As I sit to write to felicitate Bangabandhu’s daughter and Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is currently in New York attending the annual United Nation General Assembly the news of another feather being added to her hat reaches Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina has been awarded the SDG Progress Award of the UN sponsored Sustainable Development Solution Network (SDSN) in recognition of Bangladesh’s achievement under her leadership in eradicating poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring peace and prosperity in the region and political stability in Bangladesh. The moderator of the programme introduced Sheikh Hasina as the ‘Jewel of Crown’ of today. With this award the total number of international accolades conferred on her now stands at thirty eight, a feat not many political leaders nationally or internationally can boast about. Internationally she has been identified as the Star of the East and Mother of Humanity. All her awards are in recognition of her dedication for the development of her country, working for peace and changing the social condition of the people of her country and transforming Bangladesh into a role model for rest of the developing world, a feat even recognised by the President of the World Bank and international community.
Congratulations to Sheikh Hasina and Happy Birthday wishes to her on her 75th birthday.
Forty years have passed since Sheikh Hasina returned from exile and seventy four springs have gone by since she was born on 28th September 1947. The people of this country have witnessed more of Sheikh Hasina in last forty years, first as the President of Bangladesh Awami League and then as member of National Parliament where she first entered as the Leader of Opposition in 1991 and later as the Prime Minster for four terms, three in a successive row. People of Bangladesh and rest of the world have witnessed Sheikh Hasina transformed herself from just a mere party leader to national leader and finally to an internationally acclaimed statesman who had changed the façade of the country which her father created but did not live long to see his cherished dream of converting this Bangladesh into a country free from hunger, illiteracy, poverty, and an economically viable nation. Perhaps it was the fate of Sheikh Hasina and the will of the Creator that it would be Bangabandhu’s eldest daughter who will transform the country to a level of development that he dreamt and fought for in his entire life. Seventy four years later it can be safely said that Sheikh Hasina is a lady who was born to lead and a person who shared her father’s dreams. She is a lady who defied death on a number of occasions, refused to fade away amidst extreme odds and when most of her party workers did not agree with some of her decisions. She stood tall and alone and came out victorious. This was possible by her sheer determination, courage, wisdom and vision.
When once asked by a young girl in a ‘meet the people’ programme what she wanted to be in her grown-up years she said she wanted to be a school teacher. Unlike today’s children in our childhood days we had dreams about our future not that we always stuck to it. Unlike the children of my generation (Sheikh Hasina is just few month’s older than I am) today’s children usually do not dream about what they want to be when they grow up. Ironically their decisions are made by someone else, usually from the family.
When Sheikh Hasina returned to Bangladesh in 1981 the country called Bangladesh was just lying under the boots of General Zia who was the main beneficiary of the killing of Bangabandhu. He was so ruthless that he even denied Sheikh Hasina’s access to her family residence in Dhanmondi where her entire family were killed. But Zia misjudged the determination of Sheikh Hasina. She along with few of her party workers sat in front of their house and prayed for the salvation of her near and dear ones who died on that fateful day. One of the biggest challenges that she faced in her life was to re-assemble what was left of Bangladesh Awami League after the killing for her father and the four national leaders inside the Dhaka central jail. Soon after the killing of her father many of her fathers’ close political colleagues joined hands with Zia for petty political gains. She set aside her personal sorrows and pain and within the shortest possible time was able to revive Bangladesh Awami League. Unfortunately before she could challenge the military dictator General Zia he himself was assassinated in a military coup in Chittagong on 30 May 1981.
After Zia’s killing within a short period of time stepped in his shoes was another military dictator. This time it was General Ershad known more for his lavish lifestyle, lust for women and making mockery of democracy as did his predecessor General Zia. For next nine years Sheikh Hasina along with other political parties had to wage a movement to unseat Ershad. Over the years number attempts were made to assassinate her, the most heinous one being the grenade attack in her rally on 21st August, 2004. Luck was on her side and she survived. It is said sometimes people survive difficult times as the Creator wants something good out of the person. Sheikh Hasina could be one of the living examples of this saying.
