Friday, January 29, 2010

About secret pacts

THERE are important lessons to be learnt for Bangladesh from the Japanese experience with secret deals. While the LDP was in power for over five decades, except for a brief period in 1993, there was persistent accusation from the opposition with considerable public support that Japan had entered into secret deals with USA on security. However, the LDP led government was not willing to lend credence to those accusations and perceptions without being able to prove there were no secret deals. When the LDP lost power in the elections last September to the Democratic Party of Japan, one of the first tasks of the new Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was to instruct the Foreign Ministry for a report about the secret deals. He gave his Ministry a year to come up with its findings, acknowledging the fact that it is easy to accuse about existence of secret deals but quite another thing to prove it.

In case of Bangladesh-India relations, there had been a gap in public perception and security agreements in the past. It started soon after our independence when Bangladesh and India signed the 25-year Friendship Treaty. While the governments at the time in New Delhi and Dhaka did not see any hidden agenda in the Treaty, the public view of the Treaty was quite different. There were many in Bangladesh who thought that the Treaty was an “unequal” one and a ploy by India to keep control over the country in the context of India's security priorities. The Treaty was allowed to lapse by Bangladesh in 1997 when the Awami League was in power. In matters of security, where two countries cannot reveal everything about the agreements that they have concluded to the public, there will always be a gap between reality and perception. Where politics is immature and where there is no consensus between the party in power and the party in opposition on such issues, the gap is natural. If there is none, then that would be extremely surprising.

It is thus because of the nature of dynamics related to security agreements that the difference has arisen between the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP over the three security agreements that were signed during the recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India. The opposition has accused the AL government of a “secret” deal and even went to the extent of accusing them of “selling” the country. The government has reacted to these accusations and used extremely harsh words to counteract. The Minister for LGRD who is also the government spokesman challenged the BNP to prove these accusations, particularly on the issue of the secret deal.

It is unfortunate that the BNP has brought this charge on such an important state visit of Sheikh Hasina that has potentials of being a watershed visit for furtherance of Bangladesh-India relations. But before one trashes it, it would be worthwhile to be a devil's advocate and look into why the BNP brought this accusation. More precisely, it would be useful to see if they have been given the cause for such a suspicion. The history of Bangladesh-India relation gives the BNP one reason for such a suspicion. The other important one is more recent and arises out of the events surrounding the arrest of the ULFA Chief Aravinda Rajkhowa and his associates. It happened just before Sheikh Hasina's visit. While the Indian media went gaga over the arrests, warmly expressing deep appreciation for Bangladesh's cooperation in apprehending them, Bangladesh declined any involvement in these arrests. When he was produced in the court in Gauhati, Rajkhowa expressed his anger and disappointment at Bangladesh, mentioning that the country had betrayed him. The Bangladesh government denied any involvement with the Home Minister categorical about her government's ignorance about the ULFA arrests. Thus for good reasons, the public in Bangladesh have remained confused about what really happened although many have no doubt that the ULFA insurgents were apprehended inside Bangladesh and handed to the Indian security. The government must thus bear responsibility for causing suspicion in the public mind on the issue for its dealing with the ULFA arrests was clumsy and not transparent.

The three agreements related to security cooperation signed during the visit of Sheikh Hasina, coming in the wake of lack of transparency with the ULFA arrests, are good enough reasons to conclude that the two countries have decided at the highest level for deep cooperation on security matters. The security cooperation is no doubt the correct thing to do for terrorists, wherever they are, are enemies of everybody because they kill innocent people. Such cooperation will also benefit Bangladesh by improving its image internationally after being branded as a country seething with extremist elements during the last BNP tenure. Bangladesh has recently been left out of the list of 14 countries whose nationals have been listed for extra security checks after the US imposed new and enhanced security for aircrafts flying to the United States following the failed attempt by a Nigerian to blow a Northwest airlines aircraft just short of landing in Detroit on Christmas day.

In between the government's perfect score to itself and the opposition's zero, the visit has laid the groundwork for significant improvement of Bangladesh-India relations. However, the key to that happening will depend on how successfully the government is able to remove the doubts that the opposition has inserted, particularly over the security agreements and the accusation of a “secret deal.” The best way to do that would be for the Awami League to open dialogue with the BNP. However, given the acrimony between the two, that is impossible. The only other way that may help remove the doubts partially would be to place the agreements in Parliament for public knowledge. In fact, article 147 (A) makes it incumbent upon the government to do so. The government should use the constitutional requirement to tell the nation whether it had or did not have anything to do with the arrests of the ULFA leaders. If not, it should explain why the Indian media did not seem to have any doubts about Bangladesh's hands in the arrests. It should also present the details of the security related agreements. That could lift doubts over the visit's outcome.

The “secret deal” notwithstanding, the Prime Minister's comment about lack of Indian generosity that she had made in a speech during the visit has also created problem for the government to explain the positive outcome of the visit. The Foreign Minister recently said that Bangladesh is seeking to sign an “ad hoc” deal on Teesta water sharing because a long term deal would need hydrological data, which will be time consuming. Why could this not have happened during the visit? The Indians could also have made a positive gesture on Tipaimukh, perhaps abandoned it altogether given Bangladesh's concessions on use of the ports and commitment on the extremely important issue of security. The Indians promised 250 MW of electricity which is a commercial deal while the US $1 billion is a credit line, not unilateral concession. One cannot help thinking of what a little bit of “Gujral Doctrine” could have done to Bangladesh-India relations as this point in time.

Published in the Daily Star, January 30, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is Bangladesh a parliamentary democracy?

Another year of an elected government has passed; in all 16 years since the fall of General Ershad's military dictatorship. Ershad's fall had ushered both the fall of dictatorship as well as the end of the Presidential system of Government. The first elected government also chose for Bangladesh the parliamentary form as opposed to the presidential one for establishing democracy in the country.

Bangladesh's tryst with establishment of democracy through the parliamentary system of government has not been exemplary. In the opposition, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League have found excuses to stay out of the parliament. In the first year of the current 9th parliament, the opposition BNP and its allies attended parliament's plenary session for 23 of 95 working days. While this is unfortunate, it is by no means unexpected because the parliamentary system in Bangladesh has been working practically without the opposition since 1991.

The near permanent boycott of parliament by the opposition is one of the many undesirable things happening in Bangladesh's politics. In a parliamentary democracy, the opposition is indispensable. Just as it is impossible to imagine a hand making any clapping sound without another hand hitting it, it is likewise impossible to imagine a parliamentary democracy without an opposition. Yet the members of the opposition political party in parliament take all the benefits to which they are entitled. At present, the opposition members attend the parliamentary committees; go abroad in parliamentary delegations, etc. There is no reason to doubt that the opposition members will let their boycott of parliament stand in the way of accepting the privilege of import of duty free cars that the government will provide soon to the parliamentarians.

