Bangladesh just concluded the celebration of its fifty years of independence. Forty years back, on 17th May 1981 Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh after spending six years in exile following the killing of her father along with the members of her entire family on the fateful night of 15th August 1975 by a group of army officers in the private residence of Bangabandhu in Dhanmondi.
During the killing it was by sheer luck that his two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana survived as they were in Europe spending time with Dr. Waged Miah, the husband of Sheikh Hasina who at that time was on a Fellowship doing some research work in Germany. On that fateful night the family was on a short vacation in Belgium and were personal guest of Bangladesh’s Ambassador in Belgium Sanaul Haque.By early morning of 15th August (time difference of five hours) the news of the mayhem in Dhaka reached Sanaul Haque through Humayun Rashid Choudhury, Bangladesh’s Ambassador in Germany. Sanaul Haque requested Choudhury to take back the family members of Bangabandhu immediately as it will not be possible on his part to keep them in his residence any more. Sanaul Haque virtually threw Sheikh Hasina and her family members out of his house. Humayun Rashid Choudhury requested Sanaul Haque to provide a transport to take Sheikh Hasina to the border of Belgium from where they will be transported to Humayun Rashid’s official residence by the Embassy transport. Sanaul Haque refused to provide the transport saying that there were no spare transport in the Embassy pool. Finally, an officer of the Embassy transported Sheikh Hasina and her family to the Belgium-Germany border from where they were taken to Humayun Rashid Choudhury’s official residence.
Still it was not exactly clear to Sheikh Hasina as to what really happened in Dhaka on that fateful night and if there were any surviving members of Bangabandhu family still in Dhaka. Sheikh Hasina and her family members were virtually in a trauma. They could not believe that anyone in Bangladesh would be so ungrateful and audacious to kill the very person who dedicated his entire life for the emancipation of the people of Bangladesh, spent thirteen years of twenty three years of united Pakistan in prison, faced death sentence at least on two different occasions charged with sedition and led Bangladesh to its independence. Humayun Rashid Choudhury through the Indian Ambassador in Germany Mr Y K Puri sent a message to the then Indian Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi to provide political asylum to Sheikh Hasina and her family which Smt. Gandhi readily agreed. On 21st August Sheikh Hasina reached New Delhi with her family and they were received with motherly affection by Smt. Gandhi. It was for the first time that Sheikh Hasina came to know from her the details of the tragedy in Dhaka and was informed that none in her family members including her little brother Shiekh Russel survived the killing. Sheikh Hasina and her husband began a new life in exile in New Delhi and took the name of Mr and Mrs Mazumder. Dr. Wazed Miah was provided with a job as a researcher and Sheikh Hasina just became a housewife raising her two children Joy and Putul.
After the assassination of Bangabandhu one of the lynchpins in the killing conspiracy Khondakar Mostaq Ahmed, a long-time political associate of Bangabandhu and one of his trusted lieutenants, assumed the Presidency and declared Martial Law in the country. But Mostaq was soon booted out by General Ziaur Rahman, the then Deputy Chief of Army Staff. Though Zia did not take active part in the killing mission, he was very much aware of the conspiracy but did not inform either his superiors or Bangabandhu. Mostaq was in power just for 82 days before he was booted out by Zia. Once Zia took over the rule of the country he appointed Chief Justice A M Sayem as the lame duck President while he took the overall charge of the country. Soon Sayem was also thrown out of power and Zia became everything from Army Chief to President and the Chief Martial Law Administrator. Zia soon began to treat Bangladesh as his fiefdom and took upon himself the responsibility to convert Bangladesh into a mini Pakistan. He abolished secularism from the Constitution, incorporated the infamous Indemnity Bill into the Constitution which gave immunity to the killers of August 15th so that they could never be tried in a court of law for the mass murder and rewarded all the killers by posting them in different missions of Bangladesh abroad. While he banned Awami League, he allowed the political parties banned under the 1972 Constitution which actively opposed the creation of Bangladesh. Zia virtually dismantled Bangladesh, the very country for whose independence three million people were martyred. He even banned mentioning the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the political arena and put an embargo on the party slogan ‘Joy Bangla’. Instead he replaced it by Pakistani style ‘Bangladesh Zindabad’. All across Dhaka City bill boards were put up with writings in Arabic from the Holy Qur’an giving Bangladesh as an Islamic Country look, just failing short of naming it Islamic Republic as desired by the killers and even Pakistan. His most heinous crime was to allow Ghulam Azam, the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami to enter Bangladesh with a Pakistani passport. Jamaat and their followers and their storm troopers, Al-Badars, were responsible not only for corroborating with the occupation Pakistani forces in 1971 but also took upon themselves the task of killing the intellectuals of this county.
