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Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina, a politician who turned statesman, is now 74

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As the Bangladeshi leader enters her 75th year, it is an opportune time to take a peek into her eventful journey, full of difficulties and speed bumps, but also solid successes and triumphs (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@TarekFatah)

Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina completed 74 years on September 28 this year. In the last 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence, she has been in the Prime Minister’s office at its helm for over 17 years. Her political journey has not been easy or uninterrupted. On the contrary, it was full of hurdles, threats to life, innumerable challenges and obstacles not easy to cross. Yet, the Iron Lady had been steadfastly firm and focused in establishing a progressive and prosperous Bangladesh, while waging a relentless war against terror and disruption.

As the Bangladeshi leader enters her 75th year, it is an opportune time to take a peek into her eventful journey, full of difficulties and speed bumps, but also solid successes and triumphs.

Hasina was hardly 28 when her father, the legendary Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founder was brutally assassinated at his Dhaka Dhanmondi residence along with most of his family members including a ten-year-old son, on August 15, 1975.  Most providentially, Hasina was in Germany on this dark day with her sister, Rehana, thereby escaping what would have been a definite attempt on her life. But the young lady was destined to live and lead the country from the front addressing most adequately all the critical issues faced by Bangladesh.

After remaining in political oblivion for six long years, Sheikh Hasina became more resolute, brimming with a sense of fortitude to take on the enemy and conspirators of Bangladesh who were responsible for murdering Mujibur Rahman and his family members. It was not an ordinary murder of any head of country. The conspirators had the full support of extraneous powers including Pakistan and Libya, which had masterminded the blueprint with surgical precision. It’s indeed a sad commentary on part of the then Bangladeshi military leadership and politicians   including opportunists like Khondokar Mushtaq, who was a minister in Mujib Cabinet, to have aligned with the military elements to stage a bloody coup to topple Mujibur Rahman.

It’s imperative to give an account of the preceding happenings to highlight the sheer iron will of Sheikh Hasina to exit her six-year-old oblivion and return to Dhaka in May 1981. It’s not at all easy to get back to one’s country when a hostile and anti-liberation environment was prevailing under the rule of turncoat and ruthless megalomaniac dictator, Gen Zia ur Rahman. But that’s the forte and inner strength of Sheikh Hasina who descended in Dhaka amid a hearty and tumultuous welcome. It must have been perhaps the biggest miscalculation by Zia and his cohorts by failing to understand Hasina’s determination and commitment to the nation. With her arrival, the bugle was sounded and battle lines were drawn. The challenge for Zia was formidable as apart from her courage, Hasina’s political astuteness and intuition guided her to take on the ill-wishers of the country.

Immediately after her return to Bangladesh, Hasina displayed her extraordinary organizing capability, by setting into order the Awami League (AL) in order which was lying in tatters, badly disorganized and leaderless. After streamlining the rank and file of the party which was in near disarray, a confident Hasina was ready to take head on a turbulent phase in Bangladeshi politics following the assassination of Zia ur Rahman on May 30, 1981. Things looked unsteady again with the military trying to flex its muscles. Undaunted, Hasina surged ahead singlehandedly in the face of a group of most intolerant opponents.

Yet again, another military dictator Gen HM Ershad, who was not a freedom fighter and a repatriate (from Pakistan) officer, assumed charge of the country in 1982 as the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and posed fresh challenges to Hasina in her turbulent political journey. Religious extremist flavour continued to play a pivotal role, strengthening the fundamentalist forces.  Plus, Ershad, like Zia, nurtured a political outfit called Jatiya Party (JP) in pursuit of his political ambitions.

Thoroughly corrupt and with a political level of tolerance very low, Ershad compounded Hasina’s difficulties, which lasted till the end of his corrupt rule in 1991.

Most unfortunately for Hasina, in the 1991 parliamentary elections, it was not Hasina or her AL party that triumphed. On the contrary, it was the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) under Zia’s widow Khaleda who came to power. Hasina’s challenges multiplied. The right-wing anti-India and anti-liberals’ party, the Jamaat e Islami (JeI) collaborated with the BNP exhibiting its anti-India posturing thus making the political task of Hasina even tougher. Finally, after five years, in the 1996 polls Hasina leading the charge from the front, won and her AL came to power. She remained the Prime Minister till her full term, completing in 2001. Objectively, her first spell as the PM saw a lot of improvements. Her stamp of governing proficiency and political capabilities was established. She had come to stay to ameliorate the well-being of the Bangladeshis.

Hasina remained once again in the opposition during the BNP/Khaleda Zia rule from 2001 to 2006. This spell increased Hasina’s `to do’s’ list as Khaleda and her son Tareq had, by design, sheltered all the anti-India North Eastern insurgent groups including the ULFA, the Nagas, the Manipuris and many more. BNP was in a mood to rewrite history by deleting the contribution of India in the Bangladesh freedom struggle. Pakistan was on top of BNP and its leaders to wean away India from the common Bangladeshis.

But destiny had something else in store. Hasina was back in power in 2009 after an intermittent political lull from 2006.  From 2009 to till date, there has been no looking back for Prime Minister Hasina.

In the meantime, the list of her accomplishments has continued to grow.  In case we summarize her set of successes including a few from the point of view of India, it can be safely enumerated as (1) It’s only Sheikh Hasina who doggedly got rid of all the training camps and presence of all North East Insurgents from the BD soil. (2) Resolved the bilateral issues on water sharing and enclaves (3) Even if Teesta remains unresolved, Hasina by displaying restraint, did a tight rope walking and didn’t get provoked to be labelled as an Indian agent. (4) Hasina handled the unprecedented Rohingya crisis of 2017 with calm and sobriety without arousing any aggression. (5) She was able to rein in the menace of terror and spiralling fundamentalism with reasonable tact though the challenge still looms large. (6)  Very significantly, Hasina proceeded with full resolve in ensuring fair trials of the war criminals and collaborators of 1971 genocide and their subsequent execution.  (7)  Exhibiting statesmanship, her foreign policy with bilateral and multilateral relations with almost all the countries were robust and conducted with dignity.

Today, Bangladesh has a sound economy under Hasina’s Premiership with women emancipated and the country looking promising to carve a new niche, globally. Having said this, a word of caution for Sheikh Hasina’s personal safety and security perhaps calls for a close watch. One is not privy on her threat assessments. Yet it would appear advisable to doubly ensure that the forces akin to radicals and religious extremists are kept at bay.

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(The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. He was also posted in Bangladesh and has been a BD watcher for over four decades. Views expressed are personal)