No ambassador can be greater than his country

By Zubeida Mustafa

It had been a really windy day. The Karachi University campus wore a dusty look. That was not unusual. In those days there were few trees and greenery to shield it from the sprawling sandy wastes where Gulshan-i-Iqbal stands today. When we reached the University we found the tables, chairs and blackboard in the Seminar Room coated with dust which had also drawn wavy patterns on the floor.

We had learnt to ignore the natural elements as the price we had to pay for the spaciousness of the campus. This day was no different until Dr Khurshid Hyder reached the University in time for her class. She was teaching us International Relations. No sooner had she arrived, that every one was acutely made aware of how unacceptable it was for academics to be in unclean surroundings. She went straight for the broom and without much ado began sweeping the room. Of course that stirred every one into action and the students promptly took over the clean-up operation. She had given the lead.

That is how it was all her life. Whether she was conducting a tutorial class at the Karachi University or the Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad which she joined in 1971 or arguing out Pakistan’s case in the UN Security Council as Deputy Permanent Representative or presenting her credentials to Dr Kurt Waldheim in Vienna in her last assignment as Ambassador of Pakistan to Austria, Khurshid had a perfectionist touch and she expected others to follow suit.

After having returned from Columbia with her PhD in International Law in 1960, she started teaching at the Karachi University as a Reader in International Relations. As students, we found the depth of her knowledge, her capacity for incisive analysis and enthusiasm for books inspiring. But it was more than the intricacies of big power diplomacy, balance of power and international law, that she wanted to initiate us into. What was more striking was her intense drive to inculcate in her students the strong sense of order and moral values that was the hallmark of her rich personality.


She left the teaching profession which was her passion to join the Foreign Office in 1973 in her quest to combine her academic knowledge and research experience with the practical exercise of diplomacy. This, she believed, would give a new dimension and depth to the conduct of foreign policy which is a role every diplomat big or small performs in the discharge of his duties.

How far she succeeded in this goal might not be generally known — ambassadors unlike Foreign Ministers keep a low public profile. But it could not have been a sheer coincidence that the crisis in our relations with the Netherlands on the nuclear issue was resolved and the charges against Dr Qadeer Khan dropped by the Dutch government at a time when Dr Khurshid Hyder was Pakistan’s Ambassador in The Hague.

But she was always conscious of the limitations of a Third World country. A favourite dictum of hers was that no ambassador can be greater than the country he/she represents. Khurshid always insisted that international diplomacy could be no substitute for national power. No ambassador, however, efficient he might be, she said, could project his country as a strong force to be reckoned with if it lacked political cohesiveness and economic strength.

She also believed, having learnt from her stay at the UN, that the advantages multilateralism and international organisations offered to a small state were qualified by the Realpolitik of the Big Powers who dominate the United Nations and other multinational agencies.

Though as an envoy she was seized with major issues, she did not neglect what would appear to be trifles to others. On many an occasion, her brother Mumtaz, who was closest to her, saw her actually demonstrating to the Embassy domestic staff how to serve food to guests and what protocol to observe. It was inconceivable for her that Pakistan, the limits on its power notwithstanding, should not be represented in style and with due regard for propriety.

During her ambassadorial tenure in Vienna, Lupus Disease struck her. It meant regular dialysis sessions which restricted her mobility. But she did not allow her poor health to affect her work as an ambassador. Just a few weeks before she was felled by the stroke that proved fatal, she had stood for hours at the Pakistan Day reception receiving guest after guest. Then came Ramazan and there she was arranging Iftari for 200 “rozadars” at the Islamic Centre in Vienna in which she was very active. That was her last public act as Pakistan’s ambassador, before her death on April 21, the day the country was observing Allama Iqbal’s death anniversary. It was a strange coincident that her birthday was on another memorable date in Pakistan’s history — August 14.

Fifty-six is not an age to die. But Khurshid seemed prepared for it. Since her sense of order dictated that every duty had to be meticulously performed, Mumtaz found everything correctly arranged to the smallest detail, when he reached Vienna on hearing of her last illness. There were written instructions about what had to be done. She wanted to be buried in Islamabad — the city she had come to love for its scenic beauty and wide expanse and where she had planned to live after her retirement from government service. There were lists of her personal effects that were to be handed over to her family after her demise. Nothing had been left to conjecture.

In one respect Khurshid was fighting an eternal battle — as a woman. While she symbolised elegance and dignity, she could also be forceful and assertive when she wanted to. Although she never projected herself as a feminist, waging a struggle for women’s rights, how she patterned her own life demonstrated her perception of a woman’s role in society. I remember, her asking, on numerous occasions: why should not a woman who is competent in a profession not devote her energies to it while delegating her duties at home to someone else who might be better at housework?

She did not abandon her career even after she was married. Neither did the arrival of a baby in 1965 affect her professional life. In fact she went to London on a Nuffield Scholarship when Mustafa Kamal, her son, was only a few months old. He accompanied his mother.

At the Foreign Office, where she was the only woman career diplomat at the ambassadorial level in her days, Khurshid found the going tough. Initially she had received a lot of encouragement from Mr Aziz Ahmad, who was the Foreign Minister, and Mr Agha Shahi, the Foreign Secretary, who were instrumental in persuading her to join the Foreign Service through the Lateral Entry Scheme. But later on, in the Islamisation period of General Zia, she often found herself by-passed especially in the selection of delegations. She felt deeply hurt at this.

I remember meeting her in Karachi after she had returned from the Netherlands in 1984.1 had wanted to interview her. After all a Pakistani woman career diplomat is a rarity. She pondered the idea for a day and then refused. She did not want to come into the limelight for the fear that she might incur the wrath of the mullahs!

Source: Dawn 8 June 1990