When Zia was consolidating his power with the help of apolitical professionals and anti-Bangladesh political forces, Bangladesh Awami League lay in shambles as most of its senior leaders were in jail, the four National Leaders killed inside the Dhaka Central prison. Some were outside the country and few even joined hands with Zia. It was only the wife of Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmed, Syeda Zohra Tajuddin, with the assistance of few young Awami League leaders and workers who struggled to keep Awami League together knowing all the dangers looming over her head. But it was clear to everyone that to revamp Awami League it was necessary to put someone at the helm of affairs whose leadership would be accepted by the party members and would have the patience, courage, vision and determination to steer Bangabandhu’s Awami League out of all troubles. On 16th February 1981 Awami held a Special Council of the party and unanimously decided to elect the eldest daughter of Bangabandhu, then living in exile in New Delhi, Sheikh Hasina as the party President. Everyone realized she was the perfect choice as she had in her the blood of Bangabandhu, the man who shaped the destiny of the people of this country during the time of united Pakistan.
A team of senior leaders travelled to New Delhi and brought back Sheikh Hasina on 17th May 1981 not only as the daughter of Bangabandhu but also as the President of Bangladesh Awami League. After six years in exile it was one of the saddest home coming in history as when she left Bangladesh to join her husband in July of 1975 she had all members of her family alive, her father was the President of the country but her return on that fateful late afternoon was full of emptiness around her. She even did not have a place to live as Zia would not allow her to enter the family residence in Dhanmondi, even to pray for all those killed on 15th August. She arranged for a prayer meeting on the road in front of the house where a small number of party workers participated.
For Sheikh Hasina it was the most difficult time of her life. She even did not know whom to trust after the betrayal of Mostaq and Zia. As luck would have it, Zia himself was assassinated in an aborted military coup on 30th May 1981 in Chittagong. For a brief period Zia’s Vice-president Justice Abdus Sattar took over, even got himself elected as a regular President just to be thrown out by another General and Army Chief Husain Mohammad Ershad on March 24, 1982. Ershad was no better than his predecessor and one time boss Zia. He took upon himself the responsibility of extending the policy of Zia and even went a bit further when he incorporated in the Constitution that the state religion of Bangladesh would be Islam, thus relegating people of all other faiths into second class citizens. Once those faithful to Zia soon boarded Ershad’s bandwagon and began singing his praise, Ershad not only began his political career as a Military Ruler but within no time became a despot disregarding all civil norms. As his predecessor, Ershad also got himself elected as the President but that changed nothing. It only gave him some sort of ‘legitimacy’. In the early eighties the students of this country following the footsteps of their predecessors started an anti-Ershad movement and pressed for the return of democracy in the country. Other political parties, labour organizations, cultural workers soon joined the movement. But no movement in this country was ever successful without the active participation of Awami League. Around 1984 Awami League also joined hands with those demanding the removal of Ershad and holding a free and fair election under a neutral non-party (caretaker) government. Ershad initially tried to resist the movement against him but when the people of the country unite for a popular common cause, they cannot be defeated. Finally Ershad resigned on 6th December of 1990.All political parties, including Bangladesh Awami League participated in the general election of 1991 held under a neutral government. It was a sort of foregone conclusion that the better organized party Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina would win the election. To everyone’s dismay that did not happen as the opponent BNP, the party that Zia floated while he was still a serving officer in the Bangladesh Army won the election with the covert support of Jamaat and in many places even with the support of deposed Ershad’s followers. Awami League was complacent and its election strategy lacked professionalism. The election defeat of Awami League in 1991 was a big setback for the party no doubt but the party President Sheikh Hasina regained from the initial shock, tried to regroup and bring about changes in the key leadership positions of the party. Soon Awami League was back on its feet, thanks to its grassroots workers whose loyalty was never in doubt. After winning the election of 1991 the widow of Zia, Begum Khaled Zia formed government and only noteworthy achievement during her 1991-1996 term was amending the Constitution to return back to the parliamentary form of government. Begum Zia’s too much reliance on self-seeking technocrats and non-political entities surrounding her, her political inexperience and naïve handling of internal and external affairs and worst of all maintaining both covert and overt relationship with Jamaat could not take her very far as a Prime Minister.
