(The article was originally published in Indian Express on January 13, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
As she took the oath of office for the fifth time as Prime Minister of Bangladesh earlier this week, Sheikh Hasina would have fondly recalled that 52 years ago, on January 12, 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman — Father of Bangladesh and her biological father — too took the oath as the first PM of the newly-formed independent state. Affectionately called Bangabandhu by his countrymen, Mujib not only liberated the Bengali-speaking population from the clutches of West Pakistani rulers, but he also sought to instil the ethos of a democratic polity in the newly formed country.
Pakistan could never develop democratic values. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, its founder, preferred a Westminster-model democracy but it could barely take root in that country. In the first decade of its existence, it didn’t even have a constitution and was run as per the Government of India Act, 1935.
A constitution was promulgated for the first time in 1956, but it was short-lived as the military coup in 1958 brought General Ayub Khan to power. Pakistan spent almost half its 75-year existence under military rule. Even when there were so-called elected governments, they were always under the tight control of the military.
The people of East Pakistan faced enormous discrimination under successive military regimes. Bangabandhu stood up for the rights of the Bengali nation and faced persecution at the hands of military