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

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