Bengali Ambassadors par excellence

First Ambassador to switch allegiance transfers over £25,000 of Pakistan Government money to Mujibnagar Shorkar

At the Ambassador level, Abul Fazal Muhammad (AFM) Abul Fateh who was posted in Baghdad, Iraq, was the first Bengali Ambassador to declare allegiance to Bangladesh in extraordinary circumstances on 29 August 1971.

  • A. F. M. (Abul Fazal Muhammad) Abul Fateh (1924 - 1920) Ambassador in Pakistani Embassy in Baghdad. First Bengali Ambassador to declare allegiance to Bangladesh. Born in Kishorganj. Went to Ramkrishna High English School. Achieved Masters in English literature from Dhaka University. Joined first batch of Pakistan Foreign Service (1949) and held important positions in Pakistani embassies in different countries, including France, India and America. Ambassador of Pakistan in Iraq (1970-1971). Switched allegiance in 1971 and became Adviser to the Acting President of Bangladesh (1971-1972). Later role included first Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh (1971-1972), Ambassador of Bangladesh in France (1972-1976) and to UNESCO (1974-1976), High Commissioner for Bangladesh in UK (1976-1977) and Ambassador of Bangladesh in Algeria (1977-1982). His two years in London (1976-1977) saw him chairing the Commonwealth Conference on Human Ecology and Development and the Bangladesh government approved his recommendation that dual citizenship be permitted. Retired in 1982 and lived with wife in Dhaka for 10 years before settling in London to be near their two sons. Died in London, UK on 4 December 2010 with old-age complications.

AFM Abul Fateh joined the first batch of Pakistan Foreign Service in 1949, two years after the creation of Pakistan. During his career in the Pakistan Foreign Office and Missions abroad, he was posted in different capacities in Paris (1951), Calcutta (1953-56), Washington DC (1956-60), Prague (1965-66) and New Delhi (1966-67). He was Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 1968 to 1970. In late 1970 he moved to Baghdad as Ambassador of Pakistan to Iraq and his Kolkata role was given to M. Hossain Ali.

In those days the Iraqi President was Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, but real power laid in the hands of his nephew-in-law and Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Saddam Hussein. The political environment within which Abul Fateh operated on a day-to-day basis was very volatile and tense. The events in East Pakistan in March-April 1971 would provide a stern assessment of AFM Abul Fateh's character and ability.

The formation of the Mujibnagar Shorkar had a profound effect on Abul Fateh. Vice-President Syed Nazrul Islam was a close university friend, whilst Hussain Ali who succeeded him promptly defected. Had he remained in Kolkata for few more months that could easily have been him. Nevertheless, after 17 April 1971 many diplomats began to switch allegiance though no Bengali ambassador had joined them till then. This was about to change.

On 25 March 1971 [actual broadcast took place on 26th March], my father summoned me and my younger brother Eenasul to my parents’ bedroom to listen to what was being billed as an important broadcast by General Yahya Khan, the military President of Pakistan. In slurred tones – the product presumably of the whisky of which he was overly fond – Yahya announced the end of political negotiations by his regime with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. My father made no comment in front of me, and I left the room. Over the months to come before the defection, I would read in the foreign press and hear on the BBC World Service about the mass killings and other atrocities being perpetrated by the Pakistani army and its collaborators in the future Bangladesh. My father from time to time would ask what I thought about what was happening, but at no time did he indicate to anyone other than my mother what his own views were on the genocide of his people.

Anatul Fateh, elder son of AFM Abul Fateh

Green signal received from Mujibnagar Shorkar via Indian Ambassador's wife

Late one evening in July 1971, the wife of KRP Singh, Indian Ambassador in Iraq, arrived at the official residence of Abul Fateh in the pleasant suburb of Al Mansur City. This was not such uncommon practise. Though relations between India and Pakistan were strained, diplomatic niceties were still being maintained. Mrs Singh's sudden visit was interpretated as a social call by one ambassador's wife on another. However, surprisingly, she came to see Abul Fateh rather than his wife Mahfuza Fateh. When he appeared, she handed him an envelope which contained a letter signed by the members of the Mujibnagar cabinet requesting his cooperation and asking him to join the liberation movement. Arrangements for the safe withdrawal of him and his family from Iraq would be handled by the Indians.

