Sheikh Hasina came back at a time when the concept of Bangladesh has already been buried deep down the earth and the history to a great extent erased. The Awami League which led the Liberation War to victory was in shambles with factionalism and drifting like a ship without a captain in the deep ocean. In such a dismal and disappointing situation when there was darkness all around, Sheikh Hasina who was then only 33 years old took up the presidency of the Awami League. It was a great feat of courage and valour on her part. She proved herself to be the courageous daughter of a courageous father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. From then on, she under never ending intrigues and constant threats and innumerable attempts on her life continued to lead the Awami League, the country and its people to re-establish the lost ideals of the Liberation War, freeing the country from the culture of impunity by holding trials under the existing legal system of the country and providing the accused the right of self-defence in the Bangabandhu murder case. At the end, the Session Court pronounced its judgment with the provision of appeal to the higher courts. The High Court Division heard the appeal and pronounced its judgment, upholding the verdict of the trial court (Session Court) with minor changes. But the legal procedure could not be completed by holding appeal hearings at the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh as the new BNP-Jamaat led government (2001-2006), then in power, did not deliberately take any initiative to appoint the required number of judges to hear the appeal and complete the process of the trial. The policy of denial of justice continued in the country.
The AL again returned to power in 2008 and completed the trial process of the Bangabandhu murder case. Since independence, the trials of the war criminals of the Liberation War could not be held for one pretext or the other. Sheikh Hasina after assuming again the office of the Prime Minister on January 6 in 2009, moved to constitute the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for the trial of crimes against humanity done during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. The trials of the war criminals started maintaining international standards and norms. Many of those have been completed and some others are going on.
In 2018, fourteen years after the deadly August 21 grenade attack on an Awami League rally, a Dhaka court pronounced its verdict upholding the principle of rule of law and shunning away the culture of impunity. A few years back, the terrorists became quite active in the country. However, the pace and magnitude of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh continued to decline in recent years. Here it needs to be mentioned that the government of Bangladesh pursues a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy toward terrorism and the use of its territory as a terrorist safe haven.
As mentioned earlier, the illegitimate military regimes made a number of changes in the Constitution and changed its basic and egalitarian character. Through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Hasina government tried to bring back some of those original provisions as well as some changes of significant nature in the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment was passed on 30 June 2011. It scrapped the system of Caretaker Government and also made changes to the Constitution that included increase in the number of women reserve seats to 50 from existing 45; after the article 7 it inserted articles 7(a) and 7(b) in a bid to end takeover of power through extra-constitutional means; restored secularism and freedom of religion; incorporated nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as the fundamental principles of the state policy and acknowledged Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Father of the Nation.
In the economic front, nobody disputes the economic successes of Sheikh Hasina’s government. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) ranked Bangladesh as the fastest growing economy in the Asia-Pacific region, surpassing China, Vietnam and India. A report of the World Economic Forum predicted that propelled by a robust manufacturing sector and an enormous boom in infrastructure, Bangladesh has set a target of becoming a developed nation by 2041 to coincide with the platinum jubilee of its independence. In fact, the last decade has witnessed unprecedented economic growth in Bangladesh, often described as a basket case due to years of economic stagnancy under the military or military-backed regimes. It is now agreed upon even by the critics that a steady growth rate of 7% in the past decade has pushed Bangladesh closer to acquiring the status of a middle income country.
In 1996, when Sheikh Hasina first came to power and broke the monopoly in the telecommunications industry, ushering in competition between companies. As an obvious consequence, it has helped mobile financial services to flourish in the country ensuring greater accessibility for the people and manifold increase in government revenue from the sector. The government of Sheikh Hasina has also opened up many sectors to the private sector, including health, banking, higher education, TV and even export processing and economic zones. At the same time, her government has substantially widened and expanded welfare programmes to lift the poorest and most neglected section of the population and increased subsidies for other crucial elements of the economy such as agriculture. Many have mentioned that the single most decisive factor behind Bangladesh’s spectacular successes, especially in the economic sector, is that Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister and the leader of the country has been successful in infusing a sense of confidence in the psyche of the people that with concerted efforts people can overcome any or all odds. The best glaring example of this attitude is the decision made by her government to construct the Padma Bridge with own fund.
