After many ups and downs, Bangladesh is continuing with its democratic parliamentary system of government for the last three decades. Currently, the Awami League that led the liberation war to victory is in power for the three terms in a row under the leadership of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Here it needs to be mentioned that Sheikh Hasina first became the Prime Minister in 1996 after the election victory of the Awami League. Now she is continuing as the Prime Minister for the fourth term. If one looks at the political history of Bangladesh would find that Sheikh Hasina’s entry into politics under the extreme hostile environment marked by killings and political repression hitherto unknown was an epoch making event. In fact, it began the renewed struggle to reestablish Bangladesh that was buried with the gruesome assassination of Bangabandhu, his family members, next of kin and four national leaders. In place of Constitutional rule, the country was brought under the Martial Law which had no reference in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Born to SucceedIn fact, the killers of Bangabandhu did not only kill the great leader but also wanted to kill the spirit of the nation for which the country was created. The subsequent governments that assumed the state power tried to reshape the destiny of the nation. The chronology of events and developments in the political sphere over the years revealed the ultimate hidden agenda of the conspirators. They even amended the preamble of the Constitution which enshrined the supreme will of the people. Amendments were also made to the fundamental principles of state policy. In this way, the egalitarian character of the Constitution was destroyed. Besides Constitutional amendments, every effort was made to rehabilitate the war criminals. The religion based political parties which were banned after the liberation allowed to participate in the political process of the country.
When the country and the nation were passing through seemingly an all lost situation, Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to the country from exile as the elected leader of the Awami League to lead the party and reestablish the ideals of the liberation war. Here it needs to be mentioned that in a national council session of the Awami League in February, 1981, Sheikh Hasina was elected the party president in her absence. Her election to the party presidentship paved the way for her return to the country on May 17, 1981. But heinous wraths of the unconstitutional usurpers of the state powers befell on her as soon as she launched movements to restore democracy in the country upon her return from the exile. She was detained time and again. The conspirators did not stop there. By unlawfully using the state machineries, made at least 19 attempts on her life till to date. All these dastardly attempts could not detract her from her mission. She reorganised the Awami League and with her leadership skills and charisma put an end to factionalism within the party and unified it once again as a formidable political party of the country with mass support base. From the day one, after her return to the country, Sheikh Hasina launched movements for ending the military rule that was in place in the country under the civilian garb. Democracy was restored in the 90’s with the resignation of General Ershad. In the general election held in June, 1996, Awami won and became the single largest majority party in the Parliament and formed the government. Sheikh Hasina was sworn in on 23 June, beginning her first term as the Prime Minister. This ushered in a new era in Bangladesh politics.
The Awami League came back to power again with peoples’ mandate after 21 years in the wilderness. For this great feat, Sheikh Hasina deserves the ultimate credit for reorganising and keeping the party united under personal death threats and attempts. The process of establishing the true spirit of the liberation war started with the assumption of Sheikh Hasina to power as the Prime Minister of the country after more than two decades. Sheikh Hasina served her first term from 1996 to 2001. She tried to free the country from the culture of impunity by repealing the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, which protected the killers of Bangabondhu and other leaders. Here it must be mentioned that the Bangabondhu murder trial started under the existing laws of the land. The accused received the full support and protection of law to defend them.
