THE sudden passing away of Ambassador Abul Ahsan, a former foreign secretary and the first secretary general of Saarc, is a great loss to the nation, and to his friends and admirers at home and abroad.
In every profession, there are some people who excel through their sheer brilliance and Abul Ahsan was surely one such officer in our diplomatic service. He was a meritorious student, standing first not only in college and university, but also in the fiercely competitive Central Superior Services (CSS) examination of the-then Pakistan. He was a teacher in the economics department of the Dhaka University before he joined the Pakistan Foreign service in 1961.
I had heard about Abul Ahsan before I met him. He had a very high reputation in the Pakistan Foreign Office and was well-known for his professional competence. He escaped from Islamabad through Kabul, joined our foreign ministry in Dhaka in early 1973, and played a significant role in the formulation of our foreign policy during those crucial initial years.
He played particularly important roles in the tripartite negotiations between Bangladesh-India-Pakistan to restore peace in the region, and in Bangladesh's efforts to join the United Nations and other international organisations. He had a fantastic capacity to critically analyse any complex external issue in plain and lucid terms, and was always precise in his presentations. What someone would say in three pages, Abul Ahsan could convey in less than one page.
I met him for the first time in Islamabad before leaving for my first foreign assignment at the end of 1970, and had regular interactions with him for over three decades, both at home and abroad. I also had the pleasure of working directly with him for a brief period when he took over as our ambassador in Warsaw in mid-1978. He had sterling qualities, but at the same time was so simple, unassuming, helpful and cooperative. He was a teacher and a mentor to his junior colleagues, without pretending to be one.
I particularly recall one episode. Way back in the eighties, Iran and Iraq were fighting a fratricidal war and Bangladesh, as a member of the OIC Peace Committee, was making frantic efforts to put an end to the hostilities. Abul Ahsan was our ambassador in Rome and I was director (international organisations) at the Foreign Office in Dhaka. In early 1981 he came to Dhaka on home leave, and one day dropped by my office. Among other things, we discussed about our peace efforts and I sought his views on what more could be done at the upcoming Islamic Summit Conference.
He did not respond to my question immediately. Instead, he asked for a cup of tea and a cigarette, and continued talking about different issues. After sometime, even I forgot that I had asked him that question. Suddenly he paused and said: "You had asked me a question about that war." Surprised, I nodded. He gave me a luminous history of the centuries-old rivalries between the Persians and the Arabs, and his conclusion that the warring parties were hardly in a position to abandon the war at that stage. He felt that, while we should continue with our reconciliation efforts, we should also be prepared for a long wait as neither party may give up until it had reached its point of exhaustion. He was so prophetic. Despite efforts by UN and other international efforts, Iran and Iraq fought for nine long years before agreeing to a UN ceasefire in 1989.
As the first secretary general of Saarc, Abul Ahsan played a crucial role in the setting up of the Saarc secretariat in Kathmandu, and wrote a valuable book about his experience as well as about various aspects of the regional forum. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Abul Ahsan was our foreign secretary and he played the major coordinating role in the repatriation of our evacuees, as well as in our participation in the multinational forces for the liberation of Kuwait. As the Bangladesh consul general in Jeddah at that time, I had regular interactions with him.
Abul Ahsan also served as our ambassador in Washington DC with distinction. After his retirement from service, he took part in various international election monitoring groups to oversee elections in different countries. He also served as the Bangladesh representative at the Unesco Executive Board, and as the ambassador of Bangladesh to France and to Unesco. I had several opportunities to meet him in Paris and exchange with him views about diplomacy. He also served as a vice president of the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB).
I pay my homage to this outstanding diplomat of our time, express my deep condolences to Begum Ahsan and to members of the bereaved family at their irreparable loss, and pray to Allah to grant eternal peace to his soul.