The ruling party is blaming the opposition entirely for the current stalemate over the issue of boycott of parliamentary sessions. While the opposition is no doubt failing in its duties and responsibilities as an opposition in a parliamentary system of government, it is sadly following the "tradition" set by the ruling party when they started the "practice" of staying out of the parliament on one pretext or the other in the 6th parliament after Ershad's fall. The Awami League did the same in the BNP's 2001-2006 term. It is now getting a taste of its own medicine as the BNP is staying out of the 9th Parliament as they had in the 7th. It seems like the political parties of Bangladesh enjoy being in the Parliament only when in power.

The way the political parties of Bangladesh behave while in the opposition is unique for there is no other country where the opposition has made it a habit to stay out of parliament. The two mainstream parties do not hesitate to take opposing stand on issues that are related to nation building where consensus and bipartisanship are essential. On actions that harm the nation, there is a strange and eerie similarity in the behaviour pattern of the Awami League and the BNP. For example, when it comes to hartal, students' politics, etc., that impact the country negatively; the two parties compete enthusiastically to beat each other. It is perhaps in the fitness of things that the BNP and the AL have the same view on how to act as an opposition party in parliament because its impact is negative on the country.

Sadly, the boycott of the parliament by the opposition is affecting adversely the main reason why millions sacrificed their lives in 1971 for making Bangladesh a sovereign nation; namely their desire to live in a democratic society under a democratic government. In the absence of the opposition in parliament, there is no political party to check the party in power from exercising its powers arbitrarily. In the well established political culture of both the parties, parliamentarians of the ruling party cannot express opinion to the contrary on any government decision. Thus, in the absence of the opposition, the mainstream political parties have turned the parliament as the listening post for praise of the Prime Minister and the government that is not conducive to establishing a democratic government.

The reasons that the opposition have given and still give for boycotting the parliament raises doubts about their seriousness to establish democracy. In the 8th Parliament, the AL stayed out of the parliament on the plea that the BNP did not relent on their "legitimate" share of seats in the front row and for not allowing their members the opportunity to speak in the plenary sessions. The BNP is using the same arguments against the AL for staying out of the 9th parliament. In the 8th Parliament, the BNP enjoyed 2/3rd majority and in the 9th parliament, the Awami League enjoys 3/4th majority. A minimum spirit of accommodation and compromise would have been enough for the BNP to keep the AL in the 8th parliament and the AL by the same effort to bring the BNP to the 9th parliament. It is strange that a political party with such majority in parliament can have such a negative mindset about the opposition, as the BNP had about the AL in the 8th parliament and the AL about the BNP in the present parliament. It is also unbelievable that the BNP and the AL do not see how their lack of spirit of accommodation and compromise not only makes democracy non-functional but also causes disruptions to the economy by sending the opposition to the streets as the AL did during the 8th parliament and as the BNP is threatening to do so very soon.

Both the mainstream parties have got it wrong in their perception of the role of the opposition in a parliamentary democracy. For a correct perception it may be worthwhile to examine the opposition's role in Great Britain that has given birth to parliamentary democracy. In Great Britain, the opposition is referred to as Her (His) Majesty's Opposition, a term coined by John Hobbs in 1826 and the leader of the opposition as the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Embedded in the concept is the fact that parliamentary democracy cannot work without dissent. Also embedded is the fact that parliamentary democracy also does not also allow dissent for the sake of dissent because it makes loyalty to the government a condition for the dissent.

Given the state of politics currently prevailing in the country, the mainstream political parties have not even scratched the concept embedded in "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" in the last 16 years Bangladesh has "officially" been a parliamentary democracy. It does not seem that the two parties are likely to make any attempt to understand the concept anytime soon for they are not in any hurry to do so. Till this happens, Bangladesh can describe itself a parliamentary democracy; in practice is anything but that. Unfortunately, the fact that parliamentary democracy as practiced in Bangladesh is imperfect also negatively impacts upon establishment of democracy in the country. It is no wonder therefore that although the mainstream political parties speak about establishment of democracy in Bangladesh; the country is still as distant from achieving this goal as it was when it started the journey many decades ago.

In recent days, there is a lot of discussion about Bangladesh becoming a middle income country. The ruling party has set 2021 as the deadline for achieving this objective. Recently, the Finance Minister has said it will take Bangladesh 26 more years to graduate out of the LDC group. The Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus has given this deadline a little earlier. The different deadlines reflect uncertainties about achieving the goal. These predictions are also entirely based on economic indicators neglecting the political factors. Those making the predictions should take time to focus on political indicators instead for unless the AL and the BNP can cooperate on economic development and foreign affairs on a bipartisan basis, the goals of democracy and development will continue to elude Bangladesh as it has for the last 38 years of its independence. If our politics had been bipartisan since the fall of Ershad in 1991, we would have been a middle income group already. This is why it is so important to bring the BNP to parliament and for the AL and the BNP to develop between themselves the spirit of compromise and accommodation.

Published in The Daily Independent, January 29, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reversing batting order?

Bangladesh is showing a strange consistency. Its tail enders with one or two lower order batsmen are making it a habit to post a total to embarrass the top order batsmen and also save the team from embarrassing total. There are also a few other consistencies in the Bangladesh team. Once the team's top batsman, Ashraful has now become a model for failure. An article on the Internet compared Ashraful's batting to the Eids. Like we can have only two Eids a year; we can likewise have only two good innings from the former captain in a year.

The other consistency is of course the regular defeats in Tests that our team has made a habit. The two wins against the West Indies last year should not be taken seriously because these were registered against a West Indies team that was its second eleven. So far, Bangladesh has played 59 tests, lost 51, won 2 and drew 6. Although Bangladesh is the youngest Test playing nation, the players playing at Test level are not inexperienced. Ashraful is playing in his 52nd Test in Dhaka, as many as Bradman had played in his entire career.

Thus the argument that Bangladesh is a new Test playing country should not merit serious consideration in defending the team's performance. Individually, some of the players also have talent. Saquib is now a recognised world-class all-rounder. While batting and bowling, the team shows glimpses of having the potentials to achieve even the unimaginable. In the first Test against India in Chittagong, even foreign cricket scribes were not writing off Bangladesh's chances of achieving a 415 target in the fourth innings.

So why is Bangladesh so consistent in losing Test matches? The answers are their galore. On the first day of the Dhaka Test now being played, Ashraful made the point for even the blind person to see. He had hit a four and had moved to 39. He was playing like a batsman in form although his performance in the preceding Tests pointed to the contrary. For the next shot, he went down the pitch and tried a shot that was worse than atrocious to miss it and be stumped! One scribe described the moment as one when Ashraful had a "brain freeze". The captain, trying to bring the innings back from the jaws of death, did very much the same to be out at 34 when he could have brought it back to its rails. Saquib did the same in the Chittagong Test that makes Bangladesh Test cricket consistent where top order batsmen show the regular tendency of getting out to atrocious shots at moments when the team needs them to put their heads down making irresponsibility another consistency among our top order batsmen.