As a result of sustained accelerated economic growth, the country’s poverty rate has decreased sharply. This has been recognised by different international institutions. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh's poverty rate fell from 82% in 1972, to 18.5% in 2010, to 13.8% in 2016, and below 9% in 2018, as measured by the percentage of people living below the international extreme poverty line. It is envisaged that based on the current rate of poverty reduction, Bangladesh will be able to eliminate extreme poverty by 2021. The country is on its way to becoming the first South Asian nation to achieve that feat. In the area of social development, Bangladesh’s success stories are much better than other countries in South Asia. Gender parity, safety net for the marginalised, school enrolment (particularly of girls), water, sanitation and health services for all including rural areas are some of the important areas where Bangladesh has made remarkable progress.With respect to climate change, Bangladesh is one of the frontline states exposed to all kinds of negative impacts. In recent years, it has taken a number of initiatives for mitigation and adaptation. With respect to mitigation and adaptation, Bangladesh has emerged as a global leader and an exemplary case for other countries to follow. Bangladesh is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping operations. As of December 2017, there were 7,246 Bangladeshi troops and police personnel in 10 missions around the world.
The discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government against the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine have forced Rohingyas to flee their homeland starting from the late 1970s. There are presently 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Despite many problems such as the availability of limited resources, Bangladesh has extended its all- out help and cooperation in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
In all these years, Bangladesh has also made impressive progresses in various sports. She is now one of the test playing cricketing nations of the world and has qualified for every single Cricket World cup held since 1999. Alongside men, girls are also winning many trophies for Bangladesh in a number of sports.
Here it must be mentioned that the founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman set the motion and imbibed the spirit of achievement even among the ordinary citizens. Now, the people have a vision to realise. It has emerged as a role model for others. Now, the very name Bangladesh has become a brand to denote success under all odds.
Under extreme circumstances, Sheikh Hasina had to take up the torch lit by her father, Bangabandhu. Under her leadership, people of Bangladesh again achieved democracy and rule of law. Bangladesh earned the dignity of a lower middle-income country. The country achieved tremendous success in socio-economic fronts during her tenure. In 1996-2001 terms, Sheikh Hasina’s government achieved laudable successes in many fields. She also introduced beneficial programme for farmers and social safety nets for the distressed, landless and deprived people. These include allowances for distressed women, widows, disabled and freedom fighters; Ashrayan for the homeless and “One house-One farm” scheme. Sheikh Hasina’s government’s achievements included increased power production capacity, elevation of 5 crore people to middle-income group; distribution of free text books among the students up to secondary level, distribution of agri-cards and scope to open bank accounts with Tk 10 only for farmers.
Now the whole world including Bangladesh is caught in a deadly pandemic caused by the Covid-19 Virus. Bangladesh like many other countries also resorted to adopting the lockdown strategy to contain the spread of the virus and save the life of the people. Due to lockdown everything has come to a standstill and become a threat to livelihood of millions of people of the country. To save peoples’ livelihoods and the economy the government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina has introduced a number of safety net and stimulus packages of more than Taka 1 trillion. Budgetary allocation in the health sector has been significantly increased. Specifically to fight Covid-19, Taka 10,000 crore has been allocated as a separate package in the current budget of the country. Now gradually, Bangladesh is coming out of the lockdown strategy opening up everything. The pandemic has been a great setback to all. Because of the slowing down of everything particularly economic activities Bangladesh will also suffer great setbacks. Many suspect that the poverty situation would worsen. However, there are also positive signs of opening up of all other countries that were under lockdown. This is having positive impacts in the global economy. Once the pandemic is over or under control either with the help of therapeutic protocols or any kind of vaccine the world economy is predicted to bounce back. Then again, we will be able to reap the benefits of higher economic growth, fall in the poverty rate and better standard of living of our people. Finally, Bangladesh people are resilient and can fight under all odds. They earned many laurels under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. With his gruesome assassination, Sheikh Hasina, the miraculously surviving eldest daughter took up the rein of the Awami League leadership at the age of only 33 under constant threats and death attempts. With formidable courage in the face of death and destruction like her father she led the party to victories, got rid the country of the culture of impunity, distortion of history and reinstated many of the egalitarian principles that were erased out in the Constitution again. Under her leadership, the country was pulled out of the stigma of the ‘bottomless basket’ with that of ‘basket full’.
On the death anniversary of Bangabandhu, we as a nation want to express our profound gratitude to him to leading us to victory, establishing an independent and sovereign country for which our people struggled for centuries, consolidating the victory and setting the new born country on firm footing to stand high in the comity of nations. Killers cut short his life in the night of darkness leaving behind his two daughters to carry forward his ideals and complete unfinished tasks and re-establish the true ideals of the Liberation War. Sheikh Hasina and Rehana’s survival must have been the will of the Almighty to carry forward the torch of Bangabandhu with success which none could ever think off. The murderers have physically annihilated Bangabandhu but failed to kill his invincible spirit.
(Different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka.