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3 months ago

Remembering our freedom-fighter diplomats

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The diplomat Wali-ur Rahman passed away rather quietly last week. It was the end of a career given over to the service of the state of Bangladesh. It was a career which fifty-two years ago became part of national history when Rahman turned his back on the Pakistan foreign service and declared his allegiance to the cause of Bangladesh's freedom. Rahman did what the nation expected a patriot to do, which was to identify with the people in their tough struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

The annals of 1971 are, for a very significant part, the narratives of the Bengali diplomats who did not think twice before making it known where they stood in the darkness that had befallen the Bengali nation. It is this story which Wali-ur Rahman's passing brings home to us once again, a tale that would remind us and enlighten the generations born after the war of the courage our principled diplomats demonstrated in a year which began as our annus horribilis before transforming itself into our annus mirabilis.

Those diplomats who defied circumstances, who were not certain that Bangladesh would be free or when it would be free, have for the most part passed into their graves. A few remain. There is the bravery of K.M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Haq we must not forget, for these two diplomats, based at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi, were the first to defect to Bangladesh. And they did it at a time when the Mujibnagar government was yet to be formed, when the guerrilla struggle for liberation was yet to take shape. Shehabuddin and Haq had little idea of where the future would take them, but they took the plunge.

And like them a good number of others would take the plunge as the war gained in intensity. Abul Hasan Mahmood Ali, the young diplomat based in New York, decided in late April to abandon the Pakistan foreign service. He had precious little idea of when, if at all, Bangladesh would be free. But patriotism underscored his act, as it did for Abul Fateh, the senior Bengali diplomat who was ambassador in Iraq. Syed Amirul Islam declared his allegiance to Bangladesh in Tunis. The point was not missed by these diplomats: they could not morally be in the service of a government that was busy murdering their compatriots in occupied Bangladesh.

An articulate exponent for Bangladesh abroad at the time was Mohiuddin Ahmed. He was part of the Pakistan mission in London, but in August 1971 he electrified the crowds at Trafalgar Square with his passionate defence of Bangladesh's cause and his decision to link his fortunes to those of his suffering country. And then there was M.M. Rezaul Karim, also in London, who walked out of the Pakistan mission to identify with the Bengali cause. When Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived in London after his release from Pakistan in January 1972, it was Rezaul Karim, Mohiuddin Ahmed and Mohiuddin Ahmed Jaigirdar who received him at Heathrow.

All our diplomats who dispensed with their lives of comfort in the service of Pakistan and chose the uncertainty that was at the time associated with the Bangladesh war are part of national history. On a larger scale, their heroism in that year of all-encompassing darkness should be a chapter in the training of young men and women who through the Bangladesh Civil Service examinations regularly are selected for the nation's foreign service. These diplomats of 1971 are points of light.

And observe the richness they added to Bangladesh's history through their patriotic acts. Hossain Ali, Pakistan's deputy high commissioner in Calcutta, went over to the Bangladesh cause on 18 April, a day after the Mujibnagar government took charge of the struggle. A significant chapter in the history of Bengali diplomacy was written in August 1971, when Enayet Karim, SAMS Kibria, Abu Rushd Matinuddin, Syed Muazzem Ali, Ataur Rahman Chowdhury, AM Sharful Alam and Sheikh Rustam Ali walked out of the Pakistan mission in Washington and proclaimed their loyalty to Bangladesh.

SA Karim, at the time part of the Pakistan mission at the United Nations, did a similar act. Two Bengali ambassadors --- KK Panni and Abdul Momin --- quit the Pakistan foreign service and placed their services with the Mujibnagar government. Humayun Rashid Chowdhury in Delhi and Mustafizur Rahman in Kathmandu did not hesitate to walk over into the Bangladesh camp. AMA Muhith, in Washington, shed his links with Pakistan and joined the struggle for Bangladesh.

Such are the chronicles of Bangladesh's diplomacy in the year when it mattered the most. Wali-ur Rahman's passing is a reminder to the nation of the enhanced moral and political strength injected into the War of Liberation through the selfless and courageous acts of these diplomats. None of these diplomats knew when the country would be free. None of them knew if there would be a time when they could go home to their liberated country or would be destined to spend the rest of their lives in exile abroad. But all of them knew that the nation, their people, needed them in that hour when state terrorism unleashed by the Yahya Khan regime held Bangladesh in its sinister grip.

Post-1971, these diplomats would render admirable service to the country despite the many political convulsions it went through. Many would do honour to the country through rising to ambassadorial positions and serving the nation abroad. Some others would become foreign secretaries. A good number of them, following their retirement from service, would move into newer spheres with newer contributions to buttress their love of the land.

A few of them would go into politics. Some would associate themselves with think tanks or give shape to think tanks. Some others would write columns for newspapers, articles aimed at enlightening readers on the critical issues confronting the country. On television talk shows and at seminars a fairly good number of them would focus on national history, reminding citizens of the ethos of Bangladesh as it was conceived in the flames of war.

In December, it is for citizens to study the careers of these diplomats and recount the hard times they lived through and the tough decisions they took in a season when the skies showed little of sunlight for Bangladesh. For Wali-ur Rahman, for all his fellow freedom-fighter diplomats, our gratitude remains abiding. They were part of the generation that reconfigured history. It is our collective responsibility to keep that history alive, in eternal brilliance.

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