There is a new consistency now being shown by our Test players-their habit of making loud claims while talking to the media. Tamim Iqbal, a talented batsman no doubt but who plays Test cricket like it is one day format, sometimes even like it is 20/20, said before the Dhaka test that he did not even rule out the chances of a Bangladesh win. Of course, Bangladesh can win a test for individually there are players who could achieve that for Bangladesh. However, for a batsman like Tamim to make this claim and then get out for a zero playing like a novice is audacity to say the best. I was impressed by Saquib hearing him speak to the media a few times. I thought he had a sensible head on his shoulder. Unfortunately, I thought there was a streak of arrogance over confidence in him when he said to the media that Bangladesh was capable of scoring those 350 runs on the final day of the Chittagong Test with eight wickets remaining.

There are a few serious problems with Bangladesh's Test cricket. It is not lack of talent. It lacks common cricketing sense both individually and collectively. In fact, only two cricketers of the present team can claim that sense. Mushiqur Rahim is one and Mahmudullah Riad is another. The other problem is that our batsmen play Test cricket in the limited over mode. In the Dhaka Test against India, Ashraful who came when two wickets had fallen for four runs went about playing his natural game. Common sense should have told him that he was playing his shots too early when there was still some natural movement due to weather conditions and that if he hanged a while longer, he could have batted for himself as well as the team. The fact that he lasted till 39 was more a matter of good luck than his talents. One wonders why someone from the team's management did not send him a message to calm down. Manager Siddons said that although he is failing consistently, there is no one to replace him. Nevertheless, it is time to give him a rest. He is still only 25 and a year or so on the sidelines would make him realize that he is not Vivian Richards but more like a bowler with some batting pretensions. The team's management should force this into his thick brain. Then may be his talents will mean something for the Bangladesh team. In fact, if any batsman is given this much freedom to play without being dropped, there would be many batsmen like Ashraful around. The management should also try and understand why our batsmen score such a high proportion of their runs in boundaries.

The stand by Indian captain Sewag was very insensitive when he made the comment about the Bangladesh team's ability of bowling India twice in a Test before the Chittagong Test and then found himself utterly embarrassed with his team's batting efforts on the first day of the Test. However much we have disliked Sewag's comment, facts bear out what he has said very crudely. Here is a glance of Test batting average of Bangladesh's top batsmen. Ashraful's average is 23.09; Tamim Iqbal's 27.64; Shahreer Nafees's 26.09; Saquib's 29; Imrul Kayes' 12 (!!) and Mushfiqur Rahim's 26. All these players have played quite a few tests. With such appalling average of leading batsmen, it is difficult to imagine how the Bangladesh team can score enough runs to save a match let alone win one. Among the bowlers, only Saquib who has 55 wickets in 16 Tests is anywhere near Test class.

The statistics on match results, batting and bowling of our Test cricket team sadly lends credence to Sewag's comments. Unless the top batsmen can somehow push their averages over 30 and a couple or more over the 40 mark, Bangladesh's tryst with Test match defeats will continue.

The recent exchange in the media between the President of Bangladesh Cricket Board and Saquib was unfortunate. But the President's anger was based on solid grounds because our cricketers showed utter callousness as a Test team in the Chittagong Test. Coming in the wake of such an appalling performance, the captain should have kept his mouth shut and tried to understand the President's frustration that was also the nation's frustration. The Board must evolve a carrot stick policy for the Bangladesh cricket team because common sense seems to have taken leave of our Test cricketers. A team where the tail enders play like top batsmen and top order batsmen play in reverse must have fundamental problems in player management, training, selection and supervision.

One could be tempted to reverse Bangladesh batting order in Tests but then in the serious business of Test cricket this would be impossible to implement. But something should be done. As food for thought, the Board should judge Test batsmen, because our problem seems more to be with them and not with the bowlers, by the length of their stay at the crease and not by the runs they score. Then they would be forced to stop playing 20/20 strokes and stay longer in the crease to learn to draw. Once they can do that, then they can start playing their strokes and attempt to win. The model for Bangladesh batsmen should be Hanif Mohammad. Unless this is done, the averages of our top batsmen are bound to be around the 20s that is not good enough for Test cricket.

I am a dreamer and since in cricket they say it is a game of glorious uncertainties, I dream that even in the Dhaka Test where Bangladesh is in a tight corner, a miracle would happen.

Published in The Daily Independent, January 28, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Terrorism and the Fifth Amendment

The agreements reached between Bangladesh and India during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's state visit to New Delhi to combat terrorism is a positive move. It should allay fears abroad that Bangladesh could turn into “next Afghanistan”, a view expressed by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a visit to New Delhi in 2005. Bangladesh is also not in the list of 14 countries whose nationals have been placed on special security checks recently by US security agencies following the failed attempt by a Nigerian national to blow a Delta airlines plane short of landing in Detroit on last Christmas day.

Bangladesh is, thus, currently poised better to deal effectively with threats of religious fundamentalism and regain its position as a Muslim majority state with liberal traditions that it was on the verge of losing during BNP's last term, having also ensured in the last election that religion based parties were soundly trounced. The Prime Minister's resolve against terrorism makes that prospect more likely. However, Sheikh Hasina's resolve notwithstanding, Bangladesh could also be engulfed by religious terrorism. Early this month, the Supreme Court lifted a stay order on a High Court verdict given in 2005 that declared the Fifth Amendment (FA) to the Bangladesh constitution made in 1979 unconstitutional and illegal. It paved the way to revert to the 1972 constitution and reinstate Article 38 that bans the use of religion in politics. In narrow political terms, that reversion could ban Jamat which, unless handled with the utmost political wisdom, could be extremely dangerous for Bangladesh. The issue has also become deeply entangled in the ethos of Bangladesh's war of liberation, role of Jamat in 1971, trial of the war criminals; and a host of other related factors. These factors have joined together to evoke a lot of emotions that have made reinstating the 1972 constitution a matter of settling historical scores.

Most people now vocal on the Fifth Amendment are making a very narrow interpretation of what the nullification actually means and/or are not fully aware of its implications. The 5th amendment gave the constitution legality to all the executive orders that were issued by the military government between the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 1979. The amendment also included the insertion, into the constitution, of Islam as a state religion; other insertions favouring Islam and deletion of secularism and socialism as principles of state policy were also made. It also gave legal cover to agreements and treaties signed by Bangladesh and foreign governments. The Fifth Amendment further wrote into the constitution that Bangladesh would seek closer relationship with Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity (Article 28 (2)). The High Court decision of 2005 will now make all of the above actions/decisions unconstitutional and illegal. Most important of all, it will make all provisions on Islam in the constitution, as a consequence of the Fifth Amendment, also unconstitutional and illegal, if of course the High Court ruling is implemented fully.

The Awami League is, however, selectively using the issue of the Fifth Amendment to restore secularism but retain other parts of that amendment related to Islam according to statements of the Law Minister in the media. Most significantly, it wants to keep Islam as a state religion but reinstate the original article 38 prohibiting use of religion, including Islam (!) in politics. The pick and choose method of the ruling party has created confusion in the public mind about its real intention. It has also sidelined important facts about Fifth Amendment, like the fact that it restored democracy that the fourth amendment to the Constitution during the AL rule in 1972-75 had compromised. The way the Awami League is dealing with the Fifth Amendment is leaving little doubt that its main aim is to ban Jamat as a political party in the name of restoring secularism.

In going after Jamat, the AL is not taking into context changed circumstances. When the constitution was framed in 1972, it was fresh in people's mind that the protagonists of Islam like the Jamat had used the religion to justify the Pakistani genocide. Thus when article 38 banned political parties from using religion in politics and placed secularism out of the picture, it was accepted by everybody as the natural thing to do. Nearly four decades into history, when religion based parties have been sidelined by the people through the democratic process where the Jamat won just two seats in the last election, the Fifth Amendment issue has placed Bangladesh's politics on spot to decide on Islam and its role in people's lives. Today, while people are focused on Jamat's anti-Bangladesh role in 1971, they may not be, at least those who do not subscribe to the AL politics, at all keen to ban Jamat and other political parties by reinstating the original article 38. They would rather like the amended article 38 to remain that allows political parties the freedom to associate without religious restrictions. Article 38 in its original form may push Jamat out of constitutional politics into the underground and encourage it to adopt unconstitutional means for attaining their objectives for it would be wishful thinking to assume that a party like Jamat will just vanish once the doors for it to do constitutional politics is closed. Jamat will no doubt use the ban to appeal to domestic and international support on the sensitive plea that Islam is in danger. Such an appeal could attract many in the country who are not Jamat supporters. It is also not likely to be well received in the Muslim countries and could seriously jeopardize the fate of millions of our expatriates.

A senior civil servant said on a talk show that as long as Islam was not in the Constitution, people had no problem with it. The Fifth Amendment issue has placed Islam squarely at the heart of the Constitution. Taking it out now, partly or fully, would be difficult if not impossible without putting Bangladesh at risk with its future. It would be wonderful for Bangladesh to be a model secular country. But then when religion is coming back into politics even in western democracies, it is very difficult to understand why Bangladesh is trying to be holier than the Pope. Historically, the separation of state and religion has been a problem of the western Christian nations where the Church's negative, corrupt and reactionary role made it necessary to keep religion out of politics. Islam has not been a problem with statecraft like Christianity.

In next door India, it had a fundamentalist Hindu party as the BJP in power but no one questioned its secular or liberal character. In Bangladesh, Jamat does not stand any chance of getting political power in our lifetime or in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren. Even the BNP that has given Jamat political lifeline in the past thought of it as a political liability in the last elections. The people have proven time and again that they do not like parties using religion to seek their votes by marginalizing religion in every election that such parties have taken part. The liberal/secular nature of the people of Bangladesh has ensured this. It is thus a mystery why the ruling party is so interested to ban Jamat and other Islamic parties for such an action will bring them back into reckoning in our politics with dangerous prospects.

The Prime Minister should use her wisdom and experience to take charge in the matter because, if her party forces Jamat and religion based parties from constitutional politics, Bangladesh could become “the next Afghanistan” or go the Algerian way.

Published in The Daily Star, January 23, 2010

My Days in the Foreign Service (a series): HRC makes way for Anisul

Humayun Rashid Chowdhury and Mohammad Mohsin had a good working relationship that the Foreign Minister did not have with Fakhruddin Ahmed or Nazrul Islam. There was also a relationship between the two by marriage. There were many occasions when HRC would stroll into Mohammad Mohsin's office and the two would engage in conservation that would pleasantly surprise me. I thought that such a relationship would augur well for the Foreign Ministry that needed the Minister and the Secretary to be on the same wave length to face the unfriendly and non-cooperative attitude of the other Ministries in those days.

Unfortunately, fate willed otherwise for the Foreign Minister who had been targeted by authorities greater or more powerful than him for a push out of the Ministry even before Mohammad Mohsin took charge as the Foreign Secretary. The affair of the Diplomatic Box was a conspiracy because it did not reveal any indiscretion by the Foreign Minister that should have led to a committee being formed under the Cabinet Secretary to investigate into the matter. Nevertheless, the way the matter was handled by the intelligence left none of us who followed the event as insiders in the Foreign Ministry that there was a definite attempt by individuals with influence to character assassinate the Minister to force him to resign.

The Foreign Minister did not seem to take the negative media attention about him as a personal affront. That did not make any difference because his tenure as Foreign Minister came as to an end abruptly and in a dramatic manner. I remember the events of that day still very vividly. Soon after I came to office that eventful day, a December morning in 1989, I received a call from a friend who was the Private Secretary to then Finance Minister. He told me very confidently that there would be a change in the Ministry that day. On query, he said that the Foreign Minister would resign. He also told me that the previous evening; the President had abruptly ended a Cabinet meeting with indirect references to the Foreign Ministry and the incident of the Diplomatic Bag. After ending the Cabinet Meeting, the President told the Ministers that he would be available if anyone of his Ministers wishes to see him that evening. While keeping my friend on the phone, I walked across and spoke to the Minister's Private Secretary who told me that the Minister was in his room and in good spirits. When in good mood, HRC would often walk towards the window and hum a tune or two. The Private Secretary told me that was exactly what he was doing in his room. I came back to my room and told my friend the Private Secretary that there was no way that HRC was leaving that day. My friend asked me to wait till the day was over for he had heard from impeccable source that HRC would not last till the end of that day.

Around 10 in the morning, my friend the Director (FMO) Mohammed Ziauddin told me over the intercom that the Cabinet Secretary had asked for an appointment with the Foreign Minister at 1030. That was the first hint that a drama was about to happen in the Ministry that day. The Cabinet Secretary arrived at the appointed time. Shortly after he arrived, I saw Mohammad Ziauddin run across the corridor to the room of the Personal Assistant of the Foreign Minister. Seconds afterwards, I saw him walk hurried towards his room and as he passed by, he told me the Minister had asked him to fetch a letter head that he had in his hand. The Cabinet Secretary left the Minister's room shortly afterwards. At the Minister's office, the officers knew what had happened; that the Minister handed his resignation to the Cabinet Secretary. A little after 11, as I was looking out of my office into the corridor, I saw the Minister's orderly Ali with a few personal items of the Minister, walking out from his room. I knew the Minister was preparing to leave, without talking to anyone, without even a farewell.

I informed the Foreign Secretary about the meeting between the Minister and the Cabinet Secretary and my suspicion that the Foreign Minister had resigned. I requested him to meet the Minister and ascertain the suspicion. I further requested the Foreign Secretary to seek the Minister's permission to arrange a farewell for him in the event he had resigned. Back in my room, I talked with the Director-General (Administration) Abdul Hannan, an officer of the erstwhile Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service whom HRC had brought to the Ministry much to the displeasure of the Foreign Service officers, and requested him to arrange a farewell for the Minister. I informed him that the Minister had resigned. Shortly afterwards, the farewell was arranged for HRC. There were no emotions at the farewell and it was soon over bringing to an end in a sad manner the career of a distinguished diplomat who, apart for his singular achievements as a diplomat that included the Presidency of the UN General Assembly, had also shown the courage to stand by the daughters of the Father of the Nation after his assassination when they were in Germany where HRC was then posted as a diplomat at the Bangladesh Embassy.

