Our freedom-fighter diplomats

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Mujibnagar Government

April is that time of year when we recall the brave men who carried the torch for the future in 1971. Among those men who reassured us, despite all the uncertainty associated with a war we never sought but were burdened with by Pakistan, were K.M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Haq. They were young, they were junior diplomats at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi when the Pakistan occupation army launched its genocide in what was then East Pakistan. Neither they nor the seventy five million people of Bangladesh knew at the time if or when Bangladesh would become a free state. And yet Shehabuddin and Haq did the unimaginable: they repudiated Pakistan on 6 April 1971.

Go back in time. Your sense of history will inform you that when Shehabuddin and Haq revolted, the Mujibnagar government-in-exile had not yet taken shape. No one knew where Tajuddin Ahmed was at that point. There was simply no trace of Syed Nazrul Islam or Mansoor Ali or A.H.M Quamruzzaman. For that matter, the world did not know if Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had made his way out of Dhaka or had been abducted by the Pakistan army. At a time when reports of widespread atrocities in Bangladesh were filtering out to the outside world, it was quite possible that Bangabandhu was dead, at the hands of the Pakistan army.

This morning, therefore, it is our moral responsibility to salute K.M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Haq for the sheer bravery they demonstrated in early April 1971. Their act opened a window. They informed the world that Bangladesh, even as it waited for its sovereign parameters to take shape, was preparing to go on a diplomatic offensive. That battle was carried many miles further when Hossain Ali, Pakistan’s deputy high commissioner in Calcutta, turned his back on Pakistan on 18 April, a day after the formation of the Mujibnagar government, and with 65 Bengali officers and employees of the mission, switched allegiance to Bangladesh. Forty seven years on, it is our singular pride to recall that seminal moment when Hossain Ali formally hoisted the Bangladesh flag in Calcutta and proceeded forth along the route set on 6 April by Shehabuddin and Amjadul Haq.

All these years after what was truly a momentous year for us, it is time to enlighten the young as it is time to remind those of our generation suffering from selective amnesia of the superhuman efforts expended by Bengali warriors on various fronts in highlighting the national struggle for freedom before the world. Bengali diplomats played a pivotal role in that struggle. You admire their sense of patriotism. More than that, you keep reminding yourself of the grave risks they put themselves and their families to by rejecting the state of Pakistan at a time when none of us was sure when freedom would dawn or if it would dawn at all. Their larger families were in the occupied land --- parents, siblings and others --- and could easily be put through horrible suffering by Pakistan’s soldiers. Human frailties are natural. All too often, it is the probable consequences of our actions which stay our hand. And we do not go forth into the region of the unknown.

But these brave Bengali diplomats plunged into the dark in their sheer belief that at the end of it all there surely was light somewhere. As Pakistan’s vice consul in New York, A.H. Mahmood Ali could have held himself back from going over to Bangladesh. He did not do that. On 25 April, he quit the Pakistan foreign service and allied himself with the Bangladesh cause. Do not forget that Ali, Shehabuddin, Haq and Hossain Ali were all young. Note too the idealism in them, the same that spurred A.M.A. Muhith, economic counsellor at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, into rebellion against Pakistan on 30 June. When men like Muhith spurned Pakistan, the world paid attention. And, yes, the world paid greater attention when, on 1 August, Mohiuddin Ahmed, then with the Pakistan high commission in London, delivered a riveting speech at Trafalgar Square to tell people around the world why Bangladesh was waging war to be free.

K.M. Shehabuddin, having performed well as Bangladesh’s diplomat at various critical points on the globe, did a fine job of recording the history of our diplomatic struggle for freedom in 1971. If you have not gone through There and Back Again: A Diplomat’s Tale (published by The University Press in 2006), it is time you did. For it speaks of the calculated dangers men like Abul Fateh, Pakistan’s ambassador in Iraq, plunged into through their rejection of Pakistan. Fateh went over to Bangladesh on 21 August. Ten days earlier the Pakistani junta had placed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on trial in camera before a military tribunal. M.M. Rezaul Karim, who would in January 1972 receive a free Bangabandhu in London, declared his solidarity with Bangladesh on 7 October. One of the more momentous happenings in the fledgling country’s diplomacy occurred on 4 August when Enayet Karim, Shah A.M.S. Kibria, Abu Rushd Matinuddin, Syed Moazzem Ali, Ataur Rahman Chowdhury, A.M. Sharful Alam and Sheikh Rustam Ali walked out of the Pakistan mission in Washington and joined the Bangladesh movement. S.A. Karim left Pakistan’s UN mission and strode over to Bangladesh. On 14 September, K.K. Panni, ambassador to the Philippines, repudiated Pakistan. Pakistan’s ambassador to Argentina, Abdul Momin, followed suit about a month later, on 11 October. On 3 October, Mustafizur Rahman deserted Pakistan’s mission in Kathmandu; Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, based in Delhi, went over to the Bangladesh camp on 4 October. Waliur Rahman did so on 2 November.

These men blazed a trail ... in all-encompassing darkness.

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