The Hill districts in Bangladesh include Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. The population of the hill districts is little over one million that include about 11 different ethnic groups. Soon after the independence of the country, these groups felt alienated from the mainstream national life and politics. The successive governments failed to dispel their perceived fears and concerns and they ultimately resorted to armed insurgencies to realise their demands. Sheikh Hasina’s government signed the peace treaty between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) on 2 December, 1997. The treaty was signed with the primary objective to end the hostilities and moving forward in ensuring rights and to expedite socio-economic development of the people particularly the ethnic groups living in the hill districts. Through a successful diplomatic negotiation a 30-year water sharing treaty of the Ganges with India was signed. In 1999, the government started the New Industrial Policy which aimed to strengthen the private sector and encourage growth. For furthering trade and commerce, in the first tenure of her government, Bangladesh joined in many multilateral bodies.In the 2001 general election, the ‘Four Party Alliance’ led by BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami won and formed the government. After assuming power, the BNP-Jamaat led government unleashed a reign of terror in the country targeting mostly the Awami League supporters and the minorities. During the BNP-Jamaat rule political killing became quite common and rampant. The Awami League MP Ahsanullah Master was killed in May 2004. This was followed by a grenade attack on 21 August 2004 on an Awami League meeting presided over by Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, resulting in the death of 24 party supporters including central leader Ivy Rahman, the wife of the former President of the Republic, Zillur Rahman. In the same year, Shah AMS Kibria former finance minister of Awami league government was also killed by grenade attack in his constituency in Sylhet. All these testifies that the BNP and its ally Jamaat like the past believed in the politics of physical annihilations of the opponents particularly the Awami League leaders and supporters. In 2008, a general election was held. The Awami League formed an alliance of a number of political parties to fight the election. The Grand Alliance (a total of 14 parties) led by the AL won the 2008 general elections with a two-thirds majority. Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as the Prime Minister for the second time on 6 January 2009. She secured a third successive term in office winning the 11th general election by a landslide. Sheikh Hasina currently is having third consecutive term, her fourth overall in 2018, when her Bangladesh Awami League won the election. The tenure of the present government is still continuing.
In the economic front, the successes of Sheikh Hasina’s government have been recognised by many. 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. In fact, the last decade has witnessed unprecedented economic growth in Bangladesh, often described as a basket case due to years of economic stagnancy. 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, Sheikh Hasina first came to power and broke the monopoly in the telecommunications industry and ushered 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 other sectors to the private investments, 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 vulnerable section of the population and increased subsidies for other crucial sectors 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 upon the refusal of the World Bank. As a result of sustained accelerated economic growth, the country’s poverty rate has decreased sharply. 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, in recent years, has taken a number of initiatives for mitigation and adaptation. In this area, the country has emerged as a global leader and an exemplary case for other countries to follow. Bangladesh is also one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping operations. The atrocities of the Myanmar government against the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine have forced Rohingyas to flee their homeland. There are presently 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Despite many problems such as the availability of limited resources, Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has extended all-out help and cooperation in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
The Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh signed the Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 to exchange enclaves and streamline their international borders. The process of the implementation of the said agreement was completed during the tenure of the prime ministership of Sheikh Hasina. The enclaves were exchanged at midnight on 31 July 2015 and the transfer of enclave residents was completed on 30 November 2015. In all these years, Bangladesh has also made impressive progresses in various sports. Alongside men, girls are also winning many trophies for Bangladesh in a number of sports.
Now the whole world including the country is caught in a deadly pandemic caused by the Covid-19. Bangladesh like many other countries also resorted to the lockdown strategy to contain the spread of the virus and save the life of the people. Due to lockdown everything had come to a standstill and livelihood of millions of people were under threat. To save peoples’ livelihoods and the economy the government 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 opening up of all other countries that were under lockdown is having positive impacts in the global economy. Once the pandemic is over or under control then again, Bangladesh will be able to reap the benefits of higher economic growth, fall in the poverty rate and better standard of living of her people.
The history always constantly evaluates particularly the political leaders in terms of their successes and limitations if not failures. The honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is also going through the same process of evaluation. The critics mention some limitations in the area of good governance particularly limited accountability and all pervasive corruption in different sectors. But it appears that Sheikh Hasina has already secured a high place of recognition for her in the book of history. It must be remembered here that Sheikh Hasina returned at a time when the concept of Bangladesh has already been buried deep down the earth and the history to a great extent either distorted or erased. The Awami League which led the Liberation War to victory was in shambles with factionalism and leadership crisis. 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. 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 to self-defense in 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 moved to constitute the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) as per the provisions of the Constitution 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 still going on. Fourteen years after the deadly August 21 grenade attack on an Awami League rally, the trial 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 that changed its basic and egalitarian character. Through Amendments to the Constitution, Hasina government tried to bring back most of those original provisions as well as bring some changes of significant nature in the Constitution. In the economic front, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh has achieved spectacular successes. During her tenure as the prime minister the GDP has increased three times and Bangladesh earned the dignity of a lower middle-income country shunning the stigma of a Basket case to prosperity. It has provided temporary shelters to more than a million forcefully displaced Rohingyas despite limited resources. Currently, the government under the proactive leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is combating the Covid-19 menace and keeping the economy growing and saving lives and livelihoods of millions of people of the country. The history is definitely keeping a record of these achievements of the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka.