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The Leading Lady of Bangladesh

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Special Features  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Sheikh Hasina faces political turbulence over many of her decisions; the forthcoming elections will decide her fate.

The eldest of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman’s five children, Sheikh Hasina is the current prime minister of Bangladesh. She was born at her ancestral home in the Tungipara village of the present Gopalganj district on 28 September 1947. In 1968, she married M. A. Wajed, a nuclear scientist, who died in 2009. Hasina graduated from the Dhaka University in 1973.

Actively involved in student politics in her college and university days, Hasina was elected as chief of the Student’s Union of Eden Girls College, and was a member of the Awami League’s student arm, the Chhatra League of Dhaka University.

In 1975, her entire family, including her parents and brothers were assassinated in Dhaka. She and her sister Rehana escaped, providentially, because they were in Germany at the time. When they landed in India on return, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took them under her protection --an act of grace for which Hasina continues to remain ever beholden to the Indian government.

In 1981, Hasina was unanimously elected president of the Awami League while still living in India. She returned home on 17 May 1981. By a curious coincidence, President Ziaur Rahman, who had granted amnesty to her father’s killers, was assassinated on 30 May, just thirteen days after her return.

Hasina’s Awami League, along with the BNP led by President Ziaur Rahman’s widow, Khaleda Zia, advocated for the restoration of democracy during Gen. Hussein Mohammad Ershad’s rule in the 1980s, until he stepped down in 1991. The BNP won the democratic elections held the same year. Although the two ladies had struggled jointly to bring Ershad down, after the elections they soon fell out and the acrimony has continued ever since.

Hasina’s politics are based purely on self-interest. In 1996, for example, she supported an abortive military coup, led by Lt. General ASM Nasim against the legitimate BNP government. In 2007, Hasina supported Army chief, Moeenuddin’s takeover of the government, declaration of emergency and postponement of the elections. At her bidding, the Awami League General Secretary Abdul Jalil, signed a deal with Jatiya Party to make its leader H.M. Ershad, president of Bangladesh. Another agreement was signed with Khelafat Majlis that included banning Ahmadis in Bangladesh and framing an anti-blasphemy law. However, after becoming prime minister in 2009, Hasina reneged on all her above agreements without any qualms.

A glaring example of Hasina’s lack of principles is provided by her shifting stand on the issue of the caretaker government (CG) to hold elections. At the end of Khaleda’s term in 1996, it was in response to Hasina’s agitation that a provision for the CG to manage elections was incorporated in the constitution and elections were held. Unsurprisingly, she won the elections to serve as prime minister from 1996 to 2001.

In 2001 she lost the elections to Khaleda Zia. But when Khaleda’s term ended in 2006, Hasina plunged the country into violent political unrest over the issue of who would head the caretaker government. The violence claimed at least 40 lives and led to an army takeover. The 2008 elections were also held under a CG, this one sponsored by the army, which Hasina won to become prime minster for the second time.

But in 2011 her own government repealed the provision of the CG in the constitution that had been inserted at her own demand.

Hasina has also betrayed a despotic streak. Two Islamist TV channels have been shut down, because, they telecast “live images of the security forces’ attacks” on Hefazat-e-Islam demonstrators on May 5 that left an unknown number dead.

In mid-April, the government sealed a very popular newspaper, Amar Desh, and detained its acting editor, Mahmudur Rahman on sedition charges. But the Economist says that the real reason for the action might lie in the ad run by the paper, a day before his arrest, regarding the possible publication of a translation of a series of “damning American embassy cables on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman” from the Wikileaks trove. In addition to this, Hasina’s government has drawn flak for the mega graft scandal in the World Bank sponsored, Padma Bridge Project and the issue of forced disappearances.

While Hasina can count on sending her father’s killers to the gallows and prosecuting Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leadership for war crimes in 1971, how she fares in the elections at the end of the year, remains to be seen. 


S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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