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Understanding BD's psyche of diplomacy

Mohammad Amjad Hossain | November 10, 2021 00:00:00

Pakistan's deputy high commissioner M Hossain Ali at a press conference in Kolkata in 1971. Mr Ali declared his allegiance to the Government of Bangladesh on April 18 1971 along with sixty-five of his colleagues — Photo by courtesy of Anandabazar Patrika

The concept of diplomacy is as old as civilisation. An appointment of envoys is as ancient as politics itself, but not until the fifteenth century when appointment of envoys began to be more or less on a regular basis. Primarily, envoys had been recruited in Europe from the wealthy aristocratic families in those old days. The social position was the prime factor for selection on diplomatic assignments. At one stage, an inordinate emphasis was laid on linguistic competence in selection of envoys, side by side a degree of financial solvency.

In Europe, the Italian states first had permanent legations in the fifteenth century. This was followed by introduction of the ambassadorial system. Two classes of diplomatic representatives were working in Europe.

Since ancient times a diplomat has been in communication and negotiation with foreign governments, though the nature of negotiations has grown very complex in the present-day world.

The origin of diplomacy in Bangladesh in fact dates back to the fourth century BC when sailor Buddha Gupta sailed from the Chittagong port for Malacca. According to Malayan history, Buddha Gupta was instrumental in establishing relations between Bengal and Malacca in the fourth century BC. Traditionally, the people of Bengal, now Bangladesh, are hospitable and as tactful as a diplomat. The people have an inherent discipline in the art of diplomacy.

Faxian or Fa-hien, Ibn Battuta and Ralph Fitch had established a link between Bengal and the countries these roving ambassadors represented. Faxian or Fa-hien, Chinese great monk traveller, undertook visits to India, including Sonargaon of Bengal. Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan Muslim scholar and traveller, had been to India from 1304-1369 AD. During his eight years' stay in India Ibn Battuta visited Sylhet and Sonargaon of Bengal while Ralph Fitch, British explorer, travelled to Sonargaon in 1596. Dipankar Srijnan, who was born in 982 AD at Vajrayogini under Vikrampur of Dhaka, was a pioneer in promoting relations between Bengal and Tibet through preaching the philosophy of Buddhism in the eleventh century AD. Having achieved clear perception and understanding in Buddhism from long studies in Sri Lanka, Dipankar Srijnan was invited by the King of Tibet twice. Initially, he declined the invitation. Ultimately, Dipankar went to Tibet via Nepal on foot in 1041 AD at the invitation of Raja Byan Chub.

A great thinker and pundit, Dipankar Srijnan imparted knowledge to pupils in medicine and assisted Tibetan people in building water conservancy projects. A dike which was built in Tibet under his supervision to protect people from the scourge of recurring floods remains till today as a symbol of friendship between people of Tibet and Bangladesh. Dipankar Srijnan had to play diplomacy as a mediator in resolving a dispute between Raja Nayapala and Kalachuri King Karna of western India while he was on the way to Tibet. The dispute was reported to have arisen possibly because of the continued expansionist design of Kalachuri King Karna. Dipankar was successful in diplomacy to help two rival Kings to resolve their dispute amicably. On the basis of Dipankar's philosophy his disciples formed Bka'gdams-pa sect in Tibet which developed into the famous Gelugpa sect (Yellow hat) and became dominant in Buddhist religion in China, Mongolia and Siberian region of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

He was also received by the King of Nepal. Dipankar was awarded the highest honour Atisa by the King of Tibet. Another scholar and diplomat Sarat Chandra Das, who was born in Chattogram in 1849, visited Tibet several times as an envoy of the British and collected a lot of information on Dipankar Srijan and published a book: Indian Pundit in the land of snow in 1893. Dipankar was known in India, Nepal, Tibet and Sri Lanka as an outstanding scholar on Buddhism and died in Tibet at 72. Mural of Atish Dipankar is preserved at Ralung monastery in Tibet. His ashes were brought to Dhaka in 1978 at the instance of President Ziaur Rahman to pay respect to this great diplomat of the eleventh century. His ashes are preserved at the Atisa hall of the Kamalapur Buddhist monastery.

According to a number of Chinese records as deciphered by Hurth and Rock Hill in Round Pao in 1914 (Page 436-444) and P.C Bagehi and Hsiang Ling Wu,(page 96-134 in Visva-Bharatti annals), a number of emissaries had been exchanged between Bengal and China in the first half of the fifteenth century. During the fifteenth century Bengal was ruled by Pathan rulers independent of the government of Delhi and its capital was located at Pandua in the district of Malda. According to information compiled in 1520 in Si Yang Chao Kung Tien, the first envoy was sent to China by King Ghiayasuddin of Bengal in 1408 AD whose capital was located at Sonargaon. This scribe visited old Sonargaon several times where lies the graveyard of King Ghiayasuddin. President Ershad built a mosque in front of the graveyard of Sultan Ghiayasuddin. Many old mosques still reflect old tradition of Muslim Bengal. The envoy reached T'aits'ang in King Su, with gifts from King Ghiayasuddin for the Emperor of China in 1409 AD. The envoy was received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs at Tai-ts'ang. Relics of the civilisation of Bengal should be properly preserved by the government which could be made a tourist attraction.

As per other records, envoys visited China in 1414 and 1438 AD. However, there remains a difference of opinion among the researchers on the exact date of the voyage of the first emissary from Bengal. The visits of envoys from Bengal inspired Emperor Yong Lo of China to initiate a policy for establishing political relations with foreign countries in 1409. Yong Lo was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty of China. Under his supervision, production in China had increased in every field and the capital had been shifted from Nanking to Peking (Beijing). According to a Chinese compilation, many more envoys from Bengal had visited China since 1409 AD. In 1412, officials were sent out to Cheng-Kiang by the Emperor to receive the ambassador from Bengal. The ambassador was on a visit to convey the message of the death of the King of Bengal Ghiayasuddin. The name of the ambassador did not appear in the report. While granting an audience to the ambassador, the Chinese Emperor expressed shock and sympathy at the sudden demise of Sultan Ghiayasuddin, King of Bengal. Emissaries were sent to Bengal by the emperor of China to attend the coronation ceremony of Prince Saifuddin Hamza Shah, who ascended to the throne of his father Ghiayasuddin. The coronation took place in 1412 AD.

The newly-appointed King had sent a delegation to Emperor Yong Lo with gifts in an attempt to reciprocate the sentiments of the Chinese Emperor and to continue bilateral political relations developed by his father. The Chinese Emperor similarly acknowledged the desire of the King of Bengal and advised envoys Eunuch Hou-hien to undertake a visit to the King of Bengal with presents for the King, Queen, and Ministers of the cabinet. On the way to Pandua, Eunuch Hou-hien arrived at the port of Cha-ti-Kiang. In fact, it was the Chittagong port in the present day. From Cha-ti-Kiang, the envoy went to Suo-na-ent Kiang (Sonargaon) by boat. Sonargaon was humming with commercial activities during the period of Sultan Ghiayasuddin. It was known as an emporium of trade centres where goods were collected and distributed. Eunuch travelled to Pandua by road from Sonargaon. Sonargaon was located at the confluence of three mighty rivers -- the Meghna, the Brahmaputra and the Lakya in old days. Lakya was possibly the Sitalakhya river of Narayanganj.

It is interesting to note that Ibn Battuta also paid a visit to Sylhet and Sonargaon on his way to China as an envoy of the Emperor of Delhi Muhammed bin Tughlag Khan. Ibn Battuta was appointed as Kadi (Judge) in the court of Delhi emperor where he served eight years. Ibn Battuta met the great saint who introduced Sufism in Bengal -- Sheikh Jalaluddin of Tabriz, who is popularly known as Hazrat Shah Jalal, but Ibn Battuta did not meet with King of Bengal Fakhroddin who had presided over Bengal from Sonargaon, because Fakhroddin was opposed to the emperor of Delhi. From Sonargaon Ibn Battuta boarded a ship which sailed for Java Sumatra. (The travels of Ibn Battuta by the Rev. Samuel Lee, published in London in 1829 at page 195-198). According to historian Dr. Abdul Karim, Sultan Jalal-al-din Muhammad Shah, son of Raja Ganesha of Bengal, had dispatched an envoy with gifts for the ruler of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Baras bay to seek blessing of the Khalifah. Sultan Jalal-al-din Muhammad Shah was finally presented with the robe of honour from Al-Ashraf Baras bay, the ruler of Egypt (Social history of Muslims in Bengal by Dr. Abdul Karim). Therefore, it is evident that the ruler of Bengal had established relations with far-off countries. It may be recalled that rulers of Bengal were, by and large, kind-hearted, generous and had a religious bent of mind. As a result, Ghiyash Al-Din Azam and Jalal-al-Din Muhammad Shah had built madras as in Mecca and Madina. In those old days, people of Mecca and Madina were very poor. This scribe recalls that my great grandfather Munshi Meherullah, not Munshi Mohammad Meherullah of Jessore, had also contributed towards madrasa education in Mecca while he was on way to perform Hajj in the middle of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century saw the fall of the Chinese empire, Mughal empire, the Spanish and second French as well.

In fact, ties between Bengal and China go far back into history which began as early as before Christian era. Monk Xuan Zang of Tang dynasty from China visited in 627 AD at the age of 25 the ancient Kingdoms of Samata, Purnavardhana, near Bogura-Rangpur and Karnasubarna which were located around Dhaka in old times. According to the Ming annals, the emperor ordered Cheng-Ho, a Muslim, who was a court eunuch to sail out in 1405 AD on an expedition to the west as the head of 28,000 sailors on board. Being a Muslim of Mongol-Arab origin, Cheng -Ho was provided with huge quantities of gold and silk to offer as gift to the ruler or King of the country he visited. Cheng -Ho in fact led seven major expeditions.

The main purpose of his expedition was the search for the emperor's young nephew as per annals, but it appears to be a diplomatic offensive to establish political and business links with the rulers of the western kingdoms. In return, the emperor of China received tributes and gifts which included luxury goods and rare and marvelous creatures like lions, tigers, zebras from Egypt and giraffes from the ruler of Bengal which he might have received from Africa (Hilda Hook ham: a short history of China published from London in 1969 Page 156). The Sultan of Bengal Hamza Shah, son of Sultan Ghiyasuddin, presented Giraffe twice, apart from horse, rhinoceros, horns, kingfisher's feathers, frankincense, ebony pepper, etc. The Giraffe was known as Ki-Lin. It was an animal not known in China, but it evoked curiosity among the Chinese. Chinese artist Shen du of the Ming dynasty painted a picture of the Bengal Giraffe and this painting has been preserved till today. This story was narrated to this writer in 1985 by a few Chinese journalists during their investigative report on the visit of Cheng-Ho, first Chinese navigator, to Bengal. The report was meant for a magazine to be published by China Pictorial to observe 500 years of journey by Cheng-Ho. The painting is preserved in the Nanking museum which demonstrates the level of relationship maintained by the rulers of China and Bengal in the fifteenth century. A Chinese journalist delegation visited Chattogram and Sonargaon in 1985. This scribe's article on the visit of Cheng-Ho was carried by the now-defunct Bangladesh Observer on November 26-27, 1992 and the Historical Sonargaon on February 5, 1993. Possibly Cheng-Ho was selected to lead these expeditions as most of the countries he visited were under the domination of Muslim rulers. Cheng-Ho visited Indonesia, Malaya, India, Africa and the Persian Gulf countries. Cheng -Ho carried out his diplomatic offensive successfully and brought the local King of Ceylon and ruling Prince of Palembang to pay homage in person before Emperor Yong Lo, who was in the Dragon throne. According to one record, Cheng-Ho was accompanied by two ambassadors and four vice-ambassadors. A banquet was given by the King of Bengal in honour of Chinese envoys. According to Chinese records, no beef or mutton was served at the banquet nor could ambassadors drink for fear of trouble as it was a breach of decorum in Bengal. Although a Muslim was presiding over the destiny of Bengal, the court was predominantly influenced by Hindus.

It is on record that the ruler of Bengal had sought good offices of the emperor of China in 1420 AD through his emissary when repeated attacks were carried out by Sultan Ibrahim Shah Sharqi of Jaunpur in Bengal. In response to the request of the ruler of Bengal, envoy Hou-hien was sent by the Chinese emperor to inform the Sultan of Jaunpur that by being a good neighbour he could save his own. Presents of silk and money were given to the Sultan of Jaunpur in anticipation of good neighbourliness. It was indeed a good gesture shown by the Chinese emperor towards the ruler of Bengal which clearly indicated the successful diplomacy conducted by the ruler of Bengal. Ambassadors from Bengal were sent to China between 1405 and 1409 AD. The visits of the ambassadors to China were made an annual feature by the ruler of Bengal until 1415 AD when Raja Ganesa died. Ambassadors were reportedly sent twice in 1420 after the death of Raja Ganesa and another time in 1438-1439. With the dwindling of the Ganesa dynasty in 1442, no attempt was made to resume relations with China.

Chinese emperors and ambassadors were presented with gold basins, gold girdles, gold flagons, gold bowls, golden bells and long gowns of white hemp and silk by the Sultan of Bengal. From the nature of gifts given by the Sultan of Bengal or King of Bengal one can say certainly that Bengal was rich in resources. It was a civilised nation. Chinese trade with Bengal consisted of gold, silver, and satins, silk, blue and white porcelain, copper, iron, vermillion, quicksilver and grass mats. I saw some Chinese blue and white porcelain preserved in the mini-Museum of Lalbagh fort in Dhaka. It was built by Prince Azam, son of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1678. In the fifteenth century, according to Chinese accounts, Bengal used to produce white paper which was smooth and glossy, cotton fabrics, silk and embroidered silk handkerchiefs.