HRC was liked by most of the officers of the Ministry who came into contact with him during his career as a Foreign Service officer for his endearing qualities. He was also a well liked Foreign Secretary. I never worked with him before he became the Foreign Minister. Those who knew him intimately have told me that he was hurt by the way the Ministry treated him during the final years of his service as a career diplomat. He was made the Foreign Secretary after his junior in service SAMS Kibria. Fakhruddin Ahmed was also junior to him when he was made Foreign Secretary the first time. HRC was sent to Washington as Ambassador after only one year as Foreign Secretary in a manner that did not please him. He was made an OSD and had to wait in Dhaka for sometime while his successor Ataul Karim assumed charge as the Foreign Secretary when going by the established practice, he should not have been made an OSD and allowed to leave for Washington immediately after handing charge to his successor. Thus when he became the Minister, he did not keep his hurt feelings a secret nor did he hide the fact that as a Minister, his actions would be influenced by political consideration and not by the interests of the Foreign Service officers. A day after HRC left as the Foreign Minister, many of us in the Ministry received a copy of a summary sent from the office of the Foreign Minister to the President's office where the Ministry recommended to the President for six officers from the armed forces to fill key positions in the Foreign Ministry in the areas of protocol and administration.

In fact, it was in the final months of HRC's tenure that the Foreign Ministry's post of Chief of Protocol went to a Brigadier-General from the armed forces after M Mohsin was made the Additional Foreign Secretary. The post did not revert back to a career diplomat till the fall of President Ershad in 1991. The job of a Chief of Protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a specialized position for which experience as a diplomat is indispensible. Almost in every Foreign Ministry, this position is filled by a career diplomat. Unfortunately, in its last term, the BNP had not given this post to a career diplomat and the Awami League is doing the same although in the Foreign Ministry it is a well acknowledged fact that the career foreign service officers have undeniably been the better Chiefs of Protocol.

Anisul Islam Mahmud was named to replace HRC. He was the Minister for Water Resources before coming to the Foreign Ministry. He became the youngest Foreign Minister after Dr. Kamal Hossain who was a few years younger when he headed the Foreign Ministry in Awami League's first term (1972-1975). Anisul Islam Mahmud and I went to the college and University together and we were also Lecturers in Dhaka University; he in Economics and I was in Political Science. The new Foreign Minister brought to the Ministry what his predecessor lacked; a close connection with the President. He also brought with him his brilliance to grasp issues fast and decide in the same manner. He also was aware of the importance of the Foreign Service cadre to ensure professionalism in the conduct of foreign relations. With him in charge, the officers of the Foreign Ministry felt assured that he would stand in the way of the attempts by the other Ministries to marginalize the Foreign Ministry. In fact, in the final months before the fall of the Ershad regime, he was moving towards bringing the Foreign Ministry back to its constitutional position as the principal Ministry for conduct of foreign relations, a role it had played in the brief period after our independence. Ershad's fall preempted that move but then I am moving fast, creating a gap between time and events. For the moment, let this piece end with a note that Anisul Islam Mahmud's move to the Foreign Ministry was not liked by New York, particularly by our Permanent Representative there but let that be the subject of the next piece.

Published in The Daily Independent, January 23, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Outcome of Bangladesh-India summit 2010: India gets concessions, Bangladesh receives promises

CONDOLEEZZA Rice, during an official visit to India in 2005, had described Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan”. It was, thus, for very good reasons that the Indians were greatly excited when the Awami League won the 2008 elections by a massive margin. The assurance given by Sheikh Hasina within days of becoming Prime Minister that Bangladesh would not allow its territory to be used for carrying out insurgency against India was welcomed in India with great enthusiasm, both by the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP. By her just-concluded state visit to India, Sheikh Hasina signed and sealed that assurance by signing three security related agreements that would give the Indians the handle over its insurgents who either hide in Bangladesh or are inclined to cross over to Bangladesh in search of sanctuary. The agreements ensure that all that India had wanted and expected on the important issue of security from Bangladesh has been delivered. It was Mamata Banarjee who perhaps spilled India glee over these three agreements when, after a meeting with Sheikh Hasina, she told waiting reporters that India must give Bangladesh whatever it wanted.

Another good friend of Bangladesh, the Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was also equally magnanimous in his wish to help Bangladesh. He spoke about India's keenness to increase duty free imports from Bangladesh. After a half-hour meeting with the Bangladesh Prime Minister, he made a very thought provoking statement to the press. The Indian Finance Minister said: “For the first time Bangladesh understands our concerns and we understand theirs.”

The generosity and magnanimity expressed by the two ministers, however, did not translate into concrete results except where India signed two MoUs, one to provide a US$ 1 billion credit line and, the other, to sell to Bangladesh 250 MW electricity. Except for these concrete assurances, the Joint Communiqué that was issued after the summit level talks was full of good intentions by India on all the major issues without really providing what Bangladesh expected from India on the major issues. On water sharing of the common rivers, the Joint Communiqué stated that on Teesta, there would be further studies. There were also references of cooperation on other common rivers and also a direction that the Joint Rivers Commission would meet in the first quarter of 2010. On sharing of the maritime boundary, the JC stated that the two sides would proceed in the matter through negotiations. On trade, it was stated that the Indian side would reduce the negative list. On Tipaimukh, India assured Bangladesh that nothing will be done to harm Bangladesh's interests.

The Indians received almost total commitment of Bangladesh on the security issues. In fact, India could not have wanted more. The three security related agreements signed during the visit will give India the hand it needs for its security concerns from Bangladesh to ensure that Bangladesh did not become a “next Afghanistan” and cooperated with India fully to apprehend its own terrorists/insurgents. In addition, Bangladesh has given India, for the first time, access to use the Chittagong and Mangla ports, for carrying goods to and from India. India will also invest in Bangladesh roads and railway to facilitate the use of these two ports. The JC is also full of agreed steps on a wide range of issues outside the major and contentious ones that will promote cooperation between the two neighbours.

One can see from the outcome of the visit why both Mamata Banarjee and Pranab Mukherjee were excited. Bangladesh has really “understood” the Indians as the Indian Finance Minister has said by joining hands with India to quash and quell insurgency in India's fragile northeastern states. In fact, the Indian President Pratibha Devingh Patil has rightly articulated this gain by India by stating in her speech on the occasion of granting Sheikh Hasina the Indira Gandhi prize that Delhi and Dhaka have joined in a “crusade” against terrorism. Whether India “understands” Bangladesh is a different matter and does not seem to have been reflected in the Joint Communiqué clearly. In fact, on trade, India was given negative list by 252 but agreed to only 47. As for Mamata Banarjee's offer that Bangladesh should be given whatever it wanted, the Joint Communiqué has fallen far short of expectations.

