Published in The Independent; May 7th 2010
I was discussing recently about Abul Ahsan with Jamil Majid, a friend and colleague whether he had stories to tell me that I could write here. Jamil Majid told me that there are so many stories about the man that I would need much larger space to write it all. There were few stories that I have heard from Abul Ahsan himself that spoke of the character of the man and his skills as a diplomat.
One of these stories occurred when Abul Ahsan was a Director-General in the Foreign Ministry at a time when Bangabandhu was leading Bangladesh. Those days, it was quite usual for officers of the level of a Director-General in the Foreign Ministry to be frequently called by Bangabandhu for briefing. As Abul Ahsan was going to Bangobhavan one day, he was called by then Foreign Secretary Enayet Karim who himself was with Bangabandhu early that day. He told Abul Ahsan to be fully prepared with answers to complaints the Prime Minister would surely have for him about the Ambassador to Kabul, M. Sultan, the country’s senior diplomat belonging to the erstwhile PFS batch of 1949, the first batch of ex-PFS officers. The Prime Minister, as Enayet Karim filled Abul Ahsan in, had received a report through the intelligence officer in Kabul that the Ambassador was in the habbit of expressing loose comments, some even about the Prime Minister.
As soon as Abul Ahsan faced Bangabandhu that day, the Prime Minister started the conversation angrily with the name the name of M. Sultan. Before the Prime Minister could say more, Abul Ahsan in a style that was his own, mixing partially the Noakhali dialect with some English, told Bangabandhu that Ambassador Sultan was doing an excellent job as High Commissioner to London. Impatiently, Bangabandhu stopped Abul Ahsan, reminding him that he was not talking of the High Commissioner whom he knew very well and also that he was doing an excellent job in London. He went on to say he was talking of M. Sultan in Afghanistan. Again Abul Ahsan sought Bangabandhu’s indulgence and told him that M. Sultan hero-worshipped him (Bangabandhu boltay oggayan) and frequently called him from Kabul to express his deep regards for Bangabandhu. Those words hit a sympathetic chord in Bangabandhu who smiled, adding that it was nothing unexpected as the whole nation felt the same way about him. By then Abul Ahsan had achieved what he wanted; a pause to Bangabandhu’s wrath. He then listened to Bangabandhu’s complaint against Ambassador Sultan. Abul Ahsan agreed with him but added that unknown to Bangabandhu but known to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Sultan had been having problem with his intelligence officer who wrote the report against the Ambassador to put him in trouble. At Abul Ahsan’s suggestion, Bangabandhu agreed that an investigation into the matter should be held to find out the truth. By then, Abul Ahsan had succeeded in saving Ambassador Sultan from serious trouble which in the least could have been premature recall to Dhaka. For Abul Ahsan, being forewarned was being forearmed that day and he used his diplomatic skill to good purpose in the case of Bangabandhu’s wrath on Ambassador Sultan. In fact, he had that uncanny ability of dealing with people at all levels who could not help being convinced by him by his cool disposition and matter of fact approach to serious issues.
Soon after he joined as Foreign Secretary and was staying in the Railway Rest House temporarily, there was a burglary in which his wife lost jewelry, apart from the family being at risk during the act. He was in office next day, and it was business as usual. It was only later in the day that I learnt about the burglary from his driver. On another occasion, a young niece of his had died during the night as a result of complication while using an inhaler for her asthma. He was in office as usual the next morning; attended to all his office engagements; went to his niece’s burial in between without anyone except me knowing about the tragedy. It was, however, not all praise for Abul Ahsan. There were individuals who held critical views of the man because despite his cool disposition, Abul Ahsan held strong views on issues and individuals and was often, uncompromising . One of them was no one less a person than Saifur Rahman, the former Finance Minister of Bangladesh. Saifur Rahman would refer to one incident in particular to express his displeasure about Abul Ahsan. At that time, Abul Ahsan was posted at the London High Commission as the Deputy High Commissioner. Saifur Rahman was on a visit with his wife and they were staying at a hotel near the High Commission. Saifur Rahman was then a Minister in the cabinet of President Ziaur Rahman. Saifur Rahman had asked Abul Ahsan whether the hotel was safe to keep a small bag with valuables, and unknown to Abul Ahsan, jewelry of his wife. Abul Ahsan in his usual style had told the Minister that it was safe. The small bag was lost. The Minister never forgave Abul Ahsan although the latter’s simple contention was that the Minister never told him what was in the bag and in any case it was not his duty as a senior officer of the High Commission to keep track of the Minister’s personal baggage.
