Friday, January 8, 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

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