Sheikh Hasina: A profile in courage and emotional bonds with India
With her Awami League in power since 2009, Bangladesh has seen the army keeping away from a political role, has witnessed relative political stability and rapid economic strides, marking higher human development indicators better than most others in South Asia
Overriding, but not ignoring the host of issues with India, some of them defying an easy solution, the mood of the visit by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina beginning September 5 seems to have been set by her emotional recall of her five years-plus spent in New Delhi as an exile way back in 1975-81.
She has never failed to praise India’s role in assisting Bangladesh’s freedom in 1971. In or out of power, she has visited India many times since that exile ended in May 1981. Her recall of the "pain" during those "difficult" days, in an interview with an Indian news agency ANI, must remain in the realm of expressions of emotions long waiting to come out in the open.
Lest the cynics should see it as a public relations exercise, Hasina is political enough and mature enough as a long-time leader of her nation to understand that she can resolve some, though not all, issues with India. The intractable ones, the Teesta river water sharing, for instance, despite being a key issue that she needs to carry back home, may have to remain deferred by mutual understanding.
One must note the mix of shock, frustration and anger that she must have felt on learning that her entire family of about 18 people and household attendants - save herself and younger sister Rehana - were eliminated in Dhaka and that she could scarcely imagine going back home.
The sisters escaped the massacre on the night of August 14-15, 1975 because Hasina happened to be in Germany with her husband, Dr Wajed Miah, and Rehana was visiting them. She has recalled in the interview her being lovingly seen off at the Dhaka airport by the entire family, including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on July 31, 1975. That was to be her last glimpse of them all.
Stay in Delhi
Hasina has recalled concerns about her safety in Europe and a worried President Tito of erstwhile Yugoslavia also offered her a safe stay. But Hasina chose to move to New Delhi, hoping, someday, to return home, next door.
In doing so, perhaps instinctively, she was emulating her father who, on being released from prison in Pakistan in January 1972, accepted the British-offered flight to London, but preferred to move to New Delhi within hours, en route to Dhaka. The contrast in the two situations is at once stark. It underscored the radically altered course for Bangladesh, which had won freedom barely three-and-a-half years back.
Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had played a key role then, moved Hasina, her physicist husband, Dr Wajed Miah, and two minor children, first to a safe house in New Delhi and then, to the first-floor flat on Pandara Road in a government enclave in the capital. The surrounding homes of some lawmakers and government officials were to ensure security but make it unobtrusive.
Hasina recalls the pain of loss of identity since the family names were changed for security reasons. But it was necessary as some of Bangladesh’s missions abroad had witnessed violent attacks on the premises, angry demonstrations, and loyalty changes by the staff. The High Commission in London, for one, was attacked, with Mujib’s portraits being vandalized. The media coverage of the event was ensured.
Deep ties with India
To make the family comfortable, some allowance was discreetly sanctioned. At some stage, Dr Wajed Miah was employed at the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, and most important, Mrs Gandhi assigned Pranab Mukherjee, then a junior minister and lawmaker, to “look after” them. Mukherjee along with his wife, late Suvra Mukherjee, nurtured deep family ties with Hasina's family.
Other than Indira Gandhi's family and West Bengal’s long-time chief minister Jyoti Basu, Mukherjee, who later became the President of India, remains one of the most respected Indians in Bangladesh. Hasina had evem attended his funeral.
Although secure, the Pandara Road house couldn’t remain a secret for very long. It was possible for a select few to visit, and this writer had met the family. It was from the Pandara Road home that Hasina realized that she had a political role to perform. She was elected the Awami League president. She began by visiting different countries and addressing a memorable meeting in London.
She planned to return but had to bide her time for long. She could make it only on May 17, 1981. Unknown to her, or to anyone, the wheel of time was moving fast. In less than two weeks, On May 30, President Ziaur Rahman, whom Hasina was to accuse of collaborating, if not participating in the massacre of her family, was himself assassinated.
The political trajectory was far from smooth. Bangladesh saw another military dictator, General H M Ershad, ruling for nine years. Hasina lost the 1991 elections, won in 1996, and lost again in 2001. When not in power, she was targeted and survived at least three known attempts on her life. Her ear drums were badly impaired in one of them.
With her Awami League in power since 2009, Bangladesh has seen the army keeping away from a political role, has witnessed relative political stability and rapid economic strides, marking higher human development indicators better than most others in South Asia.
Hasina has recorded some of the Delhi experiences in a film "Hasina – a daughter’s tale”. She does not say so in her interview, but she has successfully defied the diabolical plans of the killers of her father and family – she does not identify anybody – that no family member of Sheikh Mujib’s family should survive to lead the country.
(The writer is President Emeritus, Commonwealth Journalists Association who was formerly posted in Dhaka as UNI correspondent. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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