K.M. Shehabuddin

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K.M. Shehabuddin

December 17, 2006

REVIEWS: Between treason and patriotism

Reviewed by Jilani Sadique


K.M. Shehabuddin

HISTORIANS in Pakistan are likely to find K.M. Shehabuddin’s book There and Back, an autobiography of a former Pakistani foreign service officer and the first man to defect and join the Bangladesh independence movement in 1971, both controversial and interesting all at the same time. Some may accuse him of high treason while others might call him a patriot. Shehabuddin left his comfortable and highly coveted job for an uncertain future and joined the Bangladesh liberation movement barely five years after joining Pakistan’s diplomatic service.

After an initially turbulent career as a junior lecturer at two different colleges in former East Pakistan, he was inducted in the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1966 after passing the CSS exam. Little did he know that five years later everything in his life would change after an uprising, and subsequent army action, in Bangladesh.

The book starts with minute details of the author’s ancestors in Chittagong. His father was a school teacher and it was from this modest background that Shehabuddin rose to the pinnacle of his bureaucratic career. He denies being parochial but in the opening paragraph he admits that before realising he was Pakistani, Indian or Bengali, he identified himself as a Chittagonian. Writing about his early days as probationer, the author 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.

Shehabuddin believes that on numerous occasions during his career as a diplomat, he was the subject of discrimination by his Punjabi bosses. He particularly accuses an army officer posted as high commissioner in India, in 1968, of pro-Punjabi bias. The book mentions this officer at least half a dozen times in a chapter in a bid to prove that the man was of a parochial disposition.

The book deals with the 1971 catastrophe, from the day Yahya Khan postponed the national assembly session in Dhaka. Most of his narrations about the event are well-known. The only concern is over the defection of the first man of Pakistan Foreign Service. The author traces the 1971 debacle to the 1952 language movement when the then chief minister Nurul Amin ordered the killing of Bengali students demanding recognition of their mother tongue as one of the national languages. He describes Nurul Amin as the Mir Jaffer of Bengal.

Shehabuddin joined the Bangladesh movement on March 26, 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 April 6, 1971. The author was granted asylum after talks with Indian foreign office officials and also with the then prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

A day after the brutal army action of March 25, 1971, mainstream political leaders including Maulana Bhashani, Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam Mansoor Ali, Kamruzzaman, Comrade Moni Singh and Professor Muzaffar Ahmad declared allegiance to Bangladesh as Major Ziaur Rahman, (later to become General Ziaur Rahman, President of Bangladesh) announced independence at 11:00am from a clandestine radio station. The time of the declaration of independence and the person who made the announcement, however, remains disputed.

Tajuddin Ahmad was named the first prime minister of Bangladesh by a council constituted by senior politicians. Mujibnagar, a remote village in North Bengal, bordering India, was named as the capital of Swadhin (independent) Bangladesh. Shehabuddin, the former third secretary of Pakistan in India, then met Tajuddin 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.

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 Pakistani officials of Bengali origin 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. Thus, on December 6, 1971, India formally recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign state.

The United States, however, was still divided along party lines: the Republicans under Richard Nixon were pro-Pakistan while the Democrats supported the Bangladesh liberation movement. However, most Americans were sympathetic to Bangladesh’s cause. The Soviet Union was highly sympathetic to the Indian stand on Bangladesh but Shehabuddin expresses shock when the Soviet ambassador to India declines talking directly to Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, Mahbub Alam Chashi, and instead wants to hold talks at the office of the Indian foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit.

The chapter on 1971 gives details of the humiliation of the boastful Pakistani army, under General A.A.K. Niazi, which surrendered to the joint commander of India-Bangladesh Forces, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, on December 16, 1971, at Paltan Maidan, Dhaka. The Indian army chief back then was General Manik Shaw.

After the dust of 1971 gradually settled, the author was posted in Paris (April 1972). Of course, he did not know then that he would take up the charge in 1991, this time as ambassador. Shehabuddin’s posting as charge de affaires in Beirut was not very eventful. He calls Beirut “little Paris” but says that soon after his arrival in 1975, civil war was to break out which gradually worsened, forcing his country to close down the mission.

Shehabuddin’s next assignment was in 1979 at the London high commission. Britain, the first western country to recognise Bangladesh, was also in the grips of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. At this point in time, the Margaret Thatcher government was soliciting public opinion on her efforts to cut the cost of foreign broadcast and services. The author mobilised the opinion of Bengali expatriates to prevent her from shutting down the BBC’s Bengali-language service.

The last chapter of the memoir deals with Shehabuddin’s posting before retirement as his country’s ambassador to the United States (1996-2001). Shehabuddin discusses the cross-current and the undercurrent which takes place in the Third World during high-profile foreign postings, especially in Europe, USA, China and India. The then prime minister of Bangladesh, Hasina Wajid, was personally interested in his being posted to the United States. On the whole, this book should be of interest to contemporary historians and those interested in travel stories.

There and Back Again: A Diplomat’s Tale By K.M. Shehabuddin The University Press, Dhaka www.uplbooks.com upl@bangla.net Available with Oxford University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi Tel: 111-693-673 ouppak@theoffice.net www.oup.com.pk ISBN 984 05 1756 2 347pp. Tk525

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