Amongst the signatories were three of of his old friends from university days - Syed Nazrul Islam (now Acting President of Bangladesh), Tajuddin Ahmad (Prime Minister), and Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed (Foreign Minister). As the three main people within the Mujibnagar Shorkar their signatures were a powerful indication of how strongly they wanted Abul Fateh to be a part of the Bangladesh Government-in-exile. However, according to his son Anatul, Abul Fateh did not want a formal position within the Mujibnagar Shorkar and thus agreed to become an 'Adviser' - "somewhere between a Minister and a Secretary" as Anatul explains. Abul Fateh also agreed to become "Ambassador-at-Large", a subsidiary title which was used to show that he was able to represent the government abroad. Thus, on reading out the letter and without even speaking to his wife who was sitting beside him, and with whom he usually would consult on all important decisions, AFM Abul Fateh said "yes" and counter-signed the letter. Mrs Singh promptly departed with the letter, ending a visit lasting less than ten minutes.

My parents were now in a difficult position. There could be no doubt that the Iraqi government, which was anxious to have friendly ties with the Pakistani government after a minor spat over alleged support by Iraq of Baluch rebels in western Pakistan, would hand over my father to Pakistan at the first hint of support by him of the cause of Bangladesh. But at the same time how could he leave Iraq with his whole family, freely and without suspicion?

Anatul on his father's dilemma

Following this dramatic event, AFM Abul Fateh carried on with his diplomatic duties as normal. To avoid arousing suspicion, especially since it was common for diplomats to be watched from time to time by Iraqi security services, he continued to put forward the views of the Pakistani military regime to other foreign ambassadors and government officials in Baghdad. His cool exterior had even fooled his own personal secretary, a fellow Bengali, who gifted Abul Fateh an expensive pen set, possibly in the hope of luring him to a more passionate stance on the Bangladesh issue.

But behind the scene Abul Fateh was quietly busy putting all the pieces to the jigsaw together. He arranged for his 14-year-old elder son Anatul Fateh to be given tuition at the Baghdad University. This further demonstrated to the Pakistani officials that he was settled in his job whilst in reality it was a decoy. Abul Fateh was busy arranging the safe departure of his family.

During this time, my father spoke to the Iraqi Health Minister – one of the few women in senior positions in Iraq – to secure some local tuition for me in Physics and Chemistry, subjects in which for many years I had not studied. The Health Minister arranged that I would go to Baghdad University to be taught by the Dean himself of that institution. Consequently, at under 14 years of age I started making regular visits to Baghdad University. My father even was present as an honoured chief guest and prize-giver at the main annual event of the university. Unknown to me, my father was using my regular visits to Baghdad University, which indicated that he felt comfortable in Baghdad, as part of the smokescreen of his true intentions.

Small was the number of people who were apprised of his intended defection: my mother, members of the Indian and Bangladeshi cabinets, a few Indian intelligence officials, and of course Mr and Mrs KRP Singh and a few others in the Indian Embassy in Baghdad. My father would meet Indian Embassy intelligence personnel secretly from time to time. Armed with a flashlight to signal his presence, he would leave our house in Al-Mansur City late at night and go to a small nearby park, then return with his contact to discuss and make the arrangements for our family’s departure. I remember waking up once in my first floor bedroom in the small hours of the morning, and hearing voices. I went to the top of the staircase and looked down towards the lit doorway of the study, from where the voices came. Too sleepy to think much of this, I went back to bed.

AFM Abul Fateh's covert mission

Abul Fateh's decision process was accelerated when the Pakistani Foreign Minister summoned a gathering of regional Pakistani ambassadors, including him, in Tehran, Iran where a meeting of the Central Treaty Organisation (an alliance of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan) would be taking place. This shocked the Indians, who feared that Abul Fateh was under suspicion and would not return from Tehran to Baghdad. But the summons could not be refused. An abrupt, drastic change in plans was needed.

Abul Fateh informed his officers that he would take his official car and travel by road from Baghdad to Tehran - a distance of 700 km. His date of departure was to be 15 August 1971 - a day after Pakistan's 24th anniversary.

