Thursday, November 26, 2009

Foreign Secretary Nazrul then lost President's favours

Nazrul Islam's door at the President's Office was closing as 1987 was ending. He had by that time oversubscribed to the President's indulgence with him. He would arrive at the PO at one pretext or another that was too much for the President eventually. In targeting the President's Office, Nazrul Islam had paid too little attention to the Ministry where a significant number of senior officers were grouped against him.
It was also a time when the newspapers often published a lot of things about the Ministry that was not true. These newspaper reports were more personal in nature and failed to focus on serious matters of issues. One story that came out in the papers at that time about Nazrul Islam was particularly sad because not only was it false; it was malicious and meant to humiliate a Foreign Secretary for no fault of his. Nazrul Islam brought home from Kuwait a pistol that he brought to office one day that he showed to a senior officer. The Foreign Secretary had carried the pistol to the office to send it to the authorities for a license. Reports came out in the newspapers later that he had used it to threaten the officer!

In any other country, publishing such false news about a Foreign Secretary would have been a serious crime. In Bangladesh, at that time where the Foreign Ministry had few supporters and was also divided internally, it was quite all right to publish such libellous news without worrying about consequences. In case of Nazrul Islam, it was sad because he was brilliant when he met the media for the weekly news briefings and if the media had been professional, it should have adored him because he gave them the best analytical briefings any Foreign Secretary ever gave to assist them professionally. Except for a few who benefited from his briefings and evaluated him correctly, many of those who covered the Foreign Ministry in those days were interested in gossips and where there were no gossips, they were apt to create a few on their own.

Any Foreign Ministry anywhere functions in the best interest of the country when it is either given the independence to be the master of conducting that country's foreign affairs or the Head of Government himself/herself leads that country in matters of foreign affairs. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru was also the Minister for External Affairs during his entire tenure as Prime Minister, underscoring unequivocally the importance of foreign relations in that country's government. During his tenure from 1947 till his death in 1964, the External Affairs Ministry was headed at the bureaucratic level by a Secretary General where other Ministries had a Secretary. In Pakistan also, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enjoyed an important position in comparison to the other Ministries of the Government. As a consequence, officers like SAMS Kibria and AKH Morshed who were topers in their respective CSS Examinations had opted for the Foreign Service instead of the erstwhile CSP. Nazrul Islam had also qualified to be a CSP officer but opted for the erstwhile PFS.

Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, that inherited its foreign service from Pakistan, also enjoyed similar importance in the period immediately after it was liberated. The historical need of the time also added to make the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a major ministry of the government. The Ministry was instrumental in getting Bangladesh recognition that was the most important need of the time. The Ministry was also in the leadership role in getting aid and assistance for building a war devastated Bangladesh. Bangabandhu was also positively inclined towards the Foreign Ministry whose officers played an important role during the Liberation War. Many of the ex-Pakistan Foreign Service Officers from erstwhile East Pakistan posted in the Pakistan Embassies defected for Bangladesh that helped create a major international impact in favour of that war. The media that covered the Foreign Ministry in the period I am writing about would have done better had they concentrated on finding the reasons for the decline in the importance of the Foreign Ministry because the institutional deterioration about which the media is focusing in the present times, had taken place during the military rule of Ershad. In an age of globalisation when the Foreign Ministry is playing a crucial role everywhere, our Foreign Ministry is institutionally and otherwise in a very weak position to do so because of the damages done to it in the Ershad era.

Despite his temper, Nazrul Islam was a good man at heart. Unfortunately, the senior officers at the Ministry had neither the inclination nor the time to make any effort to get close to him. As a consequence, the Foreign Ministry was sidelined further. Towards the end of 1987, Harun ur Rashid left the Ministry to join his post as the Permanent Representative in Geneva. He was one sobering influence upon the Foreign Secretary. Mohammad Mohsin who was an Additional Secretary was not made the Additional Foreign Secretary when he was recalled to Dhaka from Bangkok where he was the Ambassador. He was made the Chief of Protocol instead. As Nazrul Islam's access at the President's Office became difficult, he was in a way forced to pay attention on the Ministry. As he came back to the Ministry on the rebound, Mohammad Mohsin was there to help him reach out to the Ministry.

A matter of tennis helped bring Nazrul Islam closer to the senior officers. As the Chief of Protocol, Mohammad Mohsin controlled Megna and Padma, the two State Guest Houses in between which lay a tennis court that was out of use. A tennis player himself, the CP renovated the court, urged by Nazrul Islam who was even a greater tennis enthusiast. By a strange coincidence, there were some good tennis players at that time in the Ministry. There was Reaz Rahman of the 1964 ex-PFS batch; late Khurshid Hamid of 1965 ex-PFS; Ziaus Shams of the 1967 ex-PFS batch, Mohammad Zamir of the 1968 ex-PFS batch; Iftikharul Karim of the 1971 ex-PFS batch. I myself had been a tennis captain in Dhaka University and as Director (FSO), it fell upon me to see that we played tennis at least two to three times a week and ensure that our colleagues from the Embassies supplied us regularly with tennis balls. In the court, Nazrul Islam was a different person altogether, unbelievably friendly and a great competitor. Mohammad Zamir was also a great competitor and a good player too. On a Ramzan day, he was playing singles with the Foreign Secretary and winning.
When iftar time came, the Foreign Secretary would not let him go because he had to win to do so. We kept sending messages to Mohammad Zamir to let the Foreign Secretary win at least one set which he did not do. Everyone suffered that day, most of all the two players but Mohammad Zamir had a laugh at the end because his ego also won that day.

Nazrul Islam was also an enthusiastic chess player and played chess at office occasionally. Mostafa Mohammad Farooq (MMF), then Director General for India and now a Member of Parliament was a frequent player with him. So was Jamil Majid, then Director for India. The games with MMF could go on and on as he would win and the Foreign Secretary would not let him go. Jamil Majid, nicknamed "the encyclopaedia" for his phenomenal memory by AKH Morshed would make his games with him short; win two quick ones and then lose the next three! There was a lesson there; in diplomacy tact should often precede ego.

The regular tennis games created a platform for the Foreign Secretary to reach out towards the senior officers. In fact, tennis at the State Guest House started the second phase of Nazrul Islam's tenure when the power bloc became alive as the Foreign Secretary interacted proactively with his senior officers. It was also the time when the Foreign Secretary had the time to work for the officers of the Ministry. Almost every morning around 10 am, he would often have informal meetings where anyone could walk in. At these informal meetings, he would tell us of all the good things he was doing. In one of these meetings, when his mood was high, I told him that a colleague who had recently come from Brussels and was working as a Senior Assistant Secretary under Director-General Abdul Quayyum was close to resigning under awful pressure that included spending nights at office. When the Foreign Secretary asked me what he could do for the officer, I told him he could give him current charge of a Director, which would help him escape his predicament of that period. Within half an hour, the officer was given the current charge. Although he was promoted substantively years later, that act of Nazrul Islam launched the career of the officer who later became a Foreign Secretary. The officer was Hemayetuddin, a lateral entrant to the Foreign Service from the information service cadre.

Such interaction/action however had little if any impact at all as the fate of the Foreign Ministry continued to fade when it came to dealing with substantive matters of foreign policy formulation and their implementation. At the power bloc, the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary continued to drift apart that further handicapped an already handicapped Ministry.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 27, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Challenges for Sheikh Hasina

THE Indian Foreign Secretary's visit ended positively for a number of reasons. She was upbeat about the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India next month. The fact that Nirupama Rao found time to meet Khaleda Zia and refrained from calling on the Army Chief that her predecessor had done added to the positive tone of her visit.

Clearly the Indian foreign secretary's visit was not intended to be one of substance. The Indian Foreign Secretary held official talks with her Bangladeshi counterpart. She also met Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and paid a courtesy call on the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She also called on Khaleda Zia, the Chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. She did not give any reaction to the media except telling them that her visit was “significant” during which issues were discussed ahead of Sheikh Hasina's visit to India that she termed would be a “very important one”.

The Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary addressed the media in depth. He said that Sheikh Hasina would start her three-day official trip on 19th December, flying to New Delhi from Copenhagen after attending the UN sponsored Conference on Climate Change. She will hold official talks that day with the Indian Prime Minister. She will also visit Ajmer Sharif and Kolkata. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary said that three agreements would be signed during the visit related to legal matters in dealing with criminals and criminal activities. The Foreign Secretary hinted at an agreement on “mutual transit facilities” without giving details and also stated that a draft would be kept ready for agreement on sharing of Teesta waters but did not say for sure whether it would be signed. He also said that India agreed to allow Bangladesh rail transit to Nepal following up on the land connectivity it had agreed to give during the visit of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary also spoke of the need to remove “cobwebs” in Bangladesh-India relations to understand each other's position in a transparent manner so as to make joint efforts to resolve them.

The Foreign Secretaries, their upbeat stance notwithstanding, side-tracked some of the major issues that have stood in the way of Bangladesh-India relations developing into a mutually beneficial one as geopolitical realities should have dictated. Bangladesh's concerns over sharing of the waters of the common rivers; demarcation of the maritime boundary; trade imbalance and on the Indian side, the issue of land transit (now being called connectivity), security were not addressed in the meeting of the two top diplomats as priority agenda items for the Bangladesh-India summit level talks. This leaves doubt whether any agreement would be reached on such vital issues when Sheikh Hasina goes to New Delhi. A senior Foreign Ministry official also told the media that agreements on reducing the trade gap and on land boundary issues were also unlikely during Sheikh Hasina's visit.

Expectations have been high in Bangladesh following AL's massive election victory and the return of Congress in India with an equally strong mandate that Bangladesh and India would resolve some of their longstanding issues given the historical close relationship between the two ruling political parties. The visit of the Indian Foreign Minister and the Indian Foreign Secretary in February and April this year, however, raised questions instead of raising optimism. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister's visit in October also did not focus on the major issues. The talks between the two foreign secretaries also have not given much cause for hope because the issues they have discussed in preparation for Sheikh Hasina's visit have not focused on those that have held up friendly relations between the two countries for nearly four decades. In fact, the main obstacle that has held up bilateral relations to grow in strength, namely the negative mindset on either side, is coming into play once again for reasons that are hard to understand as both sides seem inclined towards putting into the back seat the major contentious issues.

Neither side however gains anything by keeping the major issues unresolved. There are in fact no “cobwebs” in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations because the unresolved issues are as transparent as daylight where both sides know that the “cobwebs” are there because of the lack of political will to deal with them. Sheikh Hasina should use her visit to India to appeal to her hosts for a change in the Indian mindset. In Manmohon Singh, India has a leader who has the vision to rise above the negative mindset and is capable of acting with vision that does justice to India's status as a regional leader in world politics. It is to him that Sehikh Hasina must register the issues of water sharing, trade, Tipaimukh, harassment over the issue of illegal migrants, and the maritime boundary.

Sheikh Hasina must also meet Sonia Gandhi for her support because her influence on the incumbent government is unquestioned. While meeting her, she should keep in mind that one of the few Indian leaders who tried to improve Bangladesh-India relations without considering reciprocity was Rajiv Gandhi. He made a historic visit to the cyclone-devastated Urichar to show solidarity with Bangladesh at times of distress. Rahul Gandhi whose importance in the ruling party is second to none should be another politician that Sheikh Hasina should meet. Recently, Rahul Gandhi has stated his opposition to river linking projects in India, an issue with which Indian diplomats and bureaucrats have kept Bangladesh on the tenterhooks. She should thank him for that stand to get a commitment from India against river linking which would help brighten the gloomy background of Bangladesh-India relations.

The signing of the three agreements on the table would hardly make Sheikh Hasina's visit a success. Its success would be determined by what commitment she can get on the Tipaimukh issue that many in Bangladesh believe would be disastrous for the country; on sharing of the water of the common rivers where abandoning the river linking idea by India would help the cause of the visit; on stopping the Indian campaign about 20 million illegal Bangladeshis; on giving Bangladesh better trade deal; and assurance to negotiate on the maritime boundary fairly. India could accommodate all these without causing its national interests any harm. To Bangladesh, these commitments would mean a major breakthrough in achieving its national interests. These commitments would also allow Bangladesh to follow up positively on Indian connectivity request, security concerns, and use of Chittagong port.

The question now is will Sheikh Hasina be able to show the political will needed to make her visit a watershed in Bangladesh-India relations if India shows the wisdom to so do? She may not because her greatest drawback in succeeding with her forthcoming trip to India will be in the nature of the country's domestic politics. The massive majority with which the AL won the last election notwithstanding, India knows too well that without a clear indication of bipartisanship from Bangladesh, any concession that it would choose to make would be opposed by the opposition and any reciprocal gesture that Bangladesh makes would be impossible to implement. At this stage, the bipartisanship necessary to convince India is an unimaginable proposition. Therefore the “cobwebs” may linger on the canvas of Bangladesh-India relations a little while longer and Sheikh Hasina's visit may be just another one made by a Bangladesh Prime Minister to India.

Published in The Daily Star, November 22, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Poor coordination, bane of Bangladesh missions abroad

A timely subject was covered in The Independent – it is edition of November 18th captioned “poor conditions bane of missions abroad.” Recently the Foreign Minister while speaking to a group of Labour Attaches of Bangladesh Embassies who were brought to Dhaka on a sponsored trip by an international organisation said that she was sad and frustrated at the lack of coordination in our Embassies that was adversely affecting the country’s manpower export.

The report in The Independent placed the blame on both the career diplomats and other officers in the embassy for the serious lack of coordination. It quoted the Foreign Secretary extensively. The Foreign Secretary said categorically and correctly that so far the Ambassador is concerned, the legal position is absolutely clear; that he/she is the unquestioned authority in the embassy. It is as the Foreign Secretary has said embedded in the Rules of Business (RoB) that is the only source from which Ministries/attached offices, etcetera of the government derive their powers and responsibilities. He did not see the need to frame new rules ”to harmonise work in the mission” as the RoB unambiguously gives the Ambassador that power that is not being exercised. He said that soon the Foreign Ministry would ask all Ministries to instruct their officers in the Embassy through the Ambassador. The Foreign Secretary appeared convinced that once this is done, the problem of coordination will vanish.

The Foreign Secretary did not have to fall back on the RoB to underscore the universally acknowledged role of the Ambassador. In every government, the Ambassador holds a position that has no parallel. In the embassy, the Ambassador has unchallenged authority and an officer can only in a fit of insanity think of holding a position or even an opinion that could run contrary to his/her Ambassador because the job demands it. It is only in the Bangladesh case that it has managed to make coordination a problem in its Embassy where the Ambassador cannot always be sure that his/her authority would not be challenged.

The Independent report also held the attitude of the career diplomats in the embassy responsible for the “poor coordination “in the embassy. It reported that a Press Minister in a High Commission complained that when the High Commissioner was away, he was not made the acting High Commissioner as the seniormost official during a highest level state visit and that another officer of junior rank of the diplomatic wing was given that position instead. For someone not conversant with details of the working of an embassy, this may seem queer because normally in all offices, such matters are dealt by seniority. However, in this instance, it would have been the queerest thing that could have happened if the Bangladesh High Commission had made its Press Minister the Acting High Commissioner during a high level state visit. The host country’s Foreign Ministry would have fallen flat on its face if that had happened for in normal diplomatic practice that would have been most unusual and undiplomatic!

In the period after independence, the Foreign Ministry played a historic role in establishing Bangladesh as an independent nation after its brutal war of independence. In fact, the Ministry enjoyed the confidence and the blessing of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who in those days knew many of the officers by their first names and held some of them in great affection. Foreign Secretary Enayet Karim was one of them. AKH Morshed and Abul Ahsan, both toppers in their respective CSS examinations, at that time Directors-General in the Foreign Ministry, were frequently called by him for consultation and discussion on foreign affairs issues that were at that period very critical , like for example the issues of recognition, membership at the UN and the OIC. Both became the Foreign Secretary later. After the change of government in August 1975, the Foreign Ministry started to lose its position in the government. The erstwhile CSP officers took the lead in taking away from the Foreign Ministry a lot of its powers under the RoB. In the name of foreign aid; foreign trade, the rest of the civil bureaucracy took away one by one many of the major functions of the Foreign Ministry. The deterioration began when the External Resources Division, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Labour started appointing the Economic Ministers, Commercial Counsellors and Labour attaches respectively where earlier such officers were first deputed to the Foreign Ministry that issued them their appointment letters. Later the Education Ministry started doing the same while appointing the Education Attaches. By the time President Ershad emerged, the Foreign Ministry was very much cornered and when the President’s lack of confidence on the Foreign Ministry became well known, the goose was more than well cooked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Foreign Secretary’s confidence on the RoB is thus misplaced because while keeping it in place, the other Ministries have succeeded in bringing the Embassy partially under their control by posting and controlling their officers posted in the Embassy. He did not take into consideration the reasons why the problem exists in the first place. Even the official car that most of these officers are given are, by office order of their Ministries, kept outside the authority and control of the Embassy and the Ambassador. These facts would suggest a very unhealthy environment in the Embassy. In fact, however, that is not the case because the officers of the other wings in the Embassy more often than not, show better sense of not taking the fighting in the country between the Foreign Ministries and the other Ministries into the Embassy. The Ambassador by his seniority and personality also manages a working environment despite the prescription for disaster brewed for the Embassy from home.
The problem created in the Embassy is the direct consequence of the conflict that has existed in the country between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other Ministries; a conflict that came to surface after 1975. Before that, the RoB was there but was not required to be quoted to give the Foreign Ministry its authority. After 1975, that authority waned, the RoB notwithstanding. As Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud was close to resolving it by placing all work of the government that related to dealing with foreign governments/organisations under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had a summary ready for this purpose but did not last in the Ministry long enough to get the President’s signature on it. The BNP in its 1991-96 tenure also looked into this problem and the Morshed Khan Committee came out with a Report to deal with it. In The Independent report, former Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury mentioned that the Committee’s recommendations would be useful to deal with the problem of coordination although it is a mystery why the BNP government in its 2001-2006 tenure, when Morshed Khan was the Foreign Minister, did not even take a look at the Committee’s Report.

