Syed Badrul Ahsan
K M Shehabuddin was a patriot par excellence. Behind that soft demeanour was a man of steely determination. That love of country superseded everything else for him was an image in full play on 6 April 1971 when he, along with a colleague at the Pakistan high commission in Delhi, informed the world that he was leaving Pakistan's foreign service, indeed was repudiating Pakistan by refusing to continue as its citizen. When Shehabuddin made that momentous decision, he had little idea of what the future held for him. Here he was, a young diplomat with a family, unsure of what would happen next. But what he was sure of had been made manifest by his decision: he was uncomfortable with the present, with the horrors that his fellow Bengalis were being subjected to back home by the Pakistan occupation army. The future would take care of itself.
Shehabuddin did us all proud on 6 April 1971. With hardly any sign of resistance to the genocide yet in sight, with no hint that political strategy towards a struggle for liberation was in the offing, save only for the declaration of independence in late March, it was sheer bravado on his part to have said farewell to the country he had served so long as a diplomat. He had little idea of when, if at all, Bangladesh would emerge as a sovereign state. And yet there was that little, soft voice in him which persuaded him into believing that Bangladesh would be a free nation someday. Listen to him in his own words in his enlightening work, There and Back Again: A Diplomat's Tale:
'On 6 April 1971, I was finally able to leave the Pakistan Foreign Service and the Pakistan High Commission to open the diplomatic front for the liberation of Bangladesh. Amjadul Huq joined Bulbul and me without hesitation that night; he did not waver even after he found out that his habitually inebriated domestic aide had alerted the Pakistan High Commission of his plans just at the moment of his departure. . . We knew that we had to join and win the fight to free the land over which the Bangladesh flag could fly freely forever.'
At zero hour that night, Shehabuddin recalls, he and Amjadul Huq appeared at a press conference where representatives from the BBC, TASS, AFP, PTI, UPI, UNI and other organizations were in attendance. Shehabuddin and Huq issued a statement explaining their decision to turn their backs on Pakistan. The concluding part of the statement is significant:
'We have severed our connection with the fascist military dictatorship in Islamabad, as our conscience no longer permits us to act against our deepest convictions.
From now our allegiance is to Bangladesh, which derived its authority from the unambiguous mandate of the 75 million Bengali people.'
The die was cast and Shehabuddin was never to look back. His defection was a diplomatic masterstroke which accelerated the political process of a shaping of battlefield strategy. Yet at the time Shehabuddin spoke to the world, the whereabouts of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were unknown, the Mujibnagar government was yet to take form and substance and the Mukti Bahini was still in the future. And these were the realities which underpinned Shehabuddin's boldness in as much as they pointed to the grave perils he had put himself and his family in. Away from his home in occupied Bangladesh, no longer in allegiance to the state of Pakistan, without a job in foreign land, Shehabuddin and Amjadul Huq were lonely crusaders. Not until the Mujibnagar government emerged before the global community on 17 April 1971 would these two brave Bengalis know that they were truly on a powerful movement into the future.
But, when all is said and done, K.M. Shehabuddin was a man of conviction. He knew, even at that early stage of the Bangladesh struggle, that Pakistan had turned into alien land for Bengalis. It was a view so many others, especially Bengali diplomats serving at Pakistani missions across the globe, could not or would not at that point entertain. Shehabuddin's act was soon followed, but only after 17 April, by other Bengali officers of Pakistan's diplomatic service. And, yes, there were quite a few who waited until nearly the very end of the war --- for a variety of reasons --- before they would declare their allegiance to Bangladesh.
K.M. Shehabuddin served the People's Republic of Bangladesh with distinction abroad. A soft-spoken, amiable man, he did not seek to derive political advantage from his contributions to the War of Liberation. Forever a humble soul, service to the country mattered to him a whole lot more than personal ambition. In his twilight years, he read books, observed with pride his children deal with life on their own terms, picked up the phone to tell columnists how much he delighted in reading their write-ups. There was sophistication in him. Like all men conscious of history and culture, he never let go of his humility. And humility was what made him so different from so many others of his generation, of his profession.
He passes into the Great Beyond . . . with all our love, with all our abiding respect. He was our hero, for he taught us the lesson that courage of conviction far outweighed everything else in life.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer.
E-mail: [email protected]