In fact, two statements of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would lead one to conclude that she herself may not have been entirely satisfied with the outcome. Before going on the visit, she “vowed” to get for Bangladesh just share of the waters of the common rivers. None of that happened. The Indians could have relented at least on the Teesta where a lot of progress has been made to suggest to Bangladesh that it is ready to be fair on the sharing of the waters of the other rivers. In fact, if one follows the history of negotiations on water sharing, one should be surprised that the Indians have not brought in the issue of augmentation. In the past, they have always pushed back Bangladesh's demand on water sharing on the issue of lack of water to share and the necessity of augmentation for which they had expressed their intention of linking major rivers, like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, on their side. This time they sidelined augmentation. Where then would the water come from? The fact that augmentation was not looked at would suggest that the Indian side just went over the water issue knowing that there would be little they would do to meet Bangladesh's needs and interests. What Bangladesh has missed, in the ambiance of the good intent of the Indians, is a historic opportunity of using this visit to bring in a regional approach to the water issue. This visit could have been a historic opportunity of demonstrating political will to seek a sub-regional approach to the water sharing problems of the rivers common to India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh missed it, perhaps unintentionally; India missed it, perhaps, deliberately.

Sheikh Hasina's other statement that could indicate her own assessment on the trip was made at a forum of businessmen. While speaking there, Sheikh Hasina said that India should be generous. One is not sure whether there was a hidden meaning in the statement. But then the Indians have not been generous in relenting on the major demands of Bangladesh related to water sharing, trade and maritime boundary, looking to future negotiations to resolve these issues. In fact, on the maritime boundary, the Indians have put in words in the JC that does not go with the strategy they have shown at the bilateral negotiations that has pushed Bangladesh to go to the United Nations with its case.

From Bangladesh's point of view, Sheikh Hasina has not given to India anything that the opposition could pin on her as selling out Bangladesh's interest. Although in the context of Bangladesh history and national ethos, it is not the correct thing to hand over those who are fighting for their right of self determination as Bangladesh would be doing with Indian insurgents hitherto found inside Bangladesh; it is also something over which the opposition cannot oppose the government publicly given the changed international environment, particularly after 9/11. Sheikh Hasina has also not brought from the trip anything from India on the major contentious issues such as sharing of the waters of the common river; on the maritime boundary; or on trade where the Joint Communiqué is high on hopes but low on delivery. In fact, apart from the US$ 1 billion credit line, India has given Bangladesh promissory notes while Bangladesh has signed on the dotted lines to give India all it wanted on the security issues with the use of the ports as bonus.

The concrete results notwithstanding, Sheikh Hasina has established her qualities of leadership in New Delhi. The award of the Indira Gandhi Prize reflects that. She also has strengthened her close relationship with the Indian leaders, particularly with the Indian Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi that augurs well for the future. If she had gone to India better prepared and with the opposition on board, her visit could really have been historic but sadly that has not been the case. The visit will open small windows but no major doors.

Published in The Daily Star, January 16, 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

Between national and students' politics

A lot has been written about the performance of the AL-led Government on its first year anniversary in office. Most of these writings and also what has been spoken in public are partisan. The government has been praised for all round success by those who support the Awami League. Those who do not support the AL and lean towards the opposition have concluded that the government has failed on most counts miserably. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

The Government, however, has to answer to the people on one particular issue. In the days and weeks following the assumption of office by the Awami League, the public educational institutions became scenes of lawlessness that did not go with the promise of change for which the people voted the AL with a major mandate. In the face of such lawlessness, the Prime Minister resigned from her post as chief patron of the Chatra League, the students' wing of the Awami League. That did not have any positive impact upon the state of affairs in the public educational institutions. Instead, it has become a regular item in the newspapers these days to read that one or another of the many public educational institutions has been closed sine die due to acts of lawlessness by the students. What is significant is the fact that such conflicts almost always result from criminal acts that has nothing to do with seeking better education.

Most recently, the Rajshahi Polytechnic has joined the long list of public sector institutions to witness lawlessness and mayhem that resulted in the death of a student leader of another party at the hands of the Chatra League. Predictably, the institute has been closed sine die. This time, the incident brought strong reaction from the General Secretary of the Awami League who is also the Minister for LGRD and a spokesman of the Government. He said that stern action would be taken against criminal and unlawful activities in the name of students' politics. One would of course like to feel assured at the Minister's stern warning. But then, the Prime Minister was also equally angry and upset when she gave up her position as the patron of the Chatra League but nothing happened. Therefore, there are not many who would believe that after the warning, the lawlessness and criminalization of the public educational institutions would be in anyway halted.

The reasons why this will not happen are not very difficult to discern. In the socio-economic conditions prevailing in the country, jobs after a degree in any of the large number of public educational institutions are extremely hard to get. In fact the majority of those who attend these institutions study subjects that have no value in the restricted and extremely competitive job market. The students themselves are also aware of their predicament. They are thus easy target for the political parties who need them for their narrow political interests. This nexus has been established over many decades and known to everybody. This nexus also allows leaders of students' parties easy access to top political leaders who help them in a variety of ways, in extreme cases even to dare the law enforcing agencies that in turn encourages them to use the educational institutions for their criminal activities. When the political party that the students' party represents forms the government, then there is complete freedom for the supporters and leaders of that students' party to do pretty much what they like. The Chatra League has left no one in doubt with their current activities in the educational campuses about this truth.

The large amount of money that the public educational institutions receive from the government for development provides the soft underbelly for these students to prey upon. Then the dormitories provide the leaders of students who indulge in criminalization another soft underbelly for their illegal activities. These so-called leaders, by capturing the dormitories, literally control their administration in terms of distribution of seats for which they make easy money from the general students. Then in some cases, by establishing their control over the dormitories, these student leaders also literally control the administration of the educational institutions that provide them with another soft underbelly to exploit for their criminal activities that comes with their ability to interfere in admission of students in the educational institutions and in departments of choice for bribes. The attractions of students' politics also extend to the larger arena of politics as these students' leaders in due course find their way into mainstream politics where they carry out the same acts on the larger political canvas for which we have coined catchy but obnoxious phrases such as "tenderbazi" and "chandabazi".

Newspapers carry stories regularly of heads of pubic educational institutions falling prey to students who hold them hostage in their offices forcibly to make them submit to their demands. Although for some strange reasons, newspapers do not examine these incidents objectively, there is enough reason to believe that those who become victims of wrath of students are in most cases those who show the courage not to give in to the criminal demands of the students. Unfortunately, it is the government that does not in most such cases come to the rescue of those who are subjected to such humiliation by the students. In fact, they are often at the receiving end of a system of justice that makes nonsense of the cliché that politicians repeat again and again that students are our future; the backbone of our country. Like indulgent parents, the politicians pamper their wards like they can do no wrong when the wrong they do are palpably there for everyone to see.

The reasons for such indulgence are also not hard to understand. Bangladesh has a history where students have played a significant role in national politics. During the Pakistan times, the students sometimes showed the way to the politicians. They did it with the Language Movement and again with the movement that ousted General Ayub. Both these movements were the main platforms for the movement in 1971 for the liberation of Bangladesh.

In those days, students' politics was also about principles, ideologies and nationalism. Most important of all, when the students in those times involved themselves in politics; they did not manifest any of the wanton acts of lawlessness and destruction; nor did such political activities result in any disturbance to the normal activities in the educational institutions. The politicians ensured that students were not involved in politics at the cost of their education.