In the present context where globalisation has brought nations into much greater interaction, the role of a country’s Foreign Ministry and the Embassy have assumed tremendous importance. In case of Bangladesh, its seven million expatriates make the role of the Embassy even more significant. Therefore it is urgently necessary to restore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the role it had played immediately after independence ; a role that Foreign Ministries all over the world play today as they have played in modern times where diplomacy has become a major instrument for the betterment of the fate of nations. Only in Bangladesh have we created a situation where coordination in an Embassy has become an issue. Realistically, the Foreign Secretary’s optimism that the coordination problem would be resolved by requesting the Ministries to instruct their officers through the Ambassador is very optimistic for such a request will not even be taken seriously by the other Ministries. The Foreign Ministry would need the Prime Minister and the PMO behind the request for a realistic chance of result, which is another story.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 20, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Civil society and Bangladesh's foreign policy objectives

THE civil society in Bangladesh plays a significant role in articulating people's interests in special areas to the government. In recent times, the civil society has built up consciousness among the people on major national issues such as corruption, climate degradation, and land grabbing by influential people in the society that have left Bangladesh's rivers, canals, and wetlands at their mercy.

The civil society in Bangladesh has also made glorious contributions to the country's emergence as an independent state. The Language Movement was initiated and led by the students and the intelligentsia of the country before the politicians took up the cause and used it to liberate the country. After liberation, the civil society has been active in nurturing the emergence of democracy in the country, particularly during its long tryst with military dictatorships. Even under the elected governments, the civil society played a crucial role in keeping those who are conscious of their responsibilities in power and assisting them in carrying out these responsibilities. These facts notwithstanding, there are also concerns about some of the roles of the civil society in Bangladesh. These concerns arise from the nature of Bangladesh's turbulent politics and the fact that the activities of the civil society often extend beyond the country due to globalization and other factors. Such factors make it imperative that the civil society must fully understand its role so that it complements the efforts of the government instead of creating problems.

The recent fiasco that occurred over the exhibition at the Drik Gallery is a case in point. A group called "Students for a Free Tibet" along with Drik gallery organized a photo exhibition “Into Exile: Tibet 1949-2009”. The exhibition according to the organizers was on “the Tibetan people, their sufferings caused by the Chinese government.” According to what appeared in the press, the Chinese Embassy contacted the Drik gallery and requested them to stop the exhibition. There were also calls to the Gallery from the government in support of the request of the Chinese Embassy. The Gallery, nevertheless, decided to go ahead with the exhibition. However, before it could be opened the police intervened and closed it.

A spokesman of Drik gallery was furious and said “the sudden intervention of the police is surprising while foreign country's dictation as to what should be on display is humiliating”. Former TI, Bangladesh Chairman Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed who is a leading member of the civil society said to an impromptu gathering outside the Drik Gallery that “we have the right to know of the neighbouring countries. I could not find any reason for stopping this freedom.” Both the gentlemen, while being right in expressing their emotions, however, showed their lack of sensitivity and knowledge about diplomatic practices and nuances. They have also shown lesser knowledge of Bangladesh's international obligations and duties. As for diplomatic norms, what the Chinese Embassy did by asking the Government to stop the exhibition is part of the Embassy's responsibility because the exhibition's objective was to tarnish the image of China and the Embassy's duty is to protect it. If a similar situation occurs abroad where Bangladesh was at the receiving end, its Embassy would be required to do exactly what the Chinese Embassy did. The failure to stop such an exhibition designed to tarnish Bangladesh's image would land the Embassy in all sorts of trouble, even the recall of the Ambassador.

With China Bangladesh has strategic relations that are extremely important in the context of its foreign policy. It is committed not to interfere in China's internal affairs. Going ahead with the exhibition would have been both an unfriendly act and interference in China's internal affairs. As for the Professor's freedom to know what is happening in the neighbouring countries, he is perhaps unaware that the foreign policy stakes are too high and it would have been incomprehensible and foolhardy if the government had not acted the way it did after the Chinese protest. Whatever may have been the intention of the organisers it would hardly have been worth the damages that holding such an exhibition would have caused to Bangladesh-China relations.

There is also a point to be made about the sponsors of the exhibition. A visit to the website of the Students for a Free Tibet will show the visitor that there are eight countries where SFT has a national network. There is one in India that is understandable. Bangladesh is the only other developing country where SFT has a national network. The interest of the Bangladesh network to hold an exhibition that they certainly knew would embarrass China is food for thought. The Foreign Ministry would need to focus on this point because it knows better than anyone the value of China's friendship that has been built over the years.

During the last two elected governments, particularly during the last BNP regime, an organization representing the civil society, driven by their zeal to bring transparency into the actions of the government, highlighted the extent of corruption in the government body. It was to a large extent due to their efforts that Bangladesh was placed on top of a list of corrupt countries for four years in a row. It is very true that the efforts of this civil society group brought into public consciousness that corruption is spreading into the body politic like cancer. However, lacking the means of coercion, their efforts merely earned Bangladesh the dubious title of being the most corrupt nation on earth while in no way assisting reduction of corruption itself. It gave Bangladesh a negative image that it did not need.

For a country like Bangladesh that depends on a favourable external environment for its efforts to develop, it is essential that the civil society be aware of its limits so that it does not put the country's foreign policy goals in jeopardy. The government may not have the necessary legal leverage to stop the civil society from exposing corruption in the government to a foreign organization, but the civil society should consider the pros and cons of such exposure. It should realize that such exposure has virtually no impact on reducing corruption that is largely related to the level of social-economic development in the country. The civil society must realize that the bad image that its activities give Bangladesh in turn has direct adverse impact on enhancing trade and attracting foreign direct investment that are priority foreign policy goals of the country. The civil society should work with the government's watchdogs like the Anti- Corruption Commission, the parliament, and the media for tackling corruption instead of embarrassing the government and creating obstacles to its foreign policy goals.

No government anywhere allows the civil society the freedom to exhibit what it wants, particularly where materials exhibited embarrass a friendly country. In Bangladesh, the regulations require an organization interested to hold such an event to get prior permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Like many regulations that have gone by the wayside due to lack of use, this one also seems to have become dormant. The fiasco at Drik Gallery should wake the Foreign and the Home Ministry from their slumber to activate this regulation urgently.

Published in The Daily Star, November 14, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FS Nazrul, a brilliant officer with temper

The change of guards in the Foreign Ministry in May 1987 was more significant than just passing the baton from one Foreign Secretary to another. It marked a significant change in the style in which Nazrul Islam ran the Ministry as compared to Fakhruddin Ahmed. The week that we waited for Nazrul Islam to come from Kuwait to take over as the new Foreign Secretary was also one during which I heard my peers and superiors in the Ministry who knew Nazrul Islam from personal association discuss among other things, his mercurial temper. The more I heard of such experiences, the more I regretted that Fakhruddin Ahmed had left. I felt we were leaving calm waters for the turbulent sea.

Nazrul Islam took charge and straightaway went into high profile in leading the Ministry. In the first few months of his tenure, he left no one in any doubt that he had a very good equation with the President. He would just not make good use of the Red Phone that was one reason that made the President wary about Fakhruddin Ahmed; he would personally land at the President's Office in one pretext or another. The President also reciprocated the attempts of the Foreign Secretary to get close to him in the initial months of his tenure. At the Foreign Ministry, we felt that Nazrul Islam would be able to use his closeness to the President for the sake of the Foreign Ministry.

While the new Foreign Secretary found for himself a way to reach the President more or less at will, the relation between the President and the Foreign Minister remained cool as it had been when Fakhruddin Ahmed was in office. At the power bloc of the Ministry, we could sense that the closeness of the Foreign Secretary with the President was not a matter that the Foreign Minister accepted in good grace. By the time Nazrul Islam took over, the Foreign Minister had distanced himself even further from the officers of the Ministry. A particular point that saddened many of us was the treatment meted to a senior officer who had been recalled to the Ministry from Bangkok where he was the Ambassador and made the Chief of Protocol after Nazrul Islam became the Foreign Secretary. The Ambassador was M Mohsin, an ex-PFS officer of the 1961 batch not to be mistaken for Mohammad Mohsin who succeeded Nazrul Islam as Foreign Secretary. Ambassador Mohsin was an excellent diplomat and a gentleman to the core though at times misunderstood by his juniors because of his aloofness.

There was a vacant post of Additional Foreign Secretary when he was recalled, vacated by AKH Morshed who was sent out to East Germany before Nazrul Islam became the Foreign Secretary to save him and the Ministry from humiliation. AKH Morshed who topped in the 1956 CSS Examination was languishing as an Additional Secretary when officers in the erstwhile CSP officers of a few batches junior to him were Secretaries. M Mohsin wanted to become the Additional Foreign Secretary in that post and was unhappy that he was made the Chief of Protocol. The Foreign Minister could have and should have made him the AFS but he did not do so for personal reasons.
A batch mate of M Mohsin was also at the receiving end of the President's wrath with little support from the Foreign Minister. Humayun Kabir, another very capable but eccentric diplomat, had earned some fame of sorts for presenting credentials to Ayatollah Khomeini as Ambassador to Iran in the lungi. Fakhruddin Ahmed liked him a lot but when Nazrul Islam took over, Humayun Kabir was left to fend for himself. He did not have to do so for long for soon after the new Foreign Secretary took over, the President paid a surprise visit to the Foreign Service Training Academy (FATI) where Humayun Kabir was the Principal and found him absent. Under that pretext and that condition in FATI was dirty and dishevelled, the President closed down the Institute caring little for the training needs of the career diplomats or the decency to consult either the Foreign Minister or the Foreign Secretary.

That was also the time when a good number of officers from the armed forces were posted to the Ministry, in the cadre, against personal posts and as Ambassadors under the quota informally reserved for them. These officers carried with the career diplomats, inter-se seniority where applicable that was unbelievable. For example, an officer who had made it to the erstwhile ex-PFS had entered service at a minimum age of 21 and a maximum of 25. Armed forces officers became officers at a minimum age of 18. When these officers were posted to the Foreign Ministry, their seniority with the foreign officers was fixed from the date they became officers. Thus on a minimum they received a three years advantage over the ex-PFS officers. In Pakistan's military dominated political system, officers were taken to the erstwhile CSP cadre from the military in the early 60s. The seniority of those officers was fixed from the date they became a Captain or the age of 25 and they were placed after the last directly recruited CSP officer of the batch. In case an officer had become Captain before his 25th birthday, the latter date was applied for his seniority in the CSP cadre.

Nazrul Islam understood the heartburning of the career officers. In one instance, he sent promotion cases to the Superior Selection Board after he had worked out a formula to offset the unreasonable inter se seniority given to the armed forces officers vis-à-vis the career diplomats. When Nazrul Islam went to that meeting, the Chairman of the SSB showed him a letter written without his knowledge by the Foreign Minister against the proposal of the Foreign Ministry and in support of the existing system that favoured the armed forces officers. Despite such personal affront, Nazrul Islam did not either openly or privately show the Foreign Minister any disrespect. In fact, he would tell me repeatedly how lucky we were to have HRC as Foreign Minister.

Nazrul Islam's closeness with the President during the initial months of his tenure failed to lift the spirit of the officers of the Foreign Ministry. They worked in an environment where they seldom received cooperation or support from the other Ministries. Internally as it were, the distance maintained by the Foreign Minister from the rest of the Ministry and the amalgam of civil and military officers who worked there created an environment that was not a congenial one, not at least for the majority of the career diplomats who had joined the Ministry through tough civil service examinations and were in the mid-level in their career with a gloomy future. The case of M Zamir, now a well known columnist who had qualified very near the top of his batch in the erstwhile CSS Examination of 1968, illustrated the dejected spirit of mid-level career diplomats when Nazrul Islam was the Foreign Secretary.

His batch mates in the erstwhile CSP cadre who fared lower than him and such officers of other subsequent batches were Joint Sectaries and Additional Secretaries while he was languishing as a Director in the Foreign Ministry without much hope of promotion. An ad hoc Chittagong Hill Tracts directorate was created for him so that he could report directly to the Foreign Secretary and was not be required to interact with the officers of the other Ministries that saved him and the Ministry from humiliation.

Nazrul Islam was brilliant. He showed his flair at the press briefings that became a weekly affair during his tenure. His idiosyncrasies made it difficult to deal with him. He was a man with temper that he also often showed. He never harmed anyone but was often misunderstood. Unfortunately, the perception about his temper more than his temper itself created a division where the senior officers would meet him only when it was impossible to avoid him. The atmosphere was not encouraging for showing much enthusiasm for work. The political climate in the country was also tense as the Awami League and the BNP gathered forces to bring down the military dictatorship. Hartals had become a part of our lives and often many of us who worked for the Minister and the Secretary, were sleeping in the office to avoid the hassle on the streets and walking to office. Foreign policy and foreign policy goals had become distant to the daily struggles caused by continuous conflicts between the civil and the military. The politics outside coupled with the depressing environment inside Topkhana had one collateral impact that was good; it allowed Nazrul Islam to sober down as 1987 drew to a close.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 13, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Moonlighting by public university teachers

The University Grants Commission (UGC) Annual Report, 2008 contains many interesting facts about the public universities that are to say the least, very interesting and revealing. The contents of the Report have found its way to the media, which is another interesting point because it is still to be presented before the President. The public universities are those universities that are funded out of the taxpayer's money. Dhaka University is among these public universities that are regulated by the UGC that has finalised the Annual Report.

One interesting fact in the Report is the acknowledgement of something widely known; that most teachers of the public university regularly "moonlight" (illegally hold another job) in the private university. Just as a government servant cannot hold another job in addition to the one in government, so must the teacher in the public university because his/her job is a full time one. The consequences of public university teachers moonlighting are extremely adverse because it not only deprives the students that they are supposed to teach; such "moonlighting" also has been identified in the Annual Report as a major cause of the sessions jams that takes away from the students vital years of their lives. In fact, if a public university teacher can "moonlight" with such adverse impact to the students for whom the university is established in the first place, then there is no reason why the government servants should not be allowed to hold a second job or even a third one outside his government job. But then even thinking that a government servant should be allowed to "moonlight" will be only in a fit of insanity. In case of the Public University teacher moonlighting, the thought of it should also be in a similar fit of insanity. But then sadly and unfortunately, these teachers have been doing such "moonlighting" from the time the private universities have come on the scene.

