17 May, Sunday will mark the 40th homecoming of the elder daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Sheikh Hasina, after spending six years in exile following the brutal murder of her parents and all the family members in the fading dark hours of 15th August, 1975, by a group of renegade army officers, most of whom were sacked from the Army earlier. Mujib’s two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, were miraculously saved as they were abroad during the massacre. The homecoming of Sheikh Hasina was marked by uncertainty as one of the alleged accomplices of the murderers, General Zia, was then the self-styled President of Bangladesh and direct beneficiary of the killing of the Father of the Nation. While in power, he floated his own Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with political riff-raffs whose only common denominator was they all hated Awami League and Mujib. And there were still many who did not endorse the creation of an independent Bangladesh and blamed Mujib for ‘breaking’ their Pakistan. They loved to be ruled, not to rule themselves.
Since her return, Sheikh Hasina has seen many ups and downs in Bangladeshi politics. She saw Zia replaced by another military ruler, Ershad. She was a witness to how Bangladesh was transformed into a mini-Pakistan and how the secular spirit of the Liberation War of 1971 was replaced by fundamentalist ideas that engulfed every sphere of the state and people’s lives.Initially, she was not allowed to enter the house that belonged to her family as it was in the custody of Zia’s government. By the time she returned to Bangladesh, many of her father’s colleagues had either abandoned Awami League politics or crossed over to join the killers of her family. Some had died and many more had become inactive, apprehending that the Awami League without Mujib was virtually meaningless. Sheikh Hasina seemed like a lonely Sherpa but the saving grace was that the grass root workers and some of her father’s senior colleagues were still holding high the tattered banner of Awami League and saw hope in Sheikh Hasina. They knew the blood of their undisputed leader ran in her veins and she was the one who could give a new lease of life to the beleaguered party. She did not disappoint them. After the initial shock that engulfed her following her return, she boldly and with determination took the reins of the Bangladesh Awami League as its President and instilled hope in the minds of the party workers and the people who had trust and faith in Awami League.
After undergoing a trying time from 1981 to 1996, still mourning the killing of her loving father along with her family members, she was elected to form the government of Bangladesh in 1996, the country her father had struggled to create. Twenty-one long years have passed since Bangabandhu was forced out of power. Awami League’s return after twenty-one years, under Mujib’s daughter, was an unparalleled feat, as in the realm of political history seldom can a party make a comeback after so many years in the face of so much uncertainty, intrigue, conspiracy and hardship. Currently Sheikh Hasina is the Head of Government for the third consecutive term and her fourth in office overall. She has pulled Bangladesh from the brink of being a failed state to one of hope and a model of progress for many underdeveloped countries. She could have done even better, if she had not had some black sheep in her party, government and among people she trusted.
This year, the anniversary of Sheikh Hasina’s homecoming comes under very challenging circumstances as the country is struggling out of the quagmire of the COVID-19 virus, commonly known as Corona, which has managed to bring 212 countries to their knees. So far approximately 4.4 million people around the world have been affected by this deadly plague, claiming more than three hundred thousand lives. It is assumed to have originated in China in December, 2019, and taken the world not only by surprise but also unprepared. So far, vaccine has neither been developed, nor any curative medicine.
In Bangladesh, it arrived in early March and, as of Thursday, approximately nineteen thousand people have been affected, of whom 283 have lost their lives, according to a conservative estimate. The actual number could be much more. In a situation like this any government, even of rich, developed countries like the USA and Japan, is put under severe stress to save people’s lives, rescue its sliding economy and see that no-one goes hungry. To do all this, a country needs a visionary and proactive leader with an efficient and effective, selfless team with which he or she is able to work and keep people’s hopes alive. In this hour of crisis, Sheikh Hasina has managed to demonstrate her ability to lead the nation but, unfortunately, in all fairness she does not have the team she deserves. On her first homecoming she was a lonely Sherpa and it seems on the 40th anniversary of that day she is once again in the same spot. But she has not allowed her people lose hope and trust in her.
Though the COVID-19 came late to Bangladesh, the Health Ministry and its different strategic organs were found napping and when the virus was knocking at the door everybody, including some very important policymakers in the government, were unaware of the havoc it could cause to the people and the country. When the danger became real many of them acted like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, waking up in a dream. What a shame! The only person it seems who did not take things easy was the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. She kept track of the developing danger and the challenges that lay ahead. When the virus struck Bangladesh with full force and thousands of people had to face a major economic challenge and lose their livelihoods due to the compulsory lockdown of many economic activities, including the shutting of factories, shopping centres, market places, public and private transport, etc.The Prime Minister could realise the pain of the people, caused by these necessary but harsh measures. She immediately ordered free relief materials to be distributed to each and every one so that no one went hungry. Many middle-income people have also been in trouble due to loss of their income. She urged them ‘please do not treat this relief as alms. It is being given from the pubic exchequer and you have a right to this exchequer.’ No assurance could be more magnanimous. She also announced generous incentive packages for different industries and individual entrepreneurs. She ordered all Bangladeshis – especially students in foreign lands - to be brought home.
During this hour of need not many seasoned politicians were seen by her side. It was the police force, the defence personnel, some government officials and student volunteers who were beside her. In a rare gesture of humanity, army helicopters airlifted relief goods to the remote areas of the Chittagong Hill Districts. She made impromptu arrangements for the accommodation and transport of our overstretched doctors and health workers. As often happens in times like this, many party leaders, elected public representatives and some government officials were found pinching relief goods meant for those in need. The Government swiftly removed those involved in such crimes, sacked all those who held public offices and lodged criminal cases against them.
To many the problem the country is facing due to this virus could have been contained in its early stage if those in charge had taken a more proactive approach. This is true. But whatever relief and comfort in life people still enjoy can only be ascribed to the visionary leadership of Sheikh Hasina. Things could have been far worse.
So, on this 40th anniversary of the homecoming day of the lonely Sherpa, Sheikh Hasina, perhaps the only thing people can ask – irrespective of any party affiliation – is what if the Sherpa had not returned forty years back and what if the Sherpa were no longer leading the nation. Praying for a long, long life for the daughter of the Father of Nation!
As I finish writing this commentary the sad news is that one of our National Professors Dr. Anisuzzaman expired at CMH in the late afternoon of Thursday due to old-age ailments. After his death he was tested Covid-19 positive. Respect and salute to a great son of the soil.
The author is an analyst and a commentator