Money transfer

Before leaving for Tehran, Abul Fateh cleared out £25,000 - from Pakistan Embassy bank account in Baghdad and transferred it to the provisional Government.

The money in the account was held in Iraqi Dinars and according to his son Anatul Fateh it was worth around £28,000 and not £25,000 as is often quoted. In those days Iraq had not yet undergone the great oil boom and there were tight exchange controls on the Iraqi Dinar. This encouraged the growth of the black market and Anatul believes it may have been possible that the £28,000 was valued at £25,000 at the black market, and hence the reason why this is often misquoted as the figure that his dad had transferred.

The embassy’s bank account was with the Karradat Mariam branch of Rafidain Bank, and my father as ambassador was able to transact over his sole signature. My father informed the bank manager that he would need to withdraw the embassy’s funds, and would come a little before the bank closed. There was some construction work at the embassy, and my father showed such interest in it that the appointed time with the bank passed. My father then turned up a quarter-hour after the bank closed. He knew that the bank manager would wait for the Pakistani Ambassador, and that the lateness of the hour would ensure there were no witnesses. My father withdrew the entirety of the embassy’s funds, totalling the equivalent of £28,000 (a substantial sum in those days), and departed home. Fortunately, as it appears, the bank manager did not report this rather unusual transaction immediately to the attention of the Iraqi authorities, who would certainly have been curious. The money came to be allocated via the Indian Embassy to the use of the Mujibnagar government.

The risky task of transferring the money

The great escape to London

The day came. Abul Fateh set off with his driver on the road to Tehran. As they approached the Iranian border, Abul Fateh feigned chest pains and ordered his driver to take him back home. They arrived back in Al-Mansur City in the evening and Abul Fateh told his driver that he was feeling much better but he'd make his own arrangement to leave the next day by plane. The driver was no longer needed, he could go to his own home. Nevertheless, the driver contacted the First Secretary in the Pakistan embassy and informed him of this development. The First Secretary tried ringing Abul Fateh on several occassions but he did not pick the phone up.

I was surprised to see my father back, but he went up to my parents’ bedroom and lay down on the bed without a word to me. My mother told my brother and me that my father was not feeling well. After some time he came down. Our two domestic staff members, as it happened both Bengalis, were given the evening off with some money to see a movie in a local cinema. They went out of the main house to their quarters at the back, and my mother locked the back door.

My parents then summoned my brother and me to their bedroom. Calmly my father informed us that we were leaving Iraq that evening for London, because he was joining the Bangladesh freedom movement. Everything was ready for us to go, but meanwhile we must not answer any phone calls to the house.

There were several phone calls that night to our house, to the ringing of which I listened with great apprehension. I did not know it at the time, but my father’s driver had contacted the First Secretary in the embassy, and informed him how the Ambassador had returned and that my father would need to take a plane the next day to Tehran. The First Secretary was most concerned, and was trying to reach my father both to check on his health and to take instructions for the flight to Tehran. Fortunately, after his unsuccessful calls, the First Secretary did not decide to visit our house just yet.

Anatul Fateh on their late night drama

Abul Fateh met with the Indians at their usual rendezvous place and returned home with his contact. Soon afterwards a van drew up to their house and loaded their things which would be shipped out. A large black car also arrived and once their front door was locked, Abul Fateh, his wife, and two sons Anatul Fateh and Eenasul Fateh (then only 12 years old) were driven off to the Indian Embassy. Following dinner with Ambassador KRP Singh, his wife and other Indians, the family set off once again trying to cross into Kuwait. Once they reached the border after dawn on 16 August 1971 they were permitted to enter Kuwait by the border officer, who was a Pakistani working as an Indian agent.

A vast and elaborate buffet had been laid out in the garden for our dinner. The Indian Ambassador, his wife, and the other Indians present plied all four of us with attention, seemingly unable sufficiently to express the joy and honour they were declaring they felt by our presence. Unfortunately, I at least had lost all appetite.

The dinner to me seemed interminable. But eventually we climbed back into our assigned car, which was preceded by another carrying an Indian intelligence officer. We set off for the border with Kuwait.

The sounds of frogs and insects accompanied us as we made our dark journey through the Basra marshes to the border with Kuwait. Every now and then lights from other vehicles would shine behind or before us, leading me each time to wonder if the Iraqi security services had discovered our flight and would stop us. Soon after dawn on 16 August 1971 we reached the Iraqi border post.

Our timing was good, because we were among the first travellers of the day. Our intelligence man got out of his car, and took our family’s Pakistani diplomatic passports. I was horrified. Whatever would the border officials think when the Pakistani ambassador’s passport was presented alongside an Indian diplomatic passport? I decided that I would rather face discovery at the desk than await our fate passively in our car. So I accompanied the intelligence officer into the post.

My horror increased as my companion warmly greeted the border official to whom he handed all the passports, and then laughingly told me that the official was a Pakistani. The official laughed with him. Then I realised what was happening. The Pakistani was working as an agent of Indian intelligence, and was present to ensure we got over the border safely. As it transpired, he also ensured that there was no Iraqi record of our family’s exit that morning through that post.

Anatul on crossing over to Kuwait

Thankfully for Abul Fateh and his family no Iraqi official wandered up to inquire why two diplomatic cars were present at the post so early in the morning. They drove into Kuwait City to the local office of Indian Airlines where the manager was already instructed to keep the 'special visitors' away from public eye. They were confined to the back rooms of the office and finally driven to Kuwait Airport were seats had been readied on a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation - now known as British Airways) flight to London.

Meanwhile, after gaining no response to his several phone calls, the First Secretary of the Pakistan Embassy and the military attaché turned up at Abul Fateh's house in Al-Mansur City only to find the domestic staff waiting outside, locked out. Two officers broke into the house and found it empty. Panic stricken, they rushed to inform the Pakistani and Iraqi governments of the Ambassador's disappearance. It was not long before they also discovered that the embassy’s bank account had been cleaned out.

As my father later was told by the Iraqi Ambassador in Paris (who at the time was head of the Foreign Ministry), the Iraqi government had a collective fit. They and the Pakistani regime of course suspected strongly that my father had defected to the Bangladesh movement, but they had no information of where we had gone. The Iraqis also suspected that we might have been taken by Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, whether voluntarily or as bargaining chips. The entire Iraqi intelligence network was ordered as a matter of the highest priority to search for us throughout the country. At the same time, Baghdad Airport and planes awaiting departure from it were searched, and planes that had departed were recalled on some pretext and also searched.

Both Iraqi and Pakistani governments panic over 'defector' Abul Fateh

Back in Kuwait, Abul Fateh and his family turned up at the BOAC counter in Kuwait Airport. A BOAC agent checked the passenger list against the passports and found their name was missing. However, an Indian Assistant Manager hastened to the desk and waved away the agent. Their names replaced four false names on the passenger list and they were escorted to their seats.

Their flight touched down at London's Heathrow Airport later that afternoon and ended their turmoil in Iraq.

Iraqi agents were plentiful in Kuwait, and Indian intelligence had made every effort to hide our departure from Kuwait Airport... I have never been so grateful for a touchdown as I was then, and I imagine the relief was the same for my father.

Anatul Fateh

On Pakistan's wanted list

Yahya Khan's regime was furious with AFM Abul Fateh. They contacted the British Government and called for his extradition on a charge of embezzlement of Pakistan embassy’s money but their request was rebuffed.

Nevertheless, Abul Fateh did not stay long in London and joined the Mujibnagar government in Kolkata where he was made Ambassador-at-large. As the Bangladesh movement's senior-most diplomat, he had a leading role in a delegation under Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury which went to the United Nations in New York to lobby for the Bangladesh cause.

The Pakistani regime was enraged as the details of my father's departure came to light. It was bad enough that he was the first ambassador to have defected, and that too in so dramatic a fashion. But insult was added to injury by the emptying out of the embassy funds. They demanded that the British government extradite my father to Pakistan for the "crime". Of course, as a British Foreign Office official assured my parents would be the case, the British government absolutely refused.

