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OP-ED: A gate-keeper of the state

  • Published at 01:13 am December 30th, 2020
Syed Muazzem Ali bimmstec panel new delhi unb
Photo: UNB

He saw himself as one of the gate-keepers of the state

Most of us, mortals, are bounded in shackles. Some in chains of gold. Some in chains of rusted steel. It is said that those who can rise beyond the compulsions of hunger and thirst -- become free. To me and to many like me, Syed Muazzem Ali remains a source of wisdom which permeates the barriers of time. 


We were in the final stages of the Land Boundary Agreement. Long 67 years of wait. An albatross of four generations, three countries, two liberations, and 55-odd thousand souls. I must admit that after nearly five years of back-breaking work, I was almost ready to let go and move on. After all, why not! 

Why could we not let a significant portion of the Indo-Bangla narrative remain as it were? And that is when comes Syed Muazzem Ali. Calling me to his office quietly on a quieter Delhi morning, he asked me calmly to sit down. Alongside being the political counsellor and head of chancery, I was also his special assistant. But more importantly, I was his student -- a favourite. 

He asked me whether I needed to have coffee. I could not decline. He called the longest serving concierge in Bangladesh Foreign Service Shahidur Rahman and asked for two cups of filtered aromatic coffee. Coffee arrived in beautiful porcelain cups. He asked me to take a sip. Again, I was not to decline. Then he did something which was not very characteristic of him. He looked at me with an unwavering glare and asked me whether I was ready to share the burden of broken hopes and bitter nightmares. 


May 7. All 331 members present from both sides in the Indian parliament voted for the bill which became the 100th constitutional amendment (119th Amendment Bill), operationalizing the Land Boundary Agreement -- swapping territories between India and Bangladesh -- 41 years after the 1974 Mujib-Indira pact.

I had asked him about the proclamation of February 21 as the International Mother Language Day by the Unesco General Conference in 1999 during his tenure in Paris. He gave me a simple answer. Sometimes, God in his infinite wisdom creates carriers of his message; the carrier’s job is then to deliver the message and to not hesitate even for a second. 

He never told me about the harshness of the struggles that he and his friend and partner-in-crime Tuhfa Zaman Ali shared. He only told me about the happiness and joy that all their struggles and enormous sacrifices had brought them. The two were inseparable -- as if it was through each that the other lived. Even the cufflinks and shoes needed to match and the red tie needed to meet the carefully manicured fondue of the text. 

Syed Muazzem Ali was -- by all definitions of the term -- a courageous man. A man of principles. A man of conviction. A human being of enormous compassion and empathy. To him, the state and the machineries of the state were to be appliances of the highest precision. 

To him, diplomacy was but one avenue through which to emancipate the suffering of the human soul. He embodied the spirit of Bangabandhu and carried in his soul the deep wells of blood and tears given to the nation in 1971. To Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lay his loyalty.  

As a valiant freedom fighter and as a diplomat, he was ready for all the many instruments of the state’s power -- both to be used and to face -- for protecting the sovereign interest of the country. He sponsored the Track 1.5 dialogue between Bangladesh and India by elevating the Bangladesh-India Friendship Dialogue to new heights with the active participation of both the political and bureaucratic leaders from both countries. 

He was always curious of the evolutionary tendencies of the society and the Westphalian state. I kept pursuing a part of those conversations even from Oxford, and consciously moved into the domain of epistemology. 

Removing barriers to free trade and movement of service providers was his favourite pastime. He was very passionate about the armed forces, the Bengali culinary heritage, and the game of cricket. But to him, above everything else, the state was the final refuge and he considered himself as one of its gate-keepers. He let us operate anyway we deemed fit, but he was not ready to answer for a single penny spent injudiciously. He understood what command meant and how command responsibility was to be borne. 

I had many questions to ask. But God, again in his infinite wisdom, left most of them un-asked and instead sent his mortal remains to be buried. Then again, was he not mine too? Isn’t he?

Dr Syed Muntasir Mamun, PhD, PGD (Oxon) is Director, International Trade, Investment & Technology, and Director, Public Diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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