ASHFAQUE was not well the last few months. He had to deal with two major illnesses where either one would have been difficult for anyone to deal with, even if they were not of his age. One of them was a heart condition and when he was recently admitted to hospital for his heart related ailment and was on the operating table, he unfortunately suffered a cerebral attack that left him partially paralysed. Yet when Ambassador Shamim Ahmed and I visited him in the hospital fearing the worst, that he would be depressed and perhaps not fully in his senses, we ended up gossiping for over half an hour.
I hurriedly went on Facebook where there is a page for the Associations of the BSC (FA) Ambassadors, where there was a great deal of concern about Ashfaque's well-being. I posted that he was better and would soon be out and back to his busy life as a newspaper columnist, talk show guest and a regular expert in seminars on foreign policy and strategic affairs. That, of course, did not happen, as soon after that visit, he was taken to Singapore twice, once in an air ambulance. We then had the uneasy feeling that he was not going to be with us for long.
Ashfaque was a brilliant professional diplomat, crowning a glorious career with three coveted ambassadorial assignments at the Bangladesh foreign service, to Singapore, Germany and China. He was one ambassador who would have suited in the office of the Foreign Secretary, hand in glove, but missed the august position through no fault of his. He did not start his career in the foreign service, joining the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) through the CSS Examination of 1969 when it was the most coveted service in Pakistan. Ashfaque could not wait to join it and although the competition to join was intense, he joined it with consummate ease as his friends all knew he would, having earned the Chancellor's Gold Medal in the essay competition on the way, one of the most prestigious academic awards of Dhaka University in the 1960s.
Thus he took the CSS Examination a year ahead of most of us who were his university batch mates, not waiting to complete his Master's in Economics. It was his brilliant academic background having stood 6th in the Dhaka Board in Humanities that gave him the confidence to take the CSS Exam early. His family background helped him a lot. His father, Fazlur Rahman, was one of the most distinguished civil servants of the Pakistan era, having joined the Bengal Civil Service in the British era, missing the Indian Civil Service by one position. It was his poor handwriting that stood between him and becoming an ICS officer on merit. Two of his elder sisters' husbands were also in the erstwhile civil service of Pakistan, Kamaluddin Ahmed, former Home Secretary and Bangladesh Ambassador to Belgium and the late Mr Ershadul Huq.
Ashfaque, of course, shone in his distinguished career on his own merit. His change of cadre from the civil service to the foreign service was destined to help bring out his potential, because from the civil service, he brought the necessary confidence for leadership and quickly learnt the arts of diplomacy where his high level of intellect was a great asset. On FB, his former seniors, peers and juniors commented on the news of his passing away with heartfelt tributes, with his juniors highlighting in unison how much they were enriched by their association with him. To his peers and seniors, Ashfaque was the quintessential diplomat who enriched any and all the posts he had occupied in his distinguished career in the ministry and the missions.
I was in touch with Ashfaque in China and with Shamim Ahmed in Pakistan while I was in Japan towards the end of our respective carriers in 2006-2007, regarding the establishment of a foreign and strategic affairs related think tank in Dhaka after our retirement. And it was Ashfaque's vision and determination that allowed us to form the Centre for Foreign Affairs (CFAS) with him as the Chairman in 2007. We held many seminars and roundtable discussions on critical aspects of our foreign policy that were extremely well received among those who followed these issues. Ashfaque was a natural leader for such a think tank and whether we were in seminars, roundtable discussions or meetings, Ashfaque always left his indelible mark upon those we addressed or met.
Later, Ashfaque also excelled as a columnist and wrote the exciting “Sunday Pouch” for The Daily Star. He also appeared regularly in television talk shows where his intellect and analytical abilities were outstanding. Ashfaque showed his superb qualities in the Track Two diplomacy we at the CFAS carried out with the Kunzu Centre of India on India-Bangladesh relations in 2009-2010, in search of a document to institutionalise the initiatives that were opened in the relations of the two countries, primarily by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. That document that CFAS presented to the Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and the Kunzu Centre to the Indian Foreign Minister was a valuable document for the two sides.
Ashfaque, our dear friend, you lived your life to the fullest and everyone who was a part of it benefitted greatly from it. I went through quotes from great writers to do justice to your life and picked one from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
We will look for you henceforth in the stars our dearest friend, and certainly shall we see you asking us not to worry and telling us that you are as happy in the heavens as you were on this earth.
M Serajul Islam was a colleague of the late Ambassador Ashfaqur Rahman.