The period of Nazrul Islam was memorable for the tennis some of us played encouraged by the Foreign Secretary who was himself a tennis enthusiast and would not miss any opportunity to play the game. When Mohammed Mohsin took over, we continued to play tennis in the tennis court inside the Padma-Maghna State Guest House complex. Nazrul Islam stayed quite sometime after he was relieved of his duties as Foreign Secretary; waiting first for a post that he thought would be fit for a Foreign Secretary and then waiting for the necessary formalities. He was given Soviet Union and while he waited to go to his post, he continued to play tennis with us.
Those days, he lived 2 roads away from me in Dhanmandi R/A. I used to take him to play tennis in my personal car that I drove myself. On way to the tennis court and back, he used to dwell a lot about his tenure as Foreign Secretary. He was particularly upset with the Foreign Minister, who he thought was responsible for the abrupt end of his tenure. Nazrul Islam was also upset that he was given Soviet Union because in the Foreign Ministry, posts like Washington, London and New York were more sought after and for a Foreign Secretary, these posts figured ahead of Moscow in those days as it still does. Those discussions were mostly one sided. I used to interrupt only to remind the former Foreign Secretary that while holding that post how frequently, he would tell me what a great Foreign Minister HRC was and that we should all pray to the Almighty that he was leading the Ministry.
The day Nazrul Islam left for his post is a day that I still recollect critically about my colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, particularly the senior colleagues. When Nazrul Islam fell from the grace of the President, he made very good efforts to remove the distance that he had created with the senior officers of the Ministry when the going was great for him. To a large extent, he had also succeeded. The tennis games also helped bring him closer with these officers. However, while he waited to go to his post and remained an OSD in the Ministry, there was practically no one willing to make an effort to spend some time with him or inquire about his well-being. At the tennis court, I could sense the difference in a manner that was sad. The day he left, I told him that I would be at the airport to see him off. He was touched but in his usual manner, said he would break my leg if he saw me at the airport. Instead, I was at his residence to see him off for the airport, the only officer of the Ministry to be there. M. Mohsin, the Additional Secretary, was the only officer from the Ministry who was at the airport to see off Nazrul Islam.
Our tennis playing days also came to a sad and abrupt end. It ended during the 1988 floods. We were playing tennis under flood light while a press conference was going on in Meghna. A news paper reported the next day that we were playing tennis while the country was facing floods that was brought to the attention of the President. He wasted no time to impose a ban that ended tennis as a game in the Foreign Ministry for good. In taking the decision, he failed to take into account the efforts of the Foreign Ministry in creating an international awareness for the disaster that helped bringing a great deal of assistance to the country. The Foreign Ministry also brought significant amount of cash as donation through the Bangladesh Missions. Almost every day those days, the Foreign Secretary would take a few officers with him as we joined the rest of the country in raising cash and handing it to the President who received it at his office personally. Interestingly, except where flood waters interfered, life and games continued as usual in all the cantonments throughout Bangladesh. The ban on our tennis was imposed to humiliate the Ministry. I could not find then nor now any reason for the ban.
The two centers of the Foreign Ministry, one in Dhaka and the other in New York, manifested itself negatively in 1988 with the election for the Asian seat to the UN Security Council. The Mission in New York decided that Bangladesh would put up its candidature. Malaysia also decided to contest for the one seat in the Asian Group. The Malaysian Government approached us at the Ministry to withdraw on the argument that Bangladesh had contested and won membership of the Security Council for the 1979-81 term while Malaysia had never been a member of the UN Security Council although it had been a UN member longer than Bangladesh. Our Mission in New York did not buy the Malaysian argument. The Malaysians sent a Minister to Dhaka. The Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad wrote a letter to President Ershad requesting Bangladesh to step aside in favour of Malaysia. The Malaysian efforts were futile and even a reply was not sent to the letter of the Malaysian Prime Minister. Early in the race, the Malaysians even proposed a split of the term that we rejected. Our Mission in New York felt confident that in an election, Bangladesh would be able to defeat Malaysia easily, using for argument the fact that for the 1979-81 terms, we had beaten a more formidable candidate, Japan. In the end, it was Malaysia that beat Bangladesh easily leaving us to use a cliché, to eat the humble pie.
It fell upon Mohammad Mohsin to deal with the fall out effects of the Malaysian victory for Malaysia did not take Bangladesh’s gestures to its overtures leading to the election at all positively. Our Ambassador to Washington Ataul Karim, who was also the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was called to Dhaka for consultations. He of course had little to advise the Foreign Ministry for the damage had already been done. At that time, the Malaysian Prime Minister was in hospital and our High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, a Major-General posted on deputation from the Army against a quota of such posts reserved for serving Army generals, was asked to send flowers to the Prime Minister on behalf of the President hoping some sort of a response that never came. The Malaysian side also did not respond to a request from our side for our President to speak with the Malaysian Prime Minister over phone. History repeated itself in 2004 with our relations with Malaysia when we again did to Malaysia what we had done in 1988, only this time with hundreds of thousands of our expatriates working there, the stakes were higher. In a three way contest that also involved Turkey for the post of Secretary-General of the OIC, Malaysia had advised us that we had no chance of winning and requested us to step aside in its favour. We again dismissed that request and lost the election miserably. It may not be difficult to explain why Malaysians are often tough with our expatriates.
Our Security Council debacle in 1988 left a lingering feeling in me about the way we conducted our foreign policy then, not that it has changed in any significant manner now. On important issues, there was very little in terms of professional conduct of foreign policy. The Foreign Ministry had to watch the New York Mission run the Security Council election without even the ability to signal a warning that a debacle was waiting us as the Mission was a power unto itself because of the relationship of the President with the Alternate Permanent Representative of the Mission. In fact, on such issues, professionals in the Foreign Ministry were more often than not dispensed with so casually that sometimes I was led to believe that those who ran the country felt that we had a Foreign Ministry simply because an independent nation had to have one. The Ministry was not expected to do much. There was of course a negative necessity of the Foreign Ministry; it was always there to take the blame when there was a blame to be taken. Between Anisul Islam Mahmud and Mohammed Mohsin, they were able to regain some powers for the Ministry but it was never enough to let the Ministry play a major role in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. As a consequence, our national interests were seldom protected as was evident from the distance that grew between Bangladesh and India during the Ershad era. While that was not bad enough, the influence of Pakistan at the highest level of government, that did not have any influence in furthering our national interests, was clearly visible.
President Ershad’s leadership in foreign affairs had one good influence in a critical area of our foreign relations. He was instrumental in strengthening bilateral relations with China that was done to balance the influence Indo-Soviet axis in the context of Cold War international politics of the period. In his nine years in power, President Ershad paid five state visits to China of which one was undertaken during the period Mohammed Mohsin was the Foreign Secretary. In that period, President Li Xiannian visited Bangladesh in March, 1986 and Premier Li Peng in November, 1989. On his visits, Ershad was well received and the Chinese made us feel that we had a special relationship with them. The distance we kept from the Indo-Soviet axis brought us closer to the United States also that reached a climax when Bangladesh committed troops for the US led coalition against Iraq for invading Kuwait. Unfortunately before Ershad and Bangladesh could cash on that bond of friendship, fate intervened against General Ershad and his grasp on power ended in the face of public wrath.
Published in The Daily Independent, February 19, 2010