Londoni

Bengali diplomats switch allegiance and make world pay attention

Thousands of miles away in different continents and foreign surroundings, Bengali diplomats were presented with an agonising dilemma - do they keep silent on the genocide carried out on their own people and carry on with their privileged lifestyle or do they fight for justice and risk their and their family's lives?

It was quite terrifying for my family because I could not alert them earlier. They were in mortal fear of what would happen to them because I'd given up my job and put them at great risk. My father, younger brothers and mother were moving from one place to another, taking shelter and I remember there was a case filed against me for treason. But they couldn't prosecute me because Bangladesh became independent before they could get hold of me.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, first diplomat in Europe to switch allegiance, on the threat on his family back in Bangladesh

The vast majority of the diplomats came from modest background and fought ethnic discrimination to rise to the pinnacle of their bureaucratic career. They had to strive to be candidate per excellence in order to excel in an environment with a pro-Punjabi bias. Little did they know that everything in their lives were about to change after an uprising, and subsequent army action, in Bangladesh.

Writing about his early days as probationer, Shehabuddin feels that General Ayub Khan did great harm to the service by disallowing young trainees from going to the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, USA. According to him, this was due to Ayub Khan’s “poor educational background” and so he could not appreciate the value of learning.

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Having undertaken such an ardous career journey, it would've been mutually beneficial to stay in alliance with the Pakistanis. They (the diplomat) could continue with their comfortable existence with all its perk whilst in return the Pakistani government would reward them and point to these 'loyal' Bengalis as proof that all is OK within East Pakistan. Everything, as Pakistani propaganda machine was keen to show, was just plain "mischief making by fifth element".

Instead, a handful of these brave sons of the soil decided to take the lonely and heroic step and show leadership when their motherland needed it most. It was a time of uncertainty and chaos. The world did not know if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had made his way out of Dhaka or had been abducted by the Pakistan Army. With the fate of their long-standing, charismatic leader uncertain and with reports of widespread atrocities in Bangladesh filtering out to the outside world, the time came for the Bengali diplomats to stand up. It was now or never.

They risked the wrath of the Pakistan government even at the cost of jeopardizing the security of their near and dear ones back home, not to mention their own 'accidental' death if their defection was detected early. Such 'unfortunate incidents' could be easily arranged in foreign land as most countries had not openly supported the Bengali cause. With such gloomy fate looming over them, the vast majority of the Bengali diplomats posted in Pakistani Embassies abroad did not "defect" but the contributions of the few who did were invaluable. As it was, fortune indeed favoured the brave.

In this post-cold war, globalizing era, we see so much international concern for democracy; freedom and human rights. Alas, only four decades ago when our people wanted to establish their inalienable democratic and national rights, today’s "champions" of democracy and human rights did nothing to uphold our legitimate aspirations or to stop the genocide. They had simply viewed our war of independence in the context of their East- West ideological rivalry.

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The path which the Bengali diplomats trode had victory and failure divided by a thin barrier. They left their comfortable and highly coveted job for an uncertain future and joined the Bangladesh liberation movement, in most instances, barely few years after joining Pakistan's diplomatic service. Those who switched their allegiance were considered by many as brave patriots, whilst others, notably Pakistani loyalist, accused them of high treason. Each had a gripping story of their own. Dramatic, eventful, and tense.

We did not join the front [line] with arms in hand, but what we did was create news and awareness. [Nevertheless] There were people who were sacrificing their lives so I did the least I could do. I was never in danger of losing my life so I still don't consider myself a real freedom fighter though I have been given that honour. It was a very exciting time for us and I am humbled and honoured that I had a small role in the Liberation War.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, the first diplomat in Europe to switch allegiance

I told him [Ziaur Rahman] you are a great hero, and he replied "it is true…we fought here but you also fought for Bangladesh on foreign land". He told me it encouraged them when we changed our side and expressed loyalty to Bangladesh.

