwait for safety and in compliance with the Iraqi government’s orders. In contrast, my father and his officers stayed behind until mid-September to express solidarity with Kuwait and oversee the evacuation of Bangladeshis. They worked long hours to issue travel passes to workers whose passports had been taken by employers who had left Kuwait. After Kuwait’s liberation in February 1991, my father was one of the first diplomats to return to the emirate. Rooted in his own experiences during Bangladesh’s Liberation War, my father’s demonstration of solidarity with Kuwait moved members of the Kuwaiti government and motivated their decision to grant prestigious contracts to Bangladesh.
In 2001, my father retired and moved back to Bangladesh with my mother and younger sister. He focused on writing his memoirs, which UPL published as There and Back Again: A Diplomat’s Tale in 2006. From the UK and US, my sisters and I would try to visit my parents as often as possible. After finishing my Ph.D. in the US in 2012, I moved to Bangladesh in the hope of spending more time with my parents. My father was thrilled that I had joined the Asian University for Women in Chittagong and would call me from Dhaka at least twice a day to ask about my experiences with teaching and living in his hometown.
Last year, our conversations came to an abrupt end. On April 14, 2015, my father was hospitalized with low blood pressure and abdominal pain. As it was the Bengali New Year, the hospital seemed understaffed and no diagnosis was made that day. The next day, several doctors came to see my father, diagnosed him with internal bleeding, and ordered a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, it was too late. Within a few hours of the diagnosis, he suffered a cardiac arrest and doctors were unable to resuscitate him. He had once emphatically told me he wanted to be buried next to his parents in Muhammadpur in Chandanaish, Chittagong, so we made arrangements to take him back to the village where his remarkable journey had begun.
Recognition after death
On March 24, 2016, the Government of Bangladesh awarded a Shadhinota Purushkar (Independence Award), the highest state honor, to my father. The Foreign Ministry had initiated the application process for the award a few months after my father passed away. Posthumous awards serve as a reminder of the importance of collecting historical narratives while we still have the opportunity to do so.
It may seem indulgent to visit the past when we seem to lack the time, courage, and creativity to address the challenges of the present, but such narratives serve as a useful reminder of people’s capacity to set aside cost-benefit calculations to make peace with their conscience, pursue their ideals, and stand up for freedom. My father and other diplomat-freedom fighters gave up the privileges, comforts, and security of their posts to protest atrocities committed by their employer and government, the state of Pakistan. How many of us can imagine engaging in such radical protest? How many of us recognize, let alone try to address, our complicity in the oppressive, imperialist, and corrupt structures in our world? How often do we choose the familiar and secure over the principled and just? Even if we recognize that we suffer from the boiling frog syndrome, most of us do not know where to jump for both integrity and survival.
My father and Mr. Huq refused to remain cogs in a repressive bureaucratic machine and turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned crimes to deprive citizens of their political, civil, and economic rights. As we approach the 45th anniversary of my father’s defection on April 6, 1971 and the first anniversary of his death on April 15, 2015, I continue to reflect upon his exemplary courage and direct my respect and gratitude towards those who sustain the struggle for freedom, justice, and pluralism in Bangladesh and beyond.
Dr. Sarah Shehabuddin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Asian University for Women.