Saturday, June 14, 2014

The unforgettable Mahbubul Alam: A giant among his peers


A month or so ago, I was watching from Washington, a Bangladesh television channel’s talk show in which Mr. Mahbubul Alam, Mahbub Bhai to many of us, was the only guest. I was shocked at his emaciated appearance. He of course spoke in his usual easy manner and explained what he wanted to explain in a way that was his trademark; the ability to tell the hardest truth while not losing his charming smile and easy manner. After the show, I called my daughter’s father-in-law Mr. Ziaur Rahman, Zia Bhai, a well-known former senior editor of the Voice of America who knew Mahbub Bhai, as a close friend and conveyed to him my concerns about him.

Zia Bhai had called him soon afterwards after I conveyed to him my concern.  Mahbub Bhai had told him that he was doing fine and that he had been to Bangkok where the doctors had given him a clean bill of health. A day before he died, Zia Bhai called me to inform me that his wife had called him to tell him that Mahbub Bhai was at the ICU of a hospital in Dhaka and was fighting for his life and that she and their 3 daughters were leaving for Bangladesh. Sadly, before they could reach Dhaka, Mahbub Bhai had passed away.

I knew Mahbub Bhai as a Foreign Service officer. Although he was one of the most outstanding career journalists in the country’s history, he had also distinguished himself in the foreign service that he served both at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka and also in the Bangladesh missions aboard.  At the Ministry, he was a Director-General (External Publicity) and at the missions, he was  Press Counsellor in London,  Press Counsellor in Washington and later he was sent to Washington for the second time as  Press Minister. When I was posted to Washington in 1990, Mahbub Bhai was already posted there as the Press Minister. Mahbub Bhai was also the Bangladesh Ambassador to Bhutan.

Mahbub Bhai was a more capable and distinguished diplomat than many who have served in the Bangladesh Foreign Service as career diplomats. In Washington, a capital that is the hardest for a Bangladeshi diplomat dealing with the press and media, Mahbub Bhai distinguished himself like no one had before him and no one since. He had mastered the most important attribute of diplomats that is building personal contacts with those in the host country who they considered would be helpful to them to further their country’s interests in their areas of responsibilities.

In 1992, I saw the ability of Mahbub Bhai when the then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia visited the United States on an official trip. He utilized his contacts that he had painstakingly built to get the Prime Minister publicity that money could not buy. He was able to get the Prime Minister interviewed both in the Washington Post and the New York Times that underlined the brilliance of his abilities as Press Minister. He was able to get the interviews in those prestigious papers because he had from the day he arrived in Washington built the contacts with the papers so that he would be able to get publicity for VVIP visits to the United States. The two papers interviewed the Prime Minister more because of the personal contacts of Mahbub Bhai with the papers than because of their interests in either Bangladesh or the Prime Minister.

I remember Mahbub Bhai on the first VVIP visit we made together. It was the visit of President HM Ershad to Fiji to attend the Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGRM) in 1981. I joined that visit from Canberra where I was then the Second Secretary. Mahbub Bhai was then the Director-General (EP) in the Foreign Ministry. That visit was HM Ershad’s first visit overseas as the country’s Head of State. In Fiji, being his first participation in a high profile meeting, the President was naturally not at ease.

The Foreign Minister was the high profile HMS Doha. There were army officers aplenty in that delegation of President HM Ershad and the poor civilians were constantly being watched for their performance. Mahbub Bhai was unperturbed and in the company of Abul Ahsan, who was on that trip as the Additional Foreign Secretary, underlined the high quality of the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as professional diplomats. I did not see Mahbub Bhai tense or worried even for a fleeting moment and he performed his duties and responsibilities like “business as usual.”

Zia Bhai told  me many stories about Mahbub Bhai the journalist. In particular, he told me how highly he was rated in the Pakistan days. He was the Bureau Chief of the Dawn, at that time Pakistan’s leading newspaper, to New Delhi during the India-Pakistan war of 1965. His reports from New Delhi were the talk of entire Pakistan at the informed circles because they provided the most detailed and in depth coverage of that war from the Indian perspective. In particular, his reports of the debates in the Lok Sabha during the war had made him a star in the media circles of Pakistan. Earlier, his coverage of news about the death of Pandit Jahwarlal Nehru and the event of his funeral had earned him the attention and respect of readers of Pakistan, both East and West. 

I found Mahbub Bhai’s public exposure as the Information Adviser to the Caretaker Government before the emergency was declared in January 2007 as so positive that it made me proud to have known him personally. In the short time he was in that role, Mahbub Bhai distinguished himself and impressed everybody by the way he would talk to the media. These days, we see our Ministers make a mockery of their meeting with the media. If they would care to take the videos of Mahbub Bhai’s meetings with the media during his short tenure as the Information Adviser that must be in the archives of the private TV channels, and studied those, they would have so much to learn. One major lesson they could learn from the life of Mahbub Bhai is how to establish authority and earn respect without showing arrogance or pride.

I started to write my column in The Independent primarily because of Mahbub Bhai’s encouragement and that of another colleague of his Golam Tahboor. At one time, between the two, they had gathered a team in The Independent that was talented enough to challenge any newspaper in the country. I spent many hours at his office with Tahboor Bhai talking of the possibilities of the paper. Sadly those promises were not fulfilled, not at all because of Mahbub Bhai but because of the lack of vision of those who needed to give his talents and leadership abilities due recognition.

I met Mahbub Bhai last year in Washington where he would come on a yearly visit every year, as his three daughters live here. On these visits, Zia Bhai would always arrange a dinner for him at his house together with common friends of the two in Washington. Zia Bhai arranged the last meal we had together as a lunch at a restaurant as Mahbub Bhai was unable to give time for the dinner. We chatted for a long time mainly about common friends and of course about the politics of Bangladesh. 

Among those I know and have known, Mahbub Bhai had the most rational and analytical assessment of politics of Bangladesh without the biasness over which most of us are unable to rise. He was not happy with the political situation and believed that we all had a duty to ensure that the country’s current tryst with the type of negative and destructive politics we are now witnessing in the country must end.Gustav Flaubert had said that “a friend who dies; it’s something of you who dies.” Mahbub Bhai had many friends and admirers.  I have no doubt that in them, as in me; it is a part of us that has died in the passage of Mahbub Bhai from the material world to the world of eternity. May  Almighty Allah rest his soul in eternal peace.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and his email id is

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