Abul Maal Abdul Muhith recalls his conversation with General Ziaur Rahman in February 1972 in Comilla

First two defectors declare allegiance to Bangladesh even before creation of Mujibnagar Shorkar

The two Bengali diplomats who declared their allegiance to Bangladesh on 6 April 1971 - four days before the formation of the Mujibnagar Shorkar and eleven days before its official announcement at Baidyanathtala - were K.M. Shehabuddin, Second Secretary, and Amjadul Huq, Assistant Press Attaché at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Both men were young, junior diplomats. When the news of the mass killing filtered in from East Pakistan both men renounced their allegiance to Pakistan and formally pledged loyalty to the unborn state of Bangladesh.

  • K.M. Shehabuddin () Second Secretary at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.
  • Amjadul Huq () Assistant Press Attaché at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.

Shehabuddin joined the Bangladesh movement on 26 March 1971, when he was the third secretary based in New Delhi. Some foreign correspondents told him about all that had happened in Dhaka the night before and how the Pakistani army terrorised young Bengali men and women. Deceiving the ever-watchful eyes of the ISI at a Pakistani mission in Delhi, he finally managed to leave his official residence with his wife and two girls on 6 April 1971. The author was granted asylum after talks with Indian foreign office officials and also with the then prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

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K. M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Huq were granted asylum in India and the government of India refused to hand over the two diplomats to the Pakistan High Commission.

The two diplomats read out a statement seeking international cooperation and appealed to 'all the decent and civilised people everywhere in the world for sympathy'.

In a statement before the international media, they [K. M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Huq] denounced the brutal onslaught by Pakistan on the civilian population of Bangladesh and announced their resignation from the Pakistan Foreign Service to work for Independent Bangladesh. They also appealed to the nations of the world to recognise the sovereign state of Bangladesh. Shehabuddin's brave action, even before a government for Bangladesh was formally constituted, was an unique event and provided a flashpoint that inspired the suppressed people of Bangladesh.

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In subsequent months, both K. M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Huq played a leading role on the diplomatic front and were able to witness at first-hand India's participation in the liberation war. Their bold step had inspired other diplomats to switch allegiance and they were joined in New Delhi by Humayun Rasid Choudhury, Counsellor, and some members of the staff in November 1971.

However, the epicenter of the Bengali diplomatic activity in India was in Kolkata where the Probashi Shorkar was based.

First time Jatiyo Potaka hoisted on foreign land

Mohammad Hossain Ali had served Pakistan Foreign Service for 22 years. In 1971 he was the Bengali Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan in Kolkata, India. After the March crackdown, when it was agreed a new government of Bangladesh would be formed, Hossain Ali was asked to join this new government. He responded by saying he'd only join if Tajuddin Ahmad asked him. Thus a meeting was arranged at the Gaylord restaurant beside the Ganges River where both men met after darkness and talked face-to-face. Tajuddin Ahmad told Hossain Ali to join and he confirmed his allegiance. A day was fixed and preparation were undertaken to hoist the flag of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

On 18 April 1971 at 12:41pm, Hossain Ali brought down Pakistan's National Flag from the High Commission Office and officially hoisted the green-and-gold flag of Bangladesh on top of the mission building and pledged his allegiance to the newly formed provisional Government of Bangladesh along with 65 other official and staff who also switched allegiance. After renouncing his loyalty he also declared that the Pakistani High Commission Office will henceforth be known as "Diplomatic Mission of Bangla Desh". Hoping to arouse "whatever is left of the conscience of mankind", he appealed to the world to extend all possible help to Bangladesh. This was a very courageous feat as it was only a day after the Mujibnagar Shorkar was formed at Baidyanathtala. First Secretary Rafiqul Islam Chowdhury, Third Secretaries Anwarul Karim Chowdhury and Kazi Nazrul Islam and Assistant Press Attaché M. Maqsood Ali were also present in that ceremony and were negotiating with other nations for support of Bangladeshi independence.

Hossain Ali hoisted the first Bangaldeshi flag on foreign land.

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The Pakistan Government reacted to Hossain Ali's defection by insisting that he and others had changed allegiance under "duress" and "coercion" of the Indians. But when the Bengalis were interviewed they confirmed they were patriots and had no desire to collaborate with the Pakistanis to annihilate their own kinsfolk.

A week after Hossain Ali's defection, on 26 April 1971, A. H. Mahmood Ali, Vice Consul in the Pakistani Consulate in New York, also declared his allegiance to Bangladesh - making him the first diplomat in USA to defect. He became an instant hero and his wife took up a small job to support the family.

  • Mohammad Hossain Ali () Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan in Calcutta. Led 65 officers and staff, and raised Bangladesh flag at the Mission premises on 18 April 1971, a day after Mujibnagar Shorkar officially formed. Appointed first High Commissioner in Australia for Bangladesh (1972) and served as the first Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United States. Born in Bhangura Upazila, Pabna District.
  • Rafiqul Islam Chowdhury ()
  • Anwarul Karim Chowdhury ()
  • Kazi Nazrul Islam ()
  • M. Maqsood Ali ()
  • A. H. Mahmood Ali () Vice Consul in the Pakistani Consulate in New York. First person to defect in USA.

Pakistan government was left further embarrassed and their faith in retaining an united Pakistan was shaken when a good number of diplomats en masse declared their support for the provisional government of Bangladesh in summer and autumn.

On 30 August 1971 a Bangladesh Information Centre was opened in New Delhi and headed by K.M. Shehabuddin. This, along with the work carried out by the diplomat, was able to project the real picture in East Pakistan and countered Pakistan government’s propaganda machinery.

K. M. Shehabuddin met Tajuddin Ahmad who appointed him as head of the Bangladesh Information Centre, New Delhi, and not at the Bangladesh embassy, as the state was yet to be recognised by the international community, including India.

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In 2011, the Government of Bangladesh declared April 18th as 'Foreign Ministry Day' in recognition of the brave step taken by Mohammad Hossain Ali and others.

'Bangladesh Mission'

Given the complex scenario and severe resources constraints, the government in exile took some time to come out with a definitive strategy in the area of diplomacy and to arrange the necessary funds. Some brave diplomats were ready to join the liberation war and had established contacts with the Mujibnagar Government in early April 1971 but they were advised to wait for further instructions. However, soon thereafter, a policy was worked out to challenge the enemy on the diplomatic front. During the course of the war, some of the Bengali civil servants and diplomats serving Pakistan began defecting and severing links with Islamabad whilst the vast majority turned a blind eye. They subsequently joined the Mujibnagar Shorkar and formed solidarity groups called 'Bangladesh Mission', which was set up on 27 August 1971. New Delhi, Kolkata, Washington DC, New York and London emerged as the main centers of the diplomatic offensives.

The diplomatic offensive had three specific goals:

  1. to build international public opinion in favour of our cause of independence and to ensure international assistance to our suffering humanity who had taken shelter across the border;
  2. to isolate the Pakistani regime by projecting the atrocities and crimes against the humanity which they were committing in Bangladesh with a view to cutting off all foreign economic and military assistance to the Yahya regime;
  3. to create the necessary condition so that the friendly countries who were supporting our cause could take a more firm and decisive action to expedite our independence process.

Efforts continued on the diplomatic front as the ‘Bangladesh Mission’ pressed the Indian foreign ministry to accord official recognition to the newly formed state. India was still working to build up international sympathy for Bangladesh. Many Bengali officials who worked for the Pakistani mission in Calcutta had clandestine meetings with Shehabuddin at the residence of the well-known Indian political leader Dr. Triguna Sen where they urged Pakistani officials to join the liberation war.

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Our provisional Mujibnagar government had earlier sent instructions to all Bengali officers and staff to resign from Pakistan government posts in foreign countries, particularly from the Pakistan missions. These Bengali members working abroad in one or another capacity with the Pakistani establishments abroad were advised to report, after their resignation, either to the government in Calcutta or to London, the second most important place in our Liberation War outside India.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, Second Secretary of Pakistani High Commission in London

'Special Envoys'

A group of leading Bengali intellectuals and expatriates such as Abu Sayeed Chowdhury and Syed Anwarul Karim were appointed 'Special Envoys' by the Mujibnagar Shorkar to represent the government. They began touring western capitals advocating the Bangladesh cause and mobilising world opinion in favour of war of liberation.

Abu Sayeed Chowdhury (later the President of Bangladesh in 1972) was serving as the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University at the time. He was attending the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, when news of the Pakistani atrocities had reached him. He immediately resigned from his post as Vice Chancellor as protest against the genocide. From Geneva he travelled to London where worked as the Special Envoy in UK. In September 1971, Abu Sayeed Chowdhury was made Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative in New York.

Since 25 March 1971 I had been receiving regular phone calls at my flat in London from Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the exiled Chief Justice of the High Court in Dhaka, who was to become the first President of Bangladesh. He would ring from a pay phone and always late at night.
'Chief Justice Chowdhury speaking'.
'Yes, Chief Justice'.
'At this very hour terrible and wonderful things are happening in my country. Heroic victories are being won by my people, but we are fleas against the lion'.

The pip-pip-pips of the eccentric British telephone system would invariably drown the Chief Justice's voice as his money ran out.

Prominent British journalist John Pilger on Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury's efforts to spread awareness

Meanwhile, Syed Anwarul Karim, Minister and the Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York, was appointed the Special Envoy in USA. Syed Anwarul Karim or SAK as his friends call him endearingly, had over 20 years experience in the Pakistan Foreign Service having joined them in 1950. He led the Bangladesh Mission to UN in New York during the Liberation War.

K. M. Shehabuddin was appointed the first Chief of Bangladesh Mission at New Delhi and later replaced by Humayun Rashid Choudhury. Mohammad Hossain Ali became Chief of Bangladesh Mission at Kolkata, whilst Mustafizur Rahman Siddiqui, then Second Secretary in the Pakistan Embassy in Kathmandu (Nepal) who had previously experienced the Bengali officer's revolt in Chittagong on 25 March 1971, became Chief of Bangladesh Mission at Washington, USA, on 19 October 1971.

  • # Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury (1921 - 1987) A jurist and second President of Bangladesh. Graduated from Presidency College, Kolkata (1940), obtained Masters from Calcutta University (1942) and Law degree from Bar-at-Law from London. Various roles including Judge of the Dhaka High Court (1963), and Bangladesh High Commissioner to London (1971). Minister of Ports and Shipping (1975) under Sheikh Mujib's cabinet, and then Minister for Foreign Affairs when President Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed took over. Elected a member of the United Nations Sub-committee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1978) and elected chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission (1985). Honored with the insignia of 'Deshikottam' by Visvabharati University, and honorary degree of Doctor of Law by Calcutta University. His book 'Probasey Muktijuddher Dingooli' (1990) is a valuable contribution to the understanding of Bangladesh War of Liberation. Father Abdul Hamid Choudhury later became the speaker of the East Pakistan Provincial Assembly. Born in a Zamindar family of Nagbari in Tangail District. Died of a heart attack in London on 2 August 1987 and buried in his village.
  • # Syed Anwarul Karim () Led the group at the Press Conference at the Washington National Press Club and headed the Bangladesh Mission to the UN in New York. Served as Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh from early 1972. Became country's first Permanent Representative (in New York) on admission of Bangladesh to the United Nations. Bangladesh Ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar). Joined UN at the organisation's headquarters in New York City. Later worked for the UNFPA for a while before retiring.
  • Humayun Rashid Choudhury (1928 - 2001) Former Speaker of Jatiya Sangsad (1996 - 2001). Elected president of the 41st session of the UN General Assembly in 1986. Graduated from Aligarh Muslim University (1947) and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, USA. During Muktijuddho he served as the Chief of the Bangladesh Mission in New Delhi in 1971-1972 during which he negotiated the recognition of Bangladesh by over 40 countries. Minister of Foreign Affairs (1985-1986) in President Ershad's cabinet. Awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize (1984) by College of William and Mary, Virginia, United States, in recognition of his contribution to world peace through his diplomatic activities. Fluent in Bengali, English, Urdu, French and Italian, and had a working knowledge of Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Indonesian. Died with heart attack in Dhaka on 10 July 2001.
  • M. R. (Mustafizur Rahman) Siddiqui () Second Secretary in Katmandu.