Bangladesh’s growing political personality cult around ‘Father of the Nation’

Her government has also enacted stiff punishments for any comments, written work or social media posts that could be construed as defaming his legacy

January 05, 2024 07:37 am | Updated 07:38 am IST - NEW DELHI

Portraits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman seen at a souvenir shop in front of his memorial museum in Dhaka.

Portraits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman seen at a souvenir shop in front of his memorial museum in Dhaka. | Photo Credit: AFP

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina still grieves the assassination of her father — the country’s founder — nearly 50 years ago, and her government ensures the nation grieves with her.

Once sidelined from official history, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is now the subject of a personality cult that designates him “Father of the Nation”.

Ms. Hasina has foregrounded his legacy in what critics say is an effort to entrench her ruling Awami League, which dominates national politics and is set to sweep elections on Sunday following an opposition boycott.

Her government has also enacted stiff punishments for any comments, written work or social media posts that could be construed as defaming his legacy.

‘Secular blasphemy’

“She has basically introduced a secular blasphemy law in the country for her father — the kind we see in one-party states,” a senior human rights activist in Bangladesh said, asking for anonymity.

Since his daughter returned to office in 2009, Rahman’s visage has appeared on every banknote and in hundreds of public murals across the South Asian nation of 170 million people.

Dozens of roads and institutes of higher learning have been named after him, and Ms. Hasina’s government changed the constitution to require that his portrait be hung in every school, government office and diplomatic mission. At the centre of this project of national commemoration is Ms. Hasina’s childhood home in an upmarket neighbourhood of the capital Dhaka.

Now a museum, the residence is where her father, uncle and three brothers were gunned down by disgruntled army officers at the break of dawn in August 1975. The walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes from that day, in rooms that otherwise faithfully preserve the books, smoking pipe and other artefacts of Rahman’s life, with hundreds visiting daily to pay their respects.

Rahman was the key political figure during a period of growing agitation for independence from Pakistan, which had governed the territory now known as Bangladesh since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Military regime

He was imprisoned by Pakistan’s military regime at the outset of a horrific 1971 war that liberated his country and killed as many as three million people — most of them civilians in present-day Bangladesh.

Rahman was the first post-independence leader but the tumultuous years that followed saw Bangladesh struggle through the economic devastation imposed by the war, including a famine in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

Ms. Hasina refers to his assassination in a 1975 military coup in almost every speech she gives, her voice often choking with emotion. It was “the betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of the people of the soil”, she once wrote.

Opposition parties say that the veneration of Rahman and the laws protecting him from criticism reflect a broader erosion of civil liberties under Ms. Hasina.

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