Sheikh Hasina | The rebel who became the ruler

A former tough opposition leader who fought Ershad’s military regime in the 1980s, the Awami League chief who is seeking to extend her rule for another five years is facing the heat as Opposition parties have threatened to boycott the elections citing government interference in the process

Updated - December 24, 2023 01:03 pm IST

Published - December 24, 2023 04:17 am IST

On April 30, 1991, a cyclone hit the coastal Bangladesh with monstrous ferocity. Storm surges drove sea water deep inland. At the end of the nearly seven-hour-long cyclone, at least 140,000 people were left dead. Sheikh Hasina, then the leader of the principal opposition Awami League, reached the affected areas near Chittagong before the Government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) could muster any response. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia should take moral responsibility for failing to provide timely assistance to the people and resign immediately, Ms. Hasina demanded. The images of Ms. Hasina walking in the devastated landmass of coastal Bangladesh drove her into the centre of a grieving nation. The BNP sensed a growing threat, and violent attacks targeted Ms. Hasina in the following months.

Earlier, on November 10, 1987, the police of military ruler Mohammed Ershad had targeted her, which killed three of her young colleagues from the student wing of the Awami League. Sensing that a deeply unpopular and confused military dictator was failing in governance, Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia came together in 1987. The two were known to be opposed to each other. Yet, they formed an alliance, asking for genuine democracy. In the winter of 1990, the Hasina-Zia duo mobilised lakhs of people in Dhaka, shaking the foundations of Ershad’s regime. Ershad responded by declaring emergency, but in the face of mounting pressure, he resigned on December 4. In the February 1991 election, the BNP came to power, and Ms. Hasina emerged as the main opposition leader. The cyclone of April that year gave Ms. Hasina the rebirth that she wanted.

OPINION | The road ahead for Sheikh Hasina

Long before the 1991 cyclone, the coastal part of the country was devastated in the winter of 1970 by cyclone ‘Bhola’. For days, the government of Yahya Khan, sitting in a distant Islamabad, did not know the scale of the devastation. The apathy of the Yahya Khan government was matched by the brutality of Operation Searchlight that was launched by the Pakistani military to crush the democratic aspirations of the winner of general election — the Awami League, under Sheikh Mujib. The Awami League, which took power after the birth of Bangladesh following the India-Pakistan war of 1971, represented the young and restless youth of East Pakistan.

When Mujib was assassinated on August 15, 1975, Ms. Hasina was in West Germany. She and her sister Rehana survived the massacre that wiped out their entire family, including their five-year-old brother Sheikh Russell. After the killings, Ms. Hasina took refuge in India for six years. This was the formative period of the future Prime Minister. In this phase, Ms. Hasina struck a friendship with Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee and the Gandhis of India.

On May 17, 1981, Ms. Hasina returned to Bangladesh. By then, the Awami League had elected her in absentia as its General Secretary. The battle against the Ershad regime was tough and the battle against the Zia government was no less. Ms. Zia, widow of former military ruler Zia-ur Rahman who founded the BNP, tried to corner Ms. Hasina as attacks continued. But the Zia government could not recover from the blow of the cyclone and the BNP was defeated in the election of 1996, paving the way for the first term of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The rebel became the ruler.

Agreement with India

In 1997, Ms. Hasina concluded the 30-year Ganga Water Sharing Agreement with India that was to last till 2026. She also announced the plan for building the ambitious bridge across the Padma in this tenure. She reached out to the Chakmas in the Chittagong Hill Tract and concluded a peace treaty on December 2, 1997 with the Parbattyo Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti. Despite striking several right notes, Ms. Hasina lost the 2001 election that was held under a caretaker government, to a four-party alliance led by the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatiya Party (Manju) and Islamic Oikyo Jote.

The BNP-led government became known subsequently for the alleged support that it provided to the secessionist forces like the ULFA and other groups in India’s Northeast. Rampant corruption and public protests crippled the country.

A new Caretaker Government came in January 2007 with support from the military, which imposed emergency and postponed the elections. During this time, Ms. Hasina was jailed on corruption charges which helped her gain public sympathy. The election held in December 29, 2008 returned her to power. This time, she returned to take advantage of her partnership with India and reached an in-principle agreement on Teesta water sharing and started negotiation and survey for the historic Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with India.

In February 2013, the trial of Abdul Quader Mollah reignited the painful memories of the genocide committed during March-December 1971 under the supervision of the Pakistani military. The powerful Shahbag movement that started in February 2013 demanded death sentence for Mollah, who had earlier got a life sentence. In December that year, Mollah was hanged. Ms. Hasina returned to power in 2014 in an election that was boycotted by the BNP. Unfazed, Ms. Hasina next year sealed the LBA with India.

Continuing with the Shahbag spirit, her government kept up the heat on the collaborators in the genocide and hanged a number of leaders, including Motiur Rahman Nizami and Mir Quasem Ali of Jamaat-e-Islami in 2016. That year, extremism posed the toughest challenge to Hasina with the Islamic State attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery of Dhaka. She vowed to continue her campaign against terrorists which became synonymous with her rule. A tough fighter who had taken on a military dictator in the 1980s, she had by now become a grandmother and acquired a front rank as one of the longest ruling female leaders in the world.

Election controversy

There has been no indications from the party so far about who might succeed Ms. Hasina. Her son Sajeeb Wazed Joy, an entrepreneur, and daughter Saima Wazed, have both hit the headlines. Ms. Saima recently became the South East Asia Regional Director of the World Health Organization, prompting criticism of nepotism. However, for the veteran leader, succession is not yet a priority. The coming election is already in international focus as the BNP has planned to boycott the polls once again. Ms. Hasina has maintained that there will not be the repeat of the past caretaker governments as that provision in the Constitution has been removed. The BNP, however, demands a “neutral government” before polling.

As global pressure mounts on her, Bangladesh is all set to hold the election on January 7. Ms. Hasina has sent emissaries abroad to invite observers and diplomats and promised a fair contest. Despite her assurances, around 14 parties, including the BNP, are boycotting the election. With the completed Padma bridge, and a series of new airports and roadways, Ms. Hasina showcases her achievements while seeking re-election, though there is economic stress and criticism of a widening crackdown on the opposition. It remains to be seen if Ms. Hasina, the former rebel, would be willing to test her popularity in the ring of a truly “free and fair election” and convince the opposition to join the race at the last moment.

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