Bangladesh at 50, Sheikh Hasina at 76: Can the Daughter of the East keep up the fight against Islamic radicals?

Her detractors have blamed Hasina for creating a police state and hauled her up for ‘forced disappearances’ and ‘extrajudicial executions’, but sources close to her argue that she has no choice but to resort to tough policing to keep Islamist radicals at bay

Shahidul Hasan Khokon September 28, 2022 12:29:50 IST
Bangladesh at 50, Sheikh Hasina at 76: Can the Daughter of the East keep up the fight against Islamic radicals?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. PTI

As Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina turns 76, and the country has crossed 50 years into its independence, the spotlight is firmly on her success in chartering an amazing socially inclusive economic turnaround for Bangladesh.

Buoyed up with her success to ride out the pandemic, as endorsed by top global bodies like World Health Organization, the country’s next battle to avert the looming fears of a global recession has come under scrutiny with a singular observation. Under Sheikh Hasina the country is better poised to overcome the impending crisis than many other emerging and developed economies.

But, Hasina will also be remembered for her role in the restoration of democracy by bringing down a local military regime, like her father had brought the Pakistani military junta — and then in sustaining it against a persisting threat from radical Islamist forces that threaten her regime with violent street agitations, terror strikes and systematic disinformation. Not to mention about as many as 19 assassination attempts so far she has encountered, mostly orchestrated by radical elements.

The late Pranab Mukherjee, who Hasina respected as her ‘abhivabak‘ (guardian), once told some journalists during a Sunday adda (hangout session), to imagine what Angela Merkel or Jacinda Arden would have done, if they faced the lurking threat of assassination, having survived many like Hasina, wrote veteran journalist Subir Bhoumik in an article.

Taking into account her first term into power (1996-2001), coupled with her straight third term since 2009 clearly made her the longest serving women leader across the globe, leaving behind Germany’s Angela Markel.

Mukherjee’s take was when it comes to ‘raw courage’, Hasina is comparable only to Indira Gandhi who refused to take off her Sikh bodyguards despite firm intelligence warnings of a lurking physical threat after the Operation Bluestar. Maybe we can add Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who suffered torture in military prisons (hung by her feet and frequently beaten) before reaching the top, wrote Bhoumik.

Hasina is deeply religious, though her politics is firmly secular. Her spiritual disposition is the source of her courage, observed Bhoumik. Her last visit to France and pledge to take bilateral ties to newer heights right after Islamist elements took to streets demanding the boycott of France products showcased her steely resolve; she pursued a similar approach vis-à-vis India braving sea of obstacles thrown in by the same group.

Arrested without warrant by the military-backed caretaker government, and the emergence of baseless propaganda by leading outlets like The Daily Star, failed miserably in the face of overwhelming public support she enjoys. Mahfuz Anam, earlier in a talk show, admitted to have carried propaganda against her ostensibly fed by the then DGFI. During her days in prison, she scripted the path to change the course of national progress, a vision she has been pursuing relentlessly since her return to power in 2009.

In a life stranger than fiction, first giving birth to his son in virtual house arrest by Pakistani occupational forces, later her parents, brothers and other near ones were gunned down by pro-Pakistan forces in a newly independent country surely make her life more struggling than any other female leaders of the developed world.

For someone who had seen almost her entire family wiped out in the violent coup in 1975, it was indeed a tough decision to continue in politics. Much as it was a tough decision to return to Bangladesh six years after her family was assassinated. Each of these decisions required not just courage, but a steely determination to uphold and build on her father’s legacy and a deep faith in her destiny.

Soon after her return in 1981, she had to wage a battle to give her people the right to vote from the clutches of military dictator Gen HM Ershad. Till the downfall of the second dictator Ershad in 1990, she had crisscrossed almost every nook and cranny of this 1,47,00 square mile green delta to reach out to masses, unlike any other leader of the country. That arduous decade long struggle equipped her with the needs of the people languishing even in the remotest part of the land, an envy of any other leader who ruled the country in its fifty years. Possibly her father Mujibur Rahman’s trait to trek the entire nation then known as East Pakistan to rope in   masses to join the fight for the freedom against Pakistan offered the lesson for Hasina that “if you want to serve the people go at their doorsteps to know your people”.

Born in 1947, Hasina is both a ‘midnight child’ and a ‘daughter of the East.’ An archetypal faithful Bengali housewife with some exposure in student politics, Hasina not only returned to her country at great personal risk, but also re-organised her father’s party, Awami League, before toppling the Ershad military regime. She has ruled Bangladesh for three terms since and is now into the fourth. “All because Allah wishes,” Hasina would argue. But analysts see in her success not only courage and determination, but the presence of a sharp analytical mind which can plan ahead of time and anticipate challenges, writes the former BBC journalist.

Her recent interview on the sidelines of this year’s UN General Assembly exposing the duplicity of richer nations to pay less but ask more from developing countries stands as a pointer to her decisiveness going tough against the high and mighty. “They don’t act. They can talk but they don’t act,” she told AFP on 22 September. A host of policies she pursued transformed her country’s resilience and disaster risk management, alongside she became the most active voice on behalf of the developing nations. In 2021, a BBC report placed her among top five influential dealmakers who could shape the outcomes of the COP26 Summit, who have been tasked with committing the 197 countries to the changes, reports BBC.

But what makes her achievement shine is her humility.

If her father promised to bring smiles on the faces of the poorest, Hasina has been responsible for a huge ‘trickle down’ humanitarian economy that benefits the most vulnerable. And this in a neo-liberal era, when the focus is on wealth creation and growth and not so much on distributive justice.

During the last tenure of BNP between 2001 and 2006, Bangladesh made headlines for all the wrong reasons — ‘another Afghanistan’. Not only were some Islamist radicals raising such slogans as “Bangla Hobe Taliban” (Bangladesh will follow Taliban), but also the systematic Pakistani-style sponsorship of terrorism by the Khaleda Zia’s BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami government was threatening to take Bangladesh down the Pakistani path.

Her detractors have blamed Hasina for creating a police state and hauled her up for ‘forced disappearances’ and ‘extrajudicial executions’, but sources close to her argue that she has no choice but to resort to tough policing to keep Islamist radicals at bay.

The writer is a Bangladeshi journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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