The fury at my father lasted for some time yet. A Pakistani terrorist group called Black December came to be created after the liberation of Bangladesh, and an Independence Day reception in 1973 given by my father as Bangladesh Ambassador in Paris was surrounded by French police after Soviet and Indian intelligence suspected that he would be targeted at the reception by Black December.

AFM Abul Fateh a wanted man

After Bangladesh gained independence, AFM Abul Fateh was one of the first high officials to reach Dhaka and was quartered with other senior officials in Bangabhaban (President's House) until January 1972. On his arrival in Dhaka he was driven under escort from the airport in order to become the first civilian official to lay a wreath at the ruins of the Shaheed Minar, an act planned to mark the first presence of the government in Dhaka.

He was also the highest Bangladeshi official in Dhaka until the acting president and cabinet arrived after independence. Already the effective head of the incipient Foreign Service, he became the first Foreign Secretary of independent Bangladesh at the end of 1971.

Abul Fateh inspires other ambassadors to follow suit

Following AFM Abul Fateh's dramatic efforts to join the Bangladesh movement, other Bengali ambassadors in the Pakistani government also did the same. Khurram Khan Panni, Ambassador to the Philippine (based in Manilla), and Abdul Momen, Ambassador to Argentina (Buenos Aires) announced their resignation in September and October 1971 respectively.

After switching allegiance, these three ambassadors travelled extensively and worked tirelessly to project the cause of the Bangladesh liberation and seek global support.

Khurram Khan Panni called a press conference at his embassy residence [in Philippines]. A reporter asked him at the press conference: "What is your Number Two [Karamatullah K. Ghori] doing? Is he also walking out on Pakistan?" "No", said Khurram Khan Panni, "But years from now when he looks back at this period he might regret he didn't make the right choice". These were prophetic words, Karamatullah Ghori confessed later in his column.

Wajid Ali Khan Panni, former Deputy Foreign Minister and High Commissioner of Bangladesh

  • Khurram Khan Panni (1921 - 1997) Bengali Diplomat and former Pakistan Ambassador to Argentina and Philippines. Eldest son of Masud Ali Khan Panni and eldest grandson of Wajid Ali Khan Panni, famous social reformer and zamindar of Karatia. Educated at St. Paul's School, Darjeeling, and St. Xavier's School and Presidency College in Kolkata. Friend circle included Siddhartha Shankar Ray (later Chief Minister of Bengal), Ashok Sen (a famous lawyer) and Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury (President of Bangladesh). Began political career as Private Secretary to his nana (maternal grandfather) Sir Abdul Halim Ghaznavi, a minister in the Bengal Government along with Sir Zafrullah. Later joined Muslim League and participated in Quit India Movement. Elected to the Bengal Assembly in 1942 but was unseated due to under age (21 years old). But regained seat at a by-election later on. Lost Tangail seat in 1954 election to Jukto Front representative Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Elected as independent candidate in 1962 election and became member of East Pakistan Provincial Assembly. Later, became Chief Whip of the ruling party. Appointed Pakistan Commissioner to the East African countries (1963) and upgraded to High Commissioner in the same year after some of these countries became independent from British colonial rule. Appointed as Pakistan Ambassador to Argentina (1966) and Philippines (1969). Switched allegiance to Awami League in 1970 after visiting Tangail and Karatia in East Pakistan. Defected from ambassadorial role during 1971 Swadhinata Juddho and appointed as Roving Ambassador of the Mujibnagar Government. Travelled all over the South East Asian countries and Australia seeking support for the freedom movement. Retired from active politics in 1975 and moved to Seattle, USA. Wife passed away in 1995 and looked after by children after suffering from long-term illness which left him unable to walk, and almost bed-ridden. Survived by 2 sons and a daughter.
  • Abdul Momen () Ambassador of Pakistan. Born in village of Udrajpur, Feni. Graduated in History with First class honours from Presidency College, Kolkata (1943). Joined East Pakistan Civil Service (1946) then Pakistan Foreign Service (1950). Served as Third Secretary and Vice-Consul in Rangoon and Akyab (1951 - 1953), Second Secretary then First Secretary at Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC (1954 - 1957). Ambassador of Pakistan to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay from May 1970.
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