Today, there is no ideology that motivates students' politics because many of the compulsions and international realties are gone. Communism and its lures are a matter of history. Our objective for an independent, sovereign nation has also been achieved. Bangla as a language has just not been established in the country; it has won international recognition. The only principle that remains from history is the lure of Islam which we are now trying to banish from national politics. In the meantime, the face of national politics has deteriorated fundamentally. A nexus between students and national politics in its present context thus can only harm the interests of the overwhelming majority of the students; it can no longer do anything good for the general students. It is therefore the need of the moment that the umbilical chord between national politics and students' politics is severed.

In no educational institution in the contemporary world can students in their right mind even dare to imagine that they would have anytime to give for politics, political parties and politicians. They just do not have time sometimes for their regular meals. The fact that our students take this is as normal is something that reflects something utterly amiss in our educational institutions. There is of course another issue here that needs to be considered to encourage our political leaders to seriously think about maintaining their presence in the educational institutions. Majority, in fact the overwhelming majority, of students in the public educational institutions do not want students' politics. However, they are unable even to express an opinion against it, let alone stand up against it for fear of their lives. The political parties must consider the plight of this majority and do the right thing with students' politics.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's anger against Chatra League was the first instance of a political leader taking a public stand against students' politics. Unfortunately that was months ago and not very much really happened to set things right. In fact, going by the words that the AL's Secretary General, matters have worsened. Sadly, his warnings also would not bear the desired result because the link between the students' parties and the political parties, build over decades, that have today crystallized by criminality and money, will not even soften by words.

If the Prime Minister and her party are serious about this cancer in the educational institutions, they must make one simple but surgical operation; take a scissor and cut the umbilical link of their party with their students' party in the educational institutions and make a law in parliament, requiring all other political parties to do the same.

Published in the Daily Independent, January 12, 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

Will India reciprocate Bangladesh moves?

PRIME Minister Sheikh Hasina's extremely important visit to India is now just days away. The visit will take place in the backdrop of a couple of important developments in very recent times that could encourage India to relent on its stand on three important bilateral issues, namely, sharing of the waters of the common rivers, a fair deal in bilateral trade and accepting Bangladesh's stand on delimitation of maritime boundary.

One of the developments is the arrest of the ULFA Chief Aravinda Rajkhowa and his associates by Bangladesh authorities and handing them over to India that has been widely and enthusiastically welcomed in the Indian media. Rajkhowa has been leading the ULFA insurgency in Assam for the last three decades. Till his arrest, he has been the most wanted insurgent by the Indian security. Former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh in the 1990s, Dev Mukharji has described the arrest of Rajkhowa as a major event. He added: “It is a very positive move that demonstrates Dhaka's intent.” The High Commissioner who knows Bangladesh-India relations like the back of his palm was obviously referring to the commitment that Sheikh Hasina made on her second day in office, that her government will not allow Bangladesh soil to be used for terrorist attacks against India.

The other act of Bangladesh that has made the Indians happy is Sheikh Hasina's role in Copenhagen in the UN Conference on Climate where she backed the document tabled at the Conference by the five biggest polluters, the United States, China and India together with Brazil and South Africa that passed as the non-binding Copenhagen Accord and saved the Conference from falling apart. Majority of the developing countries either opposed the Copenhagen Accord or rejected it outright.

Indian newspapers have urged their government strongly to generously reciprocate Bangladesh's action to handover the ULFA insurgents keeping in view that the arrests are serious enough to sound the death knell of the ULFA movement. This notwithstanding, Bangladesh has denied any role in the matter with no official reaction from India either. Bangladesh a few months ago had handed to India two Lasker-e-Toiba extremists.

The developments have created a positive impact on the build up to the visit by removing the negative vibes that had emerged in the past before such an important visit. India has refrained from raising issues of land transit or the presence of “20 million illegal Bangladesh migrants” on Indian soil that it had customarily raised in the past, to set negotiations before a visit of the nature that Sheikh Hasina would be undertaking, on the wrong track.

Bangladesh on its part has also refrained from making public statements on issues that are likely to have a negative impact on the outcome of this important visit except speaking publicly in general terms where the Prime Minister has stated in the media of her intention of discussing sharing of waters of the common rivers, a rather vague intent going by the fact that the Indians did not responded favourably to Bangladesh's proposal for a Ministerial level meeting of the Water Resources Ministers before the visit. She has also not said anything about Tipaimukh that has been a burning issue since the AL Government assumed office.

Sheikh Hasina would thus be arriving in New Delhi on her State Visit for which Bangladesh has made important behind the scene moves to meet India's security needs, at substantial internal political risks, with the arrests and handing over to Indian security the ULFA insurgents.

The three security related agreements that have been finalized at the level of Home Secretary of the two countries for signature during the visit will give India the handle it needs on the security issues without a formal extradition treaty with Bangladesh. Under the agreements, Bangladesh will be obliged to hand-over insurgents/extremists/terrorists running from the law to India once apprehended in Bangladesh. India , under the agreements, will be obliged to hand over to Bangladesh criminals running form the law and apprehended in India where they usually hide following change of government in Bangladesh.

There are a number of other issues/developments in the context of Bangladesh-India relations apart from those examined that should have assured a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations as a consequence of the visit of Sheikh Hasina. In both Dhaka and New Delhi, the parties in power have a historical affinity, with the Awami League having come to office with a major mandate and the Congress with a renewed one.

A favorable wind is blowing in South Asia where for the first time all countries in the region have democratically elected governments. Most important of all, in Manmohon Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leadership is in the hands of leaders with sincerity to resolve outstanding problems. Sheikh Hasina herself has shown significant qualities of leadership in international affairs.

Unfortunately, it is Bangladesh's partisan politics that could stand in the way of effecting a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. In fact, because of such partisanship , the AL led government has not sought publicly so far from India anything in return for meeting Indian security needs because of concerns about domestic repercussions. Sheikh Hasina has also made no overtures to discuss her visit with the opposition either. The opposition, on its part, has already stated it would not accept any deal that endangers the country's interests, a veiled threat that underscores the opposition's mood not to accept any deal made in New Delhi.

In the face of such threat, India would be more than happy to sign the three security related agreements and treat Sheikh Hasina with pomp and grandeur, give her the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace and Development and go through the motion of discussion on “the entire gamut of bilateral relations” and leave the unresolved bilateral issues where they have remained over the last few decades.

Without India making reciprocal gestures, the visit could cause political tension in Bangladesh instead of being a watershed in the development of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations, a fact that India should keep in mind if it really wants to help the AL led government. Such repercussion could also jeopardise the security related deals. Is it possible that India is preparing a new year's surprise for Bangladesh? That would be wonderful because geo-political realities make it imperative for Bangladesh to have friendly relations with India.