The quality of a national leader is tested in the time of some national crisis. Bangabandhu faced such crisis on a number of occasions during his short life and every time he came out victorious. When he announced his Six-Point programme in 1966 for the emancipation of the Bangalis, Pakistan’s ruling dictator General Ayub Khan replied that Mujib’s Six-Point will be met with one point-gun point. Bangabandhu remained unmoved. When he was being tried for the so called Agartala Conspiracy case and facing a pre-determined death sentence he did not yield to the pressure of Pakistan’s military regime and stood his ground. The election of 1970 was a trying moment for Bangabandhu as the election was to be held under a legal framework. This election would elect a Constituent Assembly for the sole purpose of framing a Constitution for Pakistan. However the then Military Dictator of Pakistan General Yahiya Khan announced that if the framed constitution was not up to his liking he will scrap it, dissolve the assembly and announce another general election. Most political leaders of Bangladesh discouraged Bangabandhu to participate in such an election but a confident Bangabandhu announced that once he wins the election and is able to form a government than all these bindings will be shredded into pieces. He won the election and then came the crisis of transfer of power in 1971 which Bangabandhu faced boldly which resulted in an impasse that finally pushed Bangladesh into the Liberation War of 1971.
When Sheikh Hasina formed the government in 1996 for the first time after the killing of her father it seemed that the country had no future. It was a food deficit country, relied heavily on foreign doles for financing its budget, nearly fifty percent of the country’s population were living in poverty. During the four terms of Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh the country’s poverty level has come down to 20% (pre-pandemic). From a food deficit country Bangladesh has emerged as a country that can grow its own food and sometimes even export small amount. When Begum Zia, the widow of General Zia finished her premiership in 2006 the country produced little over 3000 MW of electricity. Today Bangladesh has an installed capacity of 24.000 MW and the country’s electricity coverage has gone up to 99 percent households. This was possible just due the statesmanship-like leadership of Sheikh Hasina. Hasina’s father converted the war devastated country from underdeveloped country to least developed country. It took him just three and half years. It remained so after his killing for next two decades during the rule of Zia, Ershad and Begum Zia. Today Bangladesh is all set to become a full member of the developing countries. This needed stewardship of Sheikh Hasina.
In the recent times the greatest achievement of Sheikh Hasina has been the pro-active handling of Covid-19 pandemic in all fronts. She managed to arrange for necessary vaccines even before the pandemic hit the country and at the same time keep the country’s economy going. On 22nd September the Asian Development Bank in its newly released Asian Development Outlook forecasted that in 2021-2022 Bangladesh’s GDP is set to achieve a target of 6.7 percent which is one of the highest in Asia. While disclosing the Developing Data of ADB Mr. Manmohan Prakash, the ADB’s country Director he attributed this success to the dynamic management of Bangladesh’s macro and micro economy under Sheikh Hasina’s rule and guidance.
One of nagging problem for Bangladesh that has been haunting the country since 2017 is the influx of one million refugees from Mayanmar, more explicitly their nationals who became victim of Myanmar government’s systematic ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately the world did not pay the attention it deserved and on September 23rd Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticised the international community in United Nation for their inaction in doing anything so that the nationals of Myanmar who have been living in Bangladesh can return to their country. Such an accusation of inaction of the international community failing to take any meaningful action against a perpetual rogue country, that too sitting in the world’s most important international organisation like UN needs statesmanship-like courage which Sheikh Hasina never lacked.
The world currently has innumerable problems – from global warming to ethnic cleansing and forceful displacement of people – but unfortunately the world lacks appropriate leadership to address these problems. US has not produced any visionary leadership for a long time, neither did Britain. In the South and South Asia Dr. Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia had led his country and the region for many years. He has aged but still rises to the occasion when needed. Modern Singapore had Lee Kuan Yew who served as the First Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He is also known as the nation’s Founding Father of Singapore. Lee Kuan was a transformational leader who transformed Singapore from a fishing village to what Singapore is today. India’s last leader cum statesman perhaps was Indira Gandhi who could understand the expectation of the people. Angela Merkel the current Chancellor of Germany is the only leader of Europe who has attracted the attention of the world. In this part of the world it will not be an act of exaggeration to say right at this moment Sheikh Hasina is comparable to some of her predecessors and may even be compared to Angela Merkel of South Asia today.
On the 75th birthday of Sheikh Hasina what concerns many of her well-wishers is her gradual isolation from the very people who wishes her the best without any personal expectation or gain or prejudice. Her isolation can only be traced to a bunch of sycophants and a group of self-seeking bureaucrats. On her 75th birthday let the leader of the people return to the people. Bangladesh will not get another Sheikh Hasina in foreseeable future. She has turned the country with a bleak future to a country of hope and an economic powerhouse during her tenure as the Prime Minister. Wishing Bangabandhu’s daughter a long and more successful future.
The writer is a former Chairman of the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh and former
Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University.