London 71: The opening of diplomatic offensive

Mohiuddin Ahmed

Mr. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury summoned me one evening in early August of 1971 at his home in north London to receive some fund for the operation of our proposed Bangladesh mission in London. I cannot remember the day exactly but it must have been a day between 10th and 15th of the month. I had resigned from my post of second secretary with the Pakistan High Commission in London on 1st August and so did MAL Matin, another second secretary, on 4th August. It was following our resignations to work for the Liberation of Bangladesh that Justice Chowdhury decided to open a diplomatic front outside India, to mobilise support in the big diplomatic corps also for our War of Liberation, with Justice Chowdhury at its head. It should be mentioned that he was already leading the campaign in an effective manner -- all over Europe and America, with headquarters in London. He had already an office at 11, Goring Street and now he wanted a diplomatic office also.

I had wanted to resign much earlier, on 10th April to be precise, when I had first met Justice Chowdhury at BBC's Bush House, where he had gone to give his first interview to Peter Gill of the Daily Telegraph. Justice Chowdhury had restrained me saying that he had to orgainse himself first and then at an appropriate time he would send me the signal to join him.

When in the middle of 1971, our Liberation War had gained momentum, he decided on the course of the diplomatic offensive in London where most countries of the world had representations and therefore a fitting place to project our cause and our sufferings in the hands of the Pakistan occupation army in Bangladesh.

With his advice and guidance we had in the meantime selected a place at Nottinghill Gate in central London. It was well connected by bus and underground train services and therefore easily accessible to our people coming from other areas of London and beyond. In the selection of this venue which subsequently became the Bangladesh centre and continues to be so as our acquired property, Mr Donald Chesworth, then the president of War on Want and one of the three trustees of our Bangladesh fund, played a mighty big role. The other two trustees were Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury and Mr. John Stonehouse then a Member of the British House of Commons. He was one of our British heroes in 1971.

Mr Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury had the personnel for his proposed diplomatic mission, he had a venue also, but where to find the fund to run the mission? At his instruction we had made an estimate of the barest minimum costs for rent, telephone, stationary and subsistence allowance for the skeleton staff, and it came to about £2500 a month.

We had Bangladesh Fund where to, so to say, all Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan were donating on a weekly basis. This fund by then had accumulated several hundred thousand pounds. But Justice Chowdhury would not make any expenditure out of this fund except for war purposes. He had assured me earlier that he would raise the fund for the diplomatic mission separately.

Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury had instructed me to ask Lutful Matin also to be present that evening at his residence.

At the appointed time of the day, we made it to his house separately from our houses in two different locations of London. Justice Chowdhury was living in this temporary house with his wife and their three minor children.

That evening we found another guest, Dr. Musharraf Hossain Joarder, apparently waiting for us at the residence of Justice Chowdhury. In between tea and snacks, Justice Chowdhury gave me in a sheaf of high denomination notes £5000.00 to meet the expenses of the diplomatic mission for about two months and asked Matin to give a receipt to Dr. Joarder for this amount. When I asked him who the donor of this amount we should mention in the receipt, he replied that it would be in the name of Mr Subid Ali.

The name, quite unknown to me and Matin, made us stare at each other for a few brief moments. Then I mustered some courage and politely sought some further information of this Mr Subid Ali from Justice Chowdhury. He dismissed us in one brief sentence, 'you will know about him in course of time.' So that was the end of the discussion on Mr. Subid Ali. Neither I nor Matin raised the subject again with Justice Chowdhury.

As planned earlier, and now that we had the fund also for minimum two months, the diplomatic mission was inaugurated in the morning of Friday 27th August with a large crowd blessing us. It brings tears to my eyes when I remember that some Bengali members of staff who were still with the Pakistan High Commission in London had the courage and patriotism to be present in that August morning to express their solidarity with us.

Late Anthony Mascarenhas, who became world famous by publishing a report of about 10 thousand words on the genocide in Bangladesh in the Sunday Times of London of 13th June, prayed for our success in a speech in the inaugural function. So did Simon Dring, who had exposed Pakistan army's brutality on our people on the night of 25th March, in a long report published in the Daily Telegraph on 30th March. This was the first eyewitness account of a journalist on the scale of terror and mass killing in Dhaka to move the world.

That morning we all were deeply moved, because we had made a successful beginning.

We had also amongst us Mr. Abul Fateh, Pakistan's erstwhile Ambassador to Iraq, protesting the genocide on the Bengalis. He had also resigned from his post and flown to London on 21st August via Kuwait with the help of the Indian missions in Baghdad and Kuwait. He was the first of the two Bengali ambassadors we got by our side in 71, the other being Mr. Abdul Momen, who was Pakistan's ambassador in Argentina. He had also flown to London on 11th October 1971 giving up his ambassadorial post.

Pakistan's High Commissioner in the UK, Salman Ali, that day early in the morning, had gone to the British Foreign and Commonwealth office, to protest the opening of Bangladesh mission. Mr. Joseph Godbar, the Minister of State, dismissed him saying that the Bengalis were not violating any British law and the British government was not recognising the Bangladesh mission; therefore the Pakistani High Commissioner did not have any point to complain about. The following day British newspapers gave the opening of our mission good coverage as also the visit of Pakistani high commissioner to the British foreign ministry.

It was 6th January 1972 evening; I was doing some work at my desk in the Bangladesh mission at 24, Pembridge Garden when I was summoned by Justice Chowdhury at his office on the same ground floor. Mr. Chowdhury would be leaving for Dhaka the following morning. In the meantime we had observed our victory day at our mission on 16th December in the presence of a huge media crowd. Mr. Chowdhury for most part of first three weeks of December was in New York, attending the Security Council and General Assembly debates of the United Nations.

When I entered his room, Mr. Chowdhury motioned me to sit. I took a chair and saw a stranger on another chair next to me.

Mr. Chowdhury opened the talk. “Do you remember you had asked me who Mr. Subid Ali was when I had handed over £5000 to run this mission?” Yes Sir, I do member that evening in early August last year, I replied.

“Here is Mr. Subid Ali now sitting beside you. His real name is Mr. Zahurul Islam. He has been living in London for the last few months anonymously with the help of Dr. Joarder. He had fled Bangladesh feigning illness leaving behind his wife and children. Dr. Joarder has been keeping him in the Backenham Hospital under his care as a patient.”

I did not member that I had seen Mr. Zahurul Islam before. But that evening, in my first ever meeting with him, I bowed my head to him in deep and profound respect for that big grant he had made for our diplomatic mission. More important than the amount was the gestures of his patriotism for Bangladesh and love and respect for Mr. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury to whom he had extended support in many other forms in those days of our trials and tribulations in 1971 in a foreign land.

In retrospect, I am certain that the money was well spent on this diplomatic mission. The British government did not recognise Bangladesh or its mission until after our victory on 16th December. This recognition came on 4th February, 1972. Nevertheless, this newly opened mission had become the address of all Bengali diplomats who were resigning from their posts in different capitals of the world. By the end of 1971 about 20 Bengali officers and staff had joined us in London.

The author is a former secretary.

©, 2008. All Rights Reserved