The genius of Patras

By Dr Arif Azad, The News International, July 5, 2015

In Patras Bokhari’s time Pakistan foreign policy was at its unfettered best, a period that must be examined by a historian of diplomacy

Ahmed Shah Bokhari (1898-1958), commonly known as Patras Bokhari, is reputed for his literary prowess. His claim to lasting fame is his slim volume of humorous essays titled Patras kay Mazameen. Patras is also widely known as an educationist serving as the principal of the prestigious Government College Lahore. His legend as an educationist has endured too through the Government College and through his students, Faiz Ahmed Faiz , being the most prominent. He is associated with the finest years of the college.”

However, there are two facets of his life which are not often remarked upon: one is his role as the director general of the All India Radio; second his exploits as Pakistan’s permanent representative at the United Nations (UN) where he extended himself fruitfully in the cause of anti-colonial struggles waged at the time all around the world, in particular in the Muslim world.”

Patras’s distinguished career in diplomacy began when he was asked by the newly established Pakistani government to be its diplomatic face to the outside world in 1951. Patras took up the assigned role of the permanent representative of Pakistan at the UN — an onerous role which he discharged with great ability, foresight and originality of mind. His intellectual curiosity made ripples beyond the diplomatic circles and he caught notice of Robert Frost and New York Times and New Yorker. His cosmopolitanism and diplomatic skills earned him the titles of diplomat’s diplomat and citizen of the world.

Patras also earned huge respect among the leadership of anti-colonial movement struggling to throw off the yoke of colonial powers and finding their voice within the UN system. He played an important part in putting the demands of these movements on the UN agenda. This made him the spokesman for the emerging and newly decolonised word at the UN.

As Patras had consciously groomed himself in the art of cut and thrust of debate from his student days, he used this skill to devastating effect at the UN. During debates on the Tunisian independence, he was at the height of his oratorical powers when he very deftly parried colonial powers’ blatant attempts to prevent discussions of the emerging independence movement in Tunisia and Morocco.

It was on the Tunisian question that he delivered his most searing interventions in 1952 when he took on the might of France to plead the case of Tunisian independence. In his remarkable interventions on the Tunisian anti-colonial movement he dissected the situation in Tunisia with clinical precision and exposed the long-standing French policy of brutal repression of the Tunisian independence movement. This was passionate advocacy at its best, winning him many admirers among the anti-colonial movement. In fact, Patras’s contribution to the Tunisian independence was judged of such a high merit that the Tunisian government dedicated one of the city’s main roads after him.

Patras’s time as Pakistan’s permanent representative was one of golden period of Pakistan’s independent foreign policy before Pakistan’s defence elite yoked the country to US strategic interests in the region and beyond. Patras never let an opportunity pass where he did not criticise the imperial powers for preventing discussion of the independence movement raging in different parts of the world at the UN.

He was also often critical of the US for the country’s tactical absence from the UN forums where debate on anti-colonial agitation was taking place. In particular, he criticised the US for abstaining from debate on Moroccan independence movement. Such a consistently bold stance in favour of anti-colonial agitation is unthinkable from Pakistani diplomats and governments today.

Indeed Patras’s speeches on the anti-colonial movements during his stint as Pakistan’s permanent representative must be made compulsory reading for our diplomats. His speeches at the UN show what an independent and pro-liberation movement foreign policy looks like. This can serve as a much needed corrective to our narrowly-defined foreign policy being pursued by our foreign office.

I wonder if speeches in the mould of Patras Bokhari will ever be made from the Pakistani platform at the UN or any other forum. This radical trend in foreign policy, I suspect, was introduced by Patras who, by virtue of his towering intellect and formidable reputation, could impose his vision on the run-of-the-mill bureaucrats serving under him.

Despite himself giving a firm lead on the big questions of anti-colonial movements, Patras always lamented the directionlessness and spinelessness of Pakistan’s foreign policy. When once asked about what constituted Pakistan’s foreign policy he famously replied to the effect that Pakistan had no foreign policy, it only had foreign relations, most of which were illegitimate. This remains true of Pakistan’s foreign policy today.

Another of Patras’s contribution lay in the strengthening of the UN system which was shaping up at the time. He was instrumental in setting up the UN information department as undersecretary of the UN in 1954. He brought a great deal of verve and elan to his job as the UN international civil servant. Very early on, he could see the importance of China and he was closely involved in arranging the ground-breaking visit to China for the UN secretary general.

Patras also played a not too minor role in ensuring that the UNICEF was not disbanded after the expiry of its mandate in the aftermath of the World War II. In this, he worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US president Franklin Roosevelt, who, like Patras, was passionate about the work of the UNICEF and the need for its continued relevance in the post war conditions.

In Patras’s time at the UN, first as Pakistan’s permanent representative and then as the UN under-secretary, Pakistan foreign policy was at its unfettered best. This period must be examined by a historian of diplomacy. Here his role in shaping Pakistan’s image as a sovereign and independent country wedded to the cause of decolonisation and emancipation of the colonised world would not be ignored. His speeches at the UN contributed to this image-building process in a big way and remain a living testament to his genius and versatility.