Sheikh Hasina had to wait for three-and-a-half decades to see justice done in her father’s case. She can now concentrate on delivering on the issues that are on the front burner.
For Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Supreme Court verdict sentencing five former army officers, accused of assassinating her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to death is a delayed but sweet retribution. It has been a long road to justice for the daughter of the Father of the Nation. She has had to wait for three-and-a-half decades to see justice done. The architect of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 was assassinated on August 15, 1975.
Civil society, the media — both radio and television — and a majority of newspaper editorials were quick to welcome the final verdict.
Delivered amid high security by a five-member Bench of the Appellate division, there was consensus that the judgment was a step towards setting the nation’s history right.
For the first 21 years after the killing, the case went into a black hole due to an indemnity ordinance promulgated by President Khondker Mushtaque Ahmed to shield the killers. It was only in 1996, when the Awami League was elected back to power, that Parliament disabled the Act and Mujibur’s personal secretary filed a first information report to press ahead with charges against his assassins.
The Bangabandhu case again took a back seat during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party regime of Khaleda Zia and the subsequent caretaker government. It is only after Sheikh Hasina romped home with a convincing victory in December 2008, did hopes of getting justice for the assassinated leader brighten up again. With the pronouncement of the verdict, Sheikh Hasina can now seek the political closure of her personal tragedy and concentrate on delivering on the issues that are on the front burner.
Violence and counter-violence have become a way of life in the subcontinent and Bangladesh is no exception. The mutiny on February 25 and 26 in the headquarters of Bangaldesh Rifles (BDR) in Dhaka by jawans resulted in a bloodbath. Disgruntled over low wages and alleged abuse and misuse by their superiors, the jawans went on a killing spree, gunning down the Director-General of BDR and his wife, and dozens of top army officials. The death toll is reported to be 148.
Coming as it did just two months after she took charge as Prime Minister, the mutiny left Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League, and the people of Bangladesh stunned. Sheikh Hasina showed great courage in personally going to the BDR headquarters and facing the enraged army officers who were baying for the jawans’ blood. She took them on at a free-for-all post-mortem meeting (all captured on YouTube and beamed to millions) and assured them that justice would be done, but only after a proper inquiry was conducted.
During a visit to Bangladesh in May, I spoke to several journalists and members of civil society who praised the courage that a shocked and shaken Sheikh Hasina showed following the mutiny.
Bangladesh is impatient to move on. It wants the Awami League to deliver on its promises after getting a resounding verdict in the last election. Neither the last caretaker government nor the graft-ridden regime of Khaleda Zia delivered on its promises. There are huge expectations from Mujib’s daughter.
Sheikh Hasina is aware of the price she has had to pay for being out of power. Last summer, on her way back from London, she was suddenly informed at the airport that the caretaker government had barred her from returning to Bangladesh. For the next few days, she stayed in a rented flat in London with her sister and lobbied tirelessly with the media, the British and American MPs, and the Bangladeshi community in Britain. Finally, the caretaker government relented and she boarded the flight to Dhaka like a heroine.
A woman whose father fought for the liberation of her country could not be deterred by political rivals. The entire episode turned out to be bad publicity for the caretaker government and a great boost for Sheikh Hasina, who was headed for an election. She won handsomely a few months later.
The trial of war criminals is one of the issues that is occupying mind space in Bangladesh. Civil society is keen that it be conducted in a transparent and just manner. Several Jamaat leaders are in the list of accused and this has led to further polarisation of opposing camps. There is a new effort at retelling the sacrifices of the martyrs of the liberation struggle, in which three million lives were lost. Efforts such as building Liberation War Museums are on.
Sheikh Hasina has a huge stake in reviving the liberation patriotism to counter the anti-liberation forces. After all, it is the elements of patriotism that remember the sacrifices her father made for the country.
A background paper distributed during a meeting to plan a new Liberation Museum in Dhaka which I attended this year read: “It is an effort at connecting our present with our past. An effort at telling ourselves that it was indeed a war to uphold a distinctly different culture that this nation has, as opposed to the so-called two-nation theory on which the theocratic state of Pakistan was based. A nation cannot be born for the sake of a particular religion alone.”
Rabindranath Tagore’s 147th birth anniversary celebrations peaked in public spaces and on the many Bengali television channels in Bangladesh. In comparison, the media coverage on Tagore in India pales into insignificance.
But apart from attempting a Bengali cultural and social revival, there is pressing business to be attended to. The problem inherited by all of South Asia ails Bangladesh too — of home-grown terrorists. So in this very crucial term of office, Sheikh Hasina is a Prime Minister with a mission. She has made it very clear that she will move against forces — referred to as Jongis (terrorists) in Bengali — that support terrorism on Bangladeshi soil.
‘Fight or perish’
Supported by an experienced Home Minister Sahara Khatun and a young, hands-on and media savvy Minister of State for Home Tanjim Ahmed Sohel Taj, Sheikh Hasina has put the fight against counter terrorism on top of her government’s agenda. The popular saying in Bangladesh these days is: “Fight terrorism or perish like Pakistan.”
Tracing the missing grenades and weaponry after the BDR mutiny remains a major area of concern for the Awami League, lest they fall into the wrong hands within Bangladesh or across the border in India or Pakistan.
The arrest of ULFA mastermind Arabinda Rajkhowa in the country last week and his handover to India this week demonstrate that the Hasina government is determined not to allow Bangladeshi soil to be used as a safe haven for terrorists.
The global recession too has fuelled social problems. It has meant the huge migrant workforce of Bangladeshis abroad being shown the door and repatriated back home. It is estimated that by year-end, one lakh workers may be forced to return to their country.
Sheikh Hasina’s new slogan is the dream of a “Digital Bangladesh.” The Prime Minister is keen on shoring up Information Technology and knowledge-based industries in Bangladesh to address joblessness, and is reported to have channelled 4,900 crore Bangladeshi takas to establish such industries.
The slogan may be ridiculed by frustrated cabbies trying to negotiate the car through thousands of rickshaws on Dhaka’s mindboggling streets. But for millions of middle-class students passing out of the country’s universities, it offers a ray of hope for a safe, self-reliant and modern Bangladesh 38 years after it gained independence.
(Nupur Basu is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker.)