The 1996 election was won by Awami League and Sheikh Hasina formed a government with the support of JSD (Rob) and JP. In between the killing of Mujib twenty one years have elapsed before Awami League was back in power. By any standard such a feat was unparalleled in the contemporary political history. However Sheikh Hasina had to work with an administration which grew under the shadows of primarily two military rulers, Zia and Ershad who also worked for Zia’s widow. It was a big challenge for Sheikh Hasina but that is one thing she learnt from her father how to handle. During her 1996-2001 tenure the parliament revoked the infamous ‘Indemnity Bill’. Soon the trial of the killers began in an open trial court. A severe flood and a few natural disasters hit Bangladesh immediately Sheikh Hasina took over as the Prime Minister but her able handling of the crisis the problems did not go out of control.
The election of 2001 again brought Begum Zia, this time with open alliance with Jamaat to power. With every setback Sheikh Hasina seemed to gain more strength and confidence. She was maturing very fast as a politician and a leader, would redesign her political strategy when needed. The election in December of 2008 brought about a landslide victory for Awami League demolishing all other political parties and since then there was no looking back. Today, forty six years since the Father of the Nation was assassinated and after fifty years of independence Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina is a different Bangladesh both in economic and social terms. Already the country has graduated from a low income country to middle income country, become self-sufficient in food production, have earned the courage of financing mega projects like the Padma Shetu from own sources and reduced the poverty level to 20 per cent. In 2009 when Sheikh Hasina formed her government for the second term the country’s power generation capacity was 3000 MW. Today the country is capable of generating 22,000 MW of power. There is now a nuclear power plant nearing completion in Rooppur along with a coal based in Rampal, 200 miles away from the Sundarbans.
Bangladesh was always suffering from an identity crisis but once Sheikh Hasina formed her government for the second time in 2009 she led the country to change both from outside and within. When Sheikh Hasina returned to Bangladesh on 17th May 1981 she was 34 years of age, simply a housewife, mother to her children and married to a nuclear scientist Dr. Wazed Miah. She returned to an uncertainty, her life was in danger, the future unknown. She has survived number of attempts on her life, and it is believed that anyone who survives attempts on life the creator does that for some good purpose. Bangabandhu’s daughter over the years has transformed herself from a mere Prime Minister to a Statesman, a role model for the developing world. But she has challenges in front of her, the most dangerous one being rescuing the country from religious bigots, the self-styled Islamists and hate preachers. Corruption has become all pervasive amongst a section of government employees. They need to be leashed. Many are of the opinion that she is surrounded by a section of people whose allegiance to her vision and causes are doubtful. They are more bent in isolating her from the people. She just needs to put the right people in the key positions which her illustrious father was capable of doing.
On 17th May 1981 it was not only Sheikh Hasina who returned but Bangladesh returned with her as well. On this day let us all pray for a good and healthy life of Sheik Hasina. She has come a long way but still has long distance to cover and promises to keep. Sheikh Hasina deserves a standing ovation, let us give her one.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator.