Friday, December 25, 2009

My Days in the Foreign Service (a series): Entry of Mohammed Mohsin

One of the drawbacks of the career diplomatic service in Bangladesh has been, and unfortunately it still is, the lack of camaraderie among the officers in the Bangladesh Civil Service (Foreign Affairs). When Bangladesh became independent, there were 60 plus officers of the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service who formed the backbone upon which the career diplomatic service of Bangladesh or the BCS (FA) was based. For an independent country’s Foreign Ministry, this was a very small number. Before the BCS (FA) was established and regular in-take into the service started through the Public Service Commission, the Ministry had to take officers who belonged to other services as lateral entrants. There was always an under-current among those who directly joined the Foreign Service and the lateral entrants. Then within those who were from the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service, there was a further under-current because a small number of those officers were given two years’ seniority as freedom fighters. Thus, the Foreign Service cadre that was challenged with forces outside the Ministry during the Ershad era did not have the sort of camaraderie that was needed to face those external challenges.

As a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary, I watched those visible shortcomings of our cadre. It made me sad to watch those shortcomings that were reflected in our inability of showing solidarity behind the Foreign Secretary. During Fakhruddin Ahmed’s tenure, there was an incident in New Delhi in which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had censured the Indian Foreign Secretary AP Ventakaswaran publicly. The entire cadre then pitched behind the Foreign Secretary against the Prime Minister to demonstrate their solidarity. Such a unity in our service was in those days something inconceivable. The situation is sadly worse today and only in a fit of madness could one even imagine that the Foreign Service cadre would take a stand like the one that involved the Indian Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Majority of the officers in the Ministry were in those days more inclined for their personal interests in postings and promotions and did not care much that the Ministry’s powers and functions were being divested in the other Ministries or that the Foreign Secretary was being removed and a new one appointed on personal whims.

The removal of Fakhruddin Ahmed as the Foreign Secretary was a case in point where the Foreign Service cadre failed to show the cohesion that was necessary at that time to face external challenges unitedly. There was no reason for Fakhruddin Ahmed to be replaced when Nazrul Islam succeeded him. It was the whim of the President that was the main reason for changing him. The Foreign Minister did not uphold the interest of the Ministry and allowed the President to change Fakhruddin Ahmed without even a word of protest. Normally a Foreign Secretary remained in office those days for two years. When Fakhruddin Ahmed was recalled to the Ministry, he had two years for his retirement. There was no reason why he should not have been allowed to complete two years and go into retirement with honour and dignity. Since there was no doubt that Fakhruddin Ahmed was removed because of the President’s wish, the Foreign Ministry did not even have the courage to arrange for him a farewell that he so richly deserved because he had the absolute respect and confidence of all the officers in the Ministry except the Foreign Minister.

Nazrul Islam personally respected Fakhruddin Ahmed like the rest of us but he too lacked the courage to arrange a farewell for Fakhruddin Ahmed because he was aware that such an event would perhaps not be liked either by the President or the Foreign Minister. Thus Fakhruddin Ahmed spent almost a year that he had for retirement as an Officer on Special Duty (OSD), a ridiculous title that has been evolved in our civil service to humiliate officers short of sacking them. However towards the end of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s retirement, some of the senior officers led by M Mohsin, Mustafizur Rahman, later to become Foreign Secretary in1997 and died in office in 1999, arranged for Fakhruddin Ahmed a farewell dinner in Dhaka Club that was attended both by the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary. There were speeches at that dinner and a few, emotional ones. Mustafizur Rahman spoke passionately and did not hide his disappointment at the way Fakhruddin Ahmed was treated. The Foreign Minister was visibly annoyed because a lot of what was said that night was indirect criticism of him for allowing Fakhruddin Ahmed to fall victim to the whims of the President. After emotions were contained and things became normal, Nazrul Islam told Fakhruddin Ahmed that the Foreign Ministry would arrange a big farewell for him. The Foreign Minister was also listening to the conversation. I was standing in a corner. We were all standing. Fakhruddin Ahmed looked at the Foreign Secretary, paused for a while and then told him bluntly but calmly that he had left the Foreign Ministry not to return there again. All of us present there could not help feeling a deep sense of hurt as Fakhruddin Ahmed spoke those words. I could sense a drop of tear or two in Fakhruddin Ahmed’s eyes as he sat down. Later in 1991, Fakhruddin Ahmed returned to the Foreign Ministry but as irony would have it, after the fall of Ershad as an Adviser for the caretaker government that was formed to conduct the elections for bringing Bangladesh from the dark days of military dictatorship to democratic rule. The day he went to the Ministry to become the Adviser, he received a warm welcome from the entire Ministry that belatedly showed the respect for him that they failed to show when he was humiliated and later left the Ministry on retirement after a year as an OSD.

As irony would have it, Nazrul Islam who kept silent while Fakhruddin Ahmed waited for those nearly one year to go to retirement, unsung, faced the same fate at the hands of the President. In fact he was changed under circumstances more humiliating than what was meted out to Fakhruddin Ahmed. By the middle of 1988 when Nazrul Islam had completed a year as Foreign Secretary, it was inevitable that he would not last much longer. In the first week of July, 1988, our Ambassador in Brussels Mohammed Mohsin arrived in Dhaka. He was recalled but he did not know what was in the Government’s mind about his future because he had at that time, a couple of years more to serve. On a fine morning, a few days after he had arrived in Dhaka, he came to meet the Foreign Ministry. He came to my room and as I stood up to receive him, he asked me if the Foreign Secretary was in his office. I told him that he had gone to a meeting in the ERD and would be back soon. Mohammed Mohsin that day was dressed in a white safari that went very well with his grey hairs. I knew him from before when I served as a Section officer in the late 1970s when he was a Director General. At that time my Director-General was Farooq Sobhan, who later became Foreign Secretary and currently the President of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). Whenever he used to be away on official trips, Mohamed Mohsin used to hold additional Change of his office.

After a few words of pleasantries, Mohammed Mohsin gave me a hand written note scribed on a page torn from a note pad. He handed it to me casually but what I read in that note was anything but casual. There were a few names there related to postings of Ambassadors that was not a news for me as they were expected. However after the short list, there was a small paragraph that said that Mohammed Mohsin would be the next Foreign Secretary and that Nazrul Islam would be posted to an un-named Mission soon singed by the President in green ink that he loved to use ! I looked at Mohamed Mohsin and in my surprise; I even forgot to offer the new Foreign Secretary my congratulations! After I recovered from my daze, I told Mohammed Mohsin that Nazrul Islam was not aware that he was being changed and that someone would need to tell him as soon as he came back to the office. Soon afterwards, Mohammed Mohsin left my office and a while afterwards, Nazrul Islam returned with Mustafa Mohammed Farooq who had accompanied him to the meeting in ERD. When I entered the Foreign Secretary’s room, I found the two in the inner chamber playing chess! I came to my room and waited. When MMF came to my room on way out, I told him the news and asked him if Nazrul Islam was at all aware that a coup had taken place.MMF told me that Nazrul Islam was not only unaware of his fate; he in fact had discussed with him some of his future plans as Foreign Secretary while returning from ERD in the car.

Soon Mohammed Mohsin returned to my room. Immediately I ushered him to Nazrul Islam. Then a few sparks flew between the two and I saw Mohammed Mohsin and Nazrul Islam go together to the Foreign Minister. Later I learnt that Nazrul Islam wanted to be assured the post to which he would be going before the news that Mohammed Mohsin would the new Foreign Secretary was released to the press. The office order naming Mohammed Mohsin as Foreign Secretary was released two days later when the assurance that Nazrul Islam would be Ambassador to Soviet Union came from the President. A second order came out that day; that I would become Director in the Foreign Minister’s Office That did not happen though but that is another story for another day.

Published in the Independent on December 25th and 26th, 2009

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