Before the emergence of the private universities, teachers of a public university have been engaging themselves in consultancy. In fact, one of the benefits that have accrued with the country's independence is the need of consultancy in the government that in the Pakistani days was monopolised by consultants mainly located in the then West Pakistan. With independence, such consultancy became instantly available right at the doorsteps of the biggest of the public universities, namely the Dhaka University. And, lo and behold! before the country had time to even be aware of this sudden opening of the doors of consultancy and money for the teachers of Dhaka University, they were deep into business. As the cake of such consultancy business was huge, the benefits spread to the other public universities.

There are a few points that must be mentioned before extending the arguments further. It is not that all teachers of the public universities are indulging in such "moonlighting." The same is true with consultancy. The UGC Report has also mentioned a few other non-teaching and research activities such as round tables, seminars, TV talk shows in which the teachers of the public university indulge on a regular basis. In such activities also the majority of the teachers of the public university are not involved. These facts notwithstanding, such activities in the centre of which is the issue of "moonlighting" in the private university by the public university teachers have directly impacted the terrible truth about the public university in Bangladesh, namely the issue of session jam. It is an issue that no one can explain to someone who does not live in Bangladesh without a sense of shame. In the beginning when session jam became an issue following our independence, the problem was placed squarely on the nine months long war of liberation. It was explained that as a consequence of those lost nine months, there was a natural delay in holding examinations in the public university according to schedule.

But then, those nine months could have been easily adjusted over a few academic sessions and the problem of session jam should have been history long ago. That did not happen and instead the problem aggravated where eventually examinations were being held years after schedule. The UCG Report has focused on this shameful fact of session jam and has blamed the public university teachers for sustaining and aggravating such session jam. A newspaper that interviewed some students of Dhaka University quoted one of them as saying: "Some teachers use the Dhaka University job as the passport to part-time jobs in private universities or in consultancy firms for a handsome amount of money."

A university is meant to be a place of study and research. A university teacher cannot have any other preoccupation that impedes his duty to the students which is teaching and his duty to himself and the university that employs him which is to do research. No university in the world employs a teacher for consultancy, "moonlighting" in another university, appearing in a talk show, etcetera ignoring or avoiding his teaching and research responsibilities. A nephew of mine who is now a Professor in a Canadian University once complained to me that he has been placed by his university in a difficult situation as it has asked him to become the Chairman of the Department. In astonishment I asked him why. He said that the responsibility will interfere adversely with his research work where he would not be able to devote the time that he wanted. I have no doubt that if university teachers in the developed world were aware of what the UGC Report has written about the public university and its teachers in Bangladesh, they would be forced to believe that the Report was talking about universities on some other planet.

However, sadly the unbelievable things that are happening in the public university in Bangladesh are not just restricted only to what has been revealed in the UGC Report. When I studied in Dhaka University and later taught there as a teacher in the 1960s, there were in the entire social science and arts faculties a total of not more than a dozen Professors. Today, each department in these faculties can boast more than that number. In fact, between the pre-liberation and post-liberation period, the Dhaka University has reversed the pyramid having the maximum number of Professors, with Associate Professors, Assistant Professors and Lecturers declining as in the structure of the reverse pyramid. Of course, if the reverse pyramid was the consequence of brilliance of the teachers manifested in original research, then the country would have been proud and its public university teachers should have earned the country international recognition which is sadly not the case.

With such abundance of Professors, Dhaka University for example should have been a world leader in academic excellence. This is unfortunately not true in a general sense. A Google search on list of top universities of the world places Dhaka University after 4000; a great disappointment for a university that once prided itself as "the Oxford of the East."

While claiming for themselves independence as free thinkers in society as distinct from government servants who have to work in a straight jacket, the university teachers have nevertheless adopted from the government servants their basis of promotion based on length of service. For example, a Lecturer is eligible for becoming an Assistant Professor after a required number of years of service. An Assistant Professor is promoted to the next rank after a few more years and then to the post of a Professor after some additional years. There is however a strange exception here for a university teacher as compared to a bureaucrat. The bureaucrat cannot be promoted till there is a clear vacancy. The university teacher does not need the vacancy. He/she gets promoted after the necessary years and as he/she moves up the ladder, so does his/her position! This explains the reverse pyramid.

There are a few other exceptions about the teachers of the public university. They can, again as free thinkers not to be bound by bureaucratic rules, have the right of doing politics in alignment with the political parties. Thus one can see teachers openly grouped on political lines in the public university although for some strange reason, they feel shy to acknowledge openly such alignment and instead group themselves under colours such as White, Blue, etcetera!

In the end of it all, a public university is run with taxpayer's money. Hence it should not be allowed to do what its teachers are doing. There has to be accountability where there is none at the moment. The UGC Report should also encourage the policymakers of the country to have another look at the 1973 University Act that a lot of people say is the root cause of what is happening in the public university.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 10, 2009