Sheikh Hasina: The Change Maker

Abdul Mannan

27th September, 2020 10:27:17 printer

Sheikh Hasina: The Change Maker

Abdul Mannan

Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the eldest child of slain Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib, will be stepping into her 74th birthday on 28th September, and this year the day comes when the nation is celebrating the Birth Centenary of her illustrious father and the tragic hero of Bangladesh’s history. With the assassination of Bangabandhu with his entire family on the early morning of 15th August 1975, the hope of Bangladesh’s future looked bleak as the Military ruler Ziaur Rahman usurped the state power and declared himself as the Chief Martial Law Administrator and later the self-styled President of Bangladesh. History has no proof that any country prospered under a military ruler and Zia was no exception. Before Zia took over, Khondakar Mostaq Ahmad assumed the role of the President of Bangladesh on the evening of 15th August 1975. Mostaq, who was a close and trusted confidant of Mujib since 1948, spearheaded the conspiracy to assassinate Bangabandhu. He was booted out of power by Zia and his cohorts on 6th November 1975. On 15th August Sheikh Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana were in Germany (on that day holidaying in Belgium) with Dr. Wazed Miah, Sheikh Hasina’s husband, where he was working on a research project.

Both Mostaq and Zia to lengthen their list of sins promulgated the infamous ‘Indemnity Ordinance’, later to be incorporated in the Constitution. The Ordinance simply indemnified the killers of 15th August, which meant that their crimes of that day shall not be challenged in any court of law. Both Hasina and Rehana cried in silence and prayed for those killed on that fateful morning. At that moment the future of the sisters also looked uncertain. Though during her student days, Hasina was involved in politics as a member of Chhatra League and was elected the vice-president of Eden Mohila College Students’ Union, she never held any port-folio in Chhatra League. After her marriage with Dr. Wazed Miah, she just became a housewife and took the responsibility of raising her two children. Hasina never thought of being either the Prime Minister of Bangladesh or being in politics. However, history decided her destiny and today she is not only the fourth-time Prime Minster of Bangladesh but also recognised as an acclaimed and accomplished statesman of her time.

After the killing of Bangabandhu on 15th August and four national leaders inside the Dhaka Central Jail on 3rd November 1975, the country’s largest and oldest political party Bangladesh Awami League, which spearheaded our War of Liberation in 1971 and all democratic movements prior to that, was virtually banished. Though, the wife of slain Awami League leader Tajuddin Ahmed Begum Zohra Tajuddin tried to hold on to the remnants of Awami League to revamp the party and mould into a force, to reckon with party’s mid-ranking leaders it was found necessary to pick Bangabandhu’s eldest daughter Hasina to lead the party. Accordingly in the party’s special council, held in February 1981, Hasina was elected as the president, though she was in political asylum in New Delhi, concealing her real identity.

Hasina returned to Bangladesh on 17th May 1981 amidst uncertainties and risks. In a similar situation, the Philippines’ self-exiled popular opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. returned from the US, following a popular mass movement against the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos on 21st August 1983.  Aquino was shot dead by the forces loyal to Marcos in the Manila Airport. Hasina’s return to Bangladesh was also not without fear or risk as General Zia, who was overtly and covertly involved in the killing of Bangabandhu, was then Bangladesh’s President. A few other military officers and politicians involved in the killings were still living in Bangladesh and were very close to Zia. Hasina braved all odds and returned to Dhaka alone. This was a different homecoming for the daughter of Mujib as she was returning to an empty home. The killers of August assassinated seventeen of her family members, including her parents. She was just 34-years-old without having much experience handling the complex national politics of Bangladesh, although she was born and grew up in an illustrious political family.

Hasina was a quick learner. She mastered the intricate and complex web of Bangladesh politics, cobbled together the bits and pieces of Bangladesh Awami League, and by the middle of the eighties emerged as the single most powerful political leader of the country. The anti-Ershad movement, which was triggered by the students of Bangladesh, later joined by the Begum Zia led seven-party alliance, was not making much headway while Ershad remained defiant. It was only when Hasina and her party joined the movement that the movement gained momentum, ultimately toppling Ershad in December of 1990. During the anti-Ershad movement, a number of attempts were made to kill Hasina but she escaped those attempts, thanks to the sacrifices made by her party workers. Unfortunately, the Awami League-led alliance failed to win the general election of 1991 due to covert national and international conspiracies and intrigues but that did not deter Hasina from going ahead with her political agenda: fulfilling the dreams of her father, making Bangladesh a secular, democratic country, which will be free from hunger, illiteracy and poverty. 

There were sceptics who were not much convinced that Hasina may be successful as a Prime Minister. Leading a political party and leading the country are two different things. But when Hasina formed the government in 1996, 21 years after Awami League was thrown out of power by the assassins of 1975, people saw a different Hasina, a lady with courage, determination, patience, humility and vision. The country, which was misruled by Zia, Ershad and to a great extent by Begum Zia, soon found itself a new leader with all leadership qualities, who could steer her party and the country in difficult times. Hasina soon paid attention to remove all the obstacles to development, beginning with the most important sectors of Bangladesh’s economy: agriculture, power development, communication, social development and education. A Bill to annul the Indemnity provisions from the Constitution was tabled in the parliament and the provision was declared ultra vires to the Constitution and dropped, paving the way for the trial of the killers of August 1975. By the time, Hasina finished her first term as the Prime Minister.

The rule of Begum Zia-led four-party alliance during 2001-06 was a nightmare, by any standard, for the people of Bangladesh. Begum Zia’s eldest son Tarique Rahman ran a parallel administration that turned the country into a haven of militants and the gunrunners, and corruption became endemic in all sectors. It was during this time when Hasina escaped another well-choreographed assassination attempt on 21st August 2004, clearly masterminded by Begum Zia’s prodigal son Tarique Rahman. But like her father, Hasina was not to be deterred from her mission. By the time Begum Zia finished her second term as the Prime Minister, her government was disgraced both nationally and internationally.

Since Hasina was elected back to power in 2008, it was no turning back either for the country or for Bangabandhu’s daughter. Beginning in 2009, currently Hasina has been the Prime Minister for three consecutive terms. The last twelve years have seen Hasina emerging from just being the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to become a statesman whom the world respects. She has bravely faced the conspiracies to unseat her through unconstitutional means prior to the election of 2014, faced the conspiracies of the World Bank, a section of local media, politicians and civil society members against the financing of the construction of the Padma Bridge. This was not only a conspiracy to stall the construction of the bridge but also discredit Hasina and her government. She stood firm, declared that the allegation is wrongly perceived, and when it seemed that the future of the bridge is doomed, she stood tall and announced that the construction of the bridge will be financed from our own sources. Today Padma Bridge has become a nation’s symbol of pride and honour, and personally gratifying for Hasina. During her tenure, the country has stepped into the space age by launching a communication satellite in space. The country has become self-reliant in food production and power generation. The literacy rate has gone up to 73 percent while the poverty rate has fallen at 21 percent, nearly half of what it was a decade back.

To become a leader and a statesman, one has to have vision, courage, patience, determination and commitment to cause, honesty and humility, which Hasina possesses. Like her father and any other human, she also has weaknesses, of which the most notable one is she has put too much trust on some people close to her, who perhaps are not serving her, Awami League or the country’s interest. They are like termites and may turn into an enemy and are capable of causing her enormous damage and discredit her beyond repair. Bangabandhu also had a similar weakness that proved to be too costly and had to pay the price by sacrificing his life at their hand. On her 74th birthday, Sheikh Hasina’s well-wishers not only pray for her continuous success but also removing the invisible barriers that shield her from many of the truths, which she ought to know.

On her 74th birthday, she would love to say as usual ‘I have grown old’. She has aged for sure but she still remains young at heart and seeing her track record both as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, it is safe to say the country needs her leadership for many more years to come. People see hope in her. Many see a deluge after her and it is not without reasons. Unfortunately, the people Mujib loved have not been able to see him live one hundred years but would love to see his daughter Hasina celebrates her 100th birthday. Wish you many happy returns of the day Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. May Allah be always with you!

The writer is a former Chairman, University Grants Commission of Bangladesh