Served with distinction, dhakacourier, 9 April 2015


Served-with-distinctionDiplomats tell the best tales. They tend to always contain just the correct mixture of intrigue and glamour, to go with all the geopolitical tension and historic importance that is par for the course. As such, their memoirs always tend to be gripping page-turners.

All the better then, for our prying minds to be presented with a volume that brings together some of the memorable tidbits from some of our most accomplished and well-known envoys, all sourced from their distinguished careers comprising various postings around the world, and in their own words. I say ‘some’, but the volume in question, Serving the Nation, edited by one of Bangladesh’s most accomplished diplomats – former ambassador, foreign secretary, and executive chairman of the Board of Investment Farooq Sobhan – actually brings together the reminiscences of no less than 43 such individuals, who all had the distinction to serve Bangladesh by representing her abroad. Rest assured, there is no shortage of material here to keep one hooked, once you start delving into its 446 pages.

Compiling such a volume obviously entails a significant commitment in terms of time and effort. The preface by Ambassador Sobhan recognises the work of members of his current team at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, and in fact, it is a BEI publication. In keeping with diplomatic decorum, the contributions, as with the photographs on the back cover of all the contributors, are ordered strictly in terms of seniority, if one is not mistaken. So we start with Tabarak Husain, who relays the novelty of taking classes under Harold Laski at the LSE in 1949, as well as some other events like the death of Jawaharlal Nehru – from 1961-64 he was acting high commissioner of Pakistan in New Delhi. It ends with M. Humayun Kabir, who takes a different approach, reflecting upon his stint in charge of our outpost in Washington, and in doing so, bringing in the wisdom gained from his wider experience to impart valuable lessons on international relations.

It is no overstatement by any stretch of the imagination, to say that most of the contributors to the volume have at one time or another witnessed history being made of some sort. And so unquestionably the book scales its most riveting peaks during those narrations where the old foreign service pros have chosen to relay those incidents from their careers, where they may have played some unsung role in the charting of history’s course. The hoisting of the flag of independent Bangladesh for the first time in a foreign country is a touching account by Bashirul Alam, that is enriched further by its accompanying insights into the conversion, almost overnight, of Pakistani outposts into divided, and eventually Bangladeshi ones. This proud moment, that took place in Warsaw, the Polish capital, also reminds us of old ties we may have misplaced along the way, for it was Poland that sponsored the resolution at the UN Security Council in the closing days of the Liberation War, that so offended Bhutto. That may have been the result of the global geopolitics of the era, since Warsaw was still very much east of the Iron Curtain, but it is heartening to see, from many of the old pros’ accounts contained in Serving the Nation, how the international community almost overwhelmingly supported the cause of Bangladesh in those days. They recognised the side that was on the right side of history, and conscientiously made a choice to support them, in some case even contrary to official government policy in their countries. As they make their way around the world, often with little resources but big hearts and great minds, our diplomats who served in the Seventies especially, all give the impression of representing a proud nation with a real sense of the purpose that comes from belief in something better.

Not to mention a generous dosing of chutzpah to go with it! The story of how Bangladesh defeated Japan back in 1978, for one of the rotating positions on the UN Security Council, would scarcely be believable today. That happened through a campaign led by Ambassador Sobhan in his capacity as Director General (UN, international organisations, and economic affairs) at the Foreign Ministry at the time. The brief account of the 9-month campaign leaves you distinctly wanting to know more. Full disclosure- I worked under Ambassador Sobhan as part of BEI before joining Dhaka Courier, and often told him the country could benefit greatly from his picking up the pen to record some of the experiences from his stellar career in the foreign service. How the Bangladesh campaign strategically outdid the Japanese effort that was backed up by billions of dollars in development aid to poorer members of the General Assembly, sounds worthy of a book on its own! At a time when just last year, our government chose to step aside from the exact same situation, to give the Japanese a clear run at the 2017/18 UNSC.

Ambassador Sobhan will agree that the book, to the extent that it is an accurate reflection of Bangladesh in international relations, suffers from the under-representation of our women at the forefront of maintaining ties within the family of nations. This is reflected in the lone contribution by a woman in the book, that fittingly is by Mahmuda Haque Choudhury, the very first woman to become a career diplomat in Bangladesh. Her recollection of her very first day at the Foreign Office is at once heart-rending for the personal tragedy she overcame, along with the social obstacles she had to face only due to her gender.

There is much to learn from the wisdom that spouts from the pages of Serving the Nation, perhaps owing to the star-cast of contributors. Yet considered as a whole, the lessons are really not about them, but about the nation they served.

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9 April 2015