Friday, January 22, 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

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