After the fall of the Ming dynasty, political and trade relations between Bengal and China had ceased.

From the fifteenth century till the arrival of the British Raj there had not been much activity worth mention in the diplomatic arena in Bengal. During the period of subjugation under the British, Bengalis had no place in the field of diplomacy. Following the partition of British India, professionalism in diplomacy had taken shape. Competitive examination requiring a high educational standard had been introduced. Every year selection had been made for entry into diplomatic service through competitive written examination plus viva voce. However, there was wide disparity in recruiting from East Pakistan which became part of Pakistan during the partition of British India in 1947. A few had been inducted into diplomatic service from East Pakistan at the initial stage which became an independent and sovereign country after a bloody war of liberation in December, 1971. Some of them were rated as diplomats par excellence. The name of Khawaja Mohammad Kaiser may be mentioned in this regard who served as Pakistan Ambassador to China. Ambassador Abul Fateh was in Iraq as Pakistan Ambassador. Ambassador K. K. Panni from Manila and Ambassador Abdul Momen from Argentina defected as well. To my knowledge, Salimuzzaman, Deputy High Commissioner in London, and Manzur Ahmed Chowdhury, Counsellor in Pakistan mission in Paris, did not resign. During the war of liberation, many Bengali diplomats of Pakistan foreign service, who were posted in missions abroad, declared their allegiance to Bangladesh. The first in the series of defection was K. M. Shehabuddin, Second Secretary, and Amjadul Haq, Assistant Press Attaché in New Delhi, followed by A. H. Mahmood Ali in New York who recently served as Foreign Minister of Sheikh Hasina's so-called poll-time cabinet. The entire Bengali officers and officials numbering 70 working at the Deputy High Commission of Pakistan in Calcutta, India including Hossain Ali, Deputy High Commissioner, declared their allegiance to Bangladesh in April, 1971. This was an all-time record in the history of diplomacy when diplomats and officials defected en masse to an emerging country. Second secretary Mohiuddin Ahmed from London defected on April 10. The news of defection from the Pakistan embassy in Washington, DC on August 04, 1971 received worldwide attention. The defection of diplomats in Washington DC gave a big jolt to the Pakistan administration.

Among the high-ranking diplomats, who declared their allegiance to Bangladesh, names of Abdul Fateh, Abdul Momin, K. K. Panni and Abdul Momen are worth mentioning. All of them were holding ambassadorial ranks.

Technically, the first Bangladesh mission was set up in Calcutta on 18 April, 1971 when Bengali diplomats stopped normal functioning at the Pakistan Deputy High Commission and converted it into a Bangladesh mission. It was followed by an Information Centre which was set up in New Delhi on 26 April with K. M. Shehabuddin as its chief. On December 06, 1971 Bangladesh government in exile decided to open trade missions like trade representation in the USSR, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc. to establish commercial relations with different countries until Bangladesh is recognised by the international community. The Government of India gave a green signal to operate the Bangladesh Trade Mission from Calcutta. That was indeed a success story of diplomacy in pre-liberation days.

The role played by Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury, after quitting the position of Head of Pakistan Delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, was very effective indeed. Justice Abu Sayeed along with Bengali diplomats in different parts of the world played a significant role in mobilising public opinion against genocide and in favour of recognition of Bangladesh. The role of first Foreign Secretary Mahbubul Alam Chashi, who resigned in protest from Pakistan Foreign Service during the regime of Gen. Ayub Khan has many caps to his credit in dealing with foreign policy during the crucial days of Bangladesh. It would not be fair to ignore the role of Iqbal Ather, a Pakistani diplomat, who resigned in protest from Ambassadorial rank from Italy against repressive measures in erstwhile East Pakistan. Iqbal Ather joined the diplomatic corps of the newly-independent Bangladesh and contributed towards improving the image of Bangladesh along with Ambassador Ataur Rahman in Arab and African countries.

The fortitude, sagacity and sacrifice shown by Bangladeshi diplomats during the period of national crisis, will be remembered by the nation in the years to come. In the history of diplomacy their role will remain an epoch-making episode.

Mohammad Amjad Hossain, retired diplomat from Bangladesh and former President of Nova chapter of prestigious Toastmasters International Club of America, writes from Virginia, USA. [email protected]

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