Published in The Daily Star, January 9, 2010

My Days in the Foreign Service (a series): Mohammad Mohsin Takes Charge

Mohammed Mohsin was the first Foreign Secretary who did not belong to the ex-Pakistan Foreign Service cadre when he succeeded Nazrul Islam. He entered service in 1956 into the Pakistan Customs and Excise Service but did not serve that cadre for long, entering the elite Economic Pool. In the Pakistan days, officers of the Pool were promoted with the ex-CSP officers of the same batch and sometimes ahead of officers of that cadre.

I had an order of transfer across the Foreign Ministry's power corridor to the office of the Foreign Minister. I needed first the Foreign Secretary's nod to step across on other side that he did not give. I did not ask for that nod either as I was not too eager to make the shift. My friend and batch mate Iftikharul Karim of the 1971 ex-PFS batch did not particularly warm my heart either to that office as he was himself seeking a way out of that office. A few days into the tenure of Mohammed Mohsin, I found the Minister and the Foreign Secretary in informal discussion as I entered the room of my boss. The Minister looked at me and in an annoying voice asked me the reason for not changing office. Before I could respond, the Foreign Secretary who had an informal relationship with the Minister sought his indulgence to retain me for a few more days. A week thereafter, the same scene was repeated but this time when the Minister returned to office, he asked the Administration to use the order appointing M. Ziauddin Ahmed, a friend and a batch-mate, as Director in the Foreign Minister's Office. M. Ziauddin is now an Adviser in the Prime Minister's Office.

Mohammed Mohsin took me into my third year in the office of the Foreign Secretary. The first thing I noticed about the new Foreign Secretary was his distinct style. In Brussels, where he was Ambassador before becoming the Foreign Secretary, Mohammad Mohsin distinguished himself as a diplomat with skills in both bilateral and multilateral formats, and came wee bit close to being elected to the top post of the influential and prestigious Customs Cooperation Council. He lost the election for the post by just 3 votes. As Foreign Secretary, he showed his skills in getting the Ministry together, working smoothly with a Foreign Minister who knew his days as Ershad's Minister was coming to a close, with a President who we all felt by then did not particularly like career diplomats and other Ministries that dealt with the Foreign Ministry as if it represented another not so friendly country.

In those days, when aid gathering was a major foreign policy task of the Government, the External Resources Division had emerged as a parallel foreign ministry with the responsibility for dealing with the economic aspects of foreign relations without the need to consult the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By amending and where necessary dispensing with the Rules of Business, the ERD led the move by the economic Ministries/Divisions to sidetrack the Foreign Ministry where they even took away from the Foreign Ministry its special position given to it by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as contact Ministry of the government and foreign missions in Dhaka.

Mohammed Mohsin tried to bring the Foreign Ministry back into contention from its marginalized position in the conduct of the country's foreign relations. He worked with the President's Office and was also successful in attracting the attention of the President positively. He also used the fact that he was the first non-PFS officer to become the Foreign Secretary to good use by developing friendly relations with his colleagues in the other Ministries, many of whom for whatever be the reasons, did not have much fascination for the ex-PFS officers. I remember one instance where the ERD had held a very important meeting to which the letter of invitation to the Foreign Secretary was misplaced at my office at the clerical level. The Foreign Secretary complained about this to the ERD Secretary who personally came to the Foreign Secretary's Office to inform him that his Division had duly sent the letter but without pressing the issue, re-invited the Foreign Secretary. That was quiet a relief for me because had the ERD pressed the matter, the Foreign Secretary would have been embarrassed and I would also have been in quite a bit of problem in explaining the missing letter. It was in fact more than a relief because it also underlined the fact that the new Foreign Secretary's standing with the President's Office and his personal equation with his colleagues that many of his predecessors did not succeed in establishing.

The new Foreign Secretary vitalized the Ministry but soon after he settled down, attention fell upon the Foreign Minister. Humayun Rashid Chowdhury's position to us who worked in the power corridor of the Ministry never seemed secure. We felt that the President was tolerating him because AHG Mohiuddin adored HRC and the President liked his brother-in-law too much to remove HRC from his position. However, it was not just Ershad who did not like HRC; his Generals in the army also did not like him. It was also the time when the political movement against Ershad's military rule was gaining momentum. At home and abroad, there was much talk about corruption in the military. On a visit to New York, HRC was asked by Ted Koppel of ABC's then famous TV show Nightline about corruption in the army. HRC's answers did not please the Generals; they thought that he accepted Ted Koppel's contention about corruption in the army without dismissing the contention or defending the army.

The beginning of the end of HRC came not very long after Mohammed Mohsin took office. A lot has been talked but very little written about how a distinguished career was brought to a humiliating end because of personal whims and conspiracy. The incident that led to the resignation of HRC started very innocuously in Czechoslovakia where HRC had gone on an official visit. There he had purchased a few items of crystal and linen at prices ridiculously low even to mention. The items were worth around a hundred US dollars or so that HRC brought to London. In those days, it was not easy, not even for a visiting dignitary, to get things out of countries under communist regime. So someone accompanying the Foreign Minister marked the Box containing those items as "diplomatic cargo". Unfortunately, upon arriving in London, HRC did not return to Dhaka but went off to New York for official purpose leaving the Box in the care of the Bangladesh High Commission there. HRC's intention was to carry it with him on his way back.

That did not happen. Instead fate and conspiracy intervened. There was at that time two officers at the London High Commission who were inducted into the diplomatic service from the army. One of them or may be both "decided" not to wait for HRC to carry the Box back with him. Instead they put it on Bangladesh Biman flight to Dhaka marked "diplomatic cargo", perhaps to please the Minister. It safely arrived in Dhaka airport. Those days, an Assistant Secretary from the Ministry's Diplomatic Bag Section used to go regularly to take delivery of diplomatic bags from the airport. When that officer had collected the diplomatic bags that day and had boarded the micro bus, he was called back by custom officials and handed the now infamous BOX sent from London in the name of HRC. Little did this Assistant Secretary know that he was handed not a diplomatic bag but a bomb for that was what happened when he arrived with the Box to the Ministry at 10 in the morning and the events that followed.

That day the Foreign Secretary had gone to Chittagong where the area Commander of Bangladesh Army in the Hill Tracts held meetings on insurgency regularly for a Committee that was headed by then Planning Minister AK Khandker, also now the Planning Minister in the Government, in which the Foreign Secreteray was a member. By 1030, agents from DG (NSI) were in the Bag Section inspecting the Box, taking photographs. The Director-General (Administration) who was an officer deputed by the Establishment Division at the behest of the Foreign Minister went down quickly to the Bag Section but by the time he was there, the intelligence agents were already gone.

The next day, there was extensive reporting in the media about the Box with speculation that was farthest from truth. It was also reported in the press that the Government had entrusted the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the matter. A copy of the letter was handed to HRC at the airport when he arrived in Dhaka soon after. I saw a copy of that letter endorsed to the Foreign Secretary where among the terms of reference, it was also mentioned that the Cabinet Secretary could open the Box in presence of the media! The events that surrounded the Box incident bore all the hallmarks of a well-scripted conspiracy from the centre of political power.

Published in The Daily Independent, January 8, 2010