Abul Ahsan could take major decisions nonchalantly as the simplest ones. At the time Abul Ahsan became the Foreign Secretary, AHG Mohiuddin was virtually the head of the New York Mission although he was officially the Alternate Permanent Representative with Ataul Karim, then Ambassador in Washington, the Permanent Representative as an additional charge. Ataul Karim used to travel occasionally to New York but in reality, the New York Mission was in AHG’s charge. The Foreign Minster and the Foreign Secretary decided that it would be in the interest of the Ministry to make AHG the Permanent Representative. That would bring AHG on the side of the Ministry and also make the President happy. One afternoon, Abul Ahsan called me to his room and casually asked me who was in charge in New York? I replied spontaneously that it was AHG in charge there for all practical purpose. The Foreign Secretary, with a smile on his face, added that if that was the case, why we can’t make him the Permanent Representative. Without waiting for my answer, he told me to prepare a summary for the President. Soon afterwards, a summary was before the Foreign Secretary, prepared elsewhere and placed before him by Anawarul Karim Chowdhury (AKC), then Director-General who was not particularly liked by the President, together with another one seeking the President’s permission for AKC to join a D level post under UNICEF. In case of AHG though, the elevation was short-lived because not long after he was made the Permanent Representative, Ershad Government fell and AGH was eased out of service. In AKC’s case, he went on to start a UN career that eventually took him to the level of an Under Secretary General of the UN with some at the UN even viewing him as a potential candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations when the Asian Group was looking for a successor to Kofi Anan.
AKC was one of the brightest multilateral diplomats of Bangladesh. While he was the DPR in New York, he chaired the committee that awarded UNFPA’s United Nations Population Award for a year I cannot recollect. The Committee awarded the prize to Bangladesh. It was later reported to the President by our Mission in New York that the Prize could have been awarded to him that did not happen because AKC did not want that who chaired the Committee that awarded the prize. The truth was never found out but so far the President was concerned; he had no doubt about AKC’s alleged role in the matter. It was good that between Abul Ahsan and the Foreign Minister, they were able to get AKC out of the Ministry in return for making AHG the Permanent Representative in New York. The duo of the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary were also silently working with the President to bring the Foreign Ministry back into contention and were succeeding to some extent.
It was during Abul Ahsan’s tenure that the Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Bangladesh that stressed the close relationship between the two countries. In fact, during Ershad’s long stint in power, where he took the major foreign policy decisions, often with negative consequences, there were some successes too. It was during his era that Bangladesh strengthened its strategic relationship with China, himself visiting China 5 times and being received each time with warmth by the Chinese. By the middle of 1990, it looked like the Foreign Ministry had turned a corner and was moving in the direction that would soon place it in charge of conducting the country’s foreign relations that, thanks to a jealous civil service, had been fragmented and given to a number of Ministries/Division where the Foreign Ministry was a small stakeholder. That was an issue of great regret to many of us who had joined the Foreign Service to be in the company of diplomats like Abul Ahsan, AKH Morshed, SAMS Kibria , all of whom topped in their respective central superior service exam, to lead the country in foreign affairs as the Foreign Ministry had done just after independence. In our imagination was also the role that the Foreign Service had played in British India whose traditions led to the establishment of our own Foreign Service cadre. Annada Shankar Ray, writing about the Foreign Secretary of that period, described him as special even among the elites; using the Bengali term most “koolin” for him because he was the only Secretary who had direct access to the Viceroy. Other Secretaries of that period had access to the Viceroy only through the concerned Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council or if the Viceroy called them himself. Among those who held the post of Foreign Secretary were such giants of history as Sir Mortimer Durand; Sir Henry McMahon and Sir Alfred Lyall. In India and Pakistan, the Foreign Secretary still has an eminent position in Government. In Bangladesh, with marginalization of the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Secretary is just another Secretary whom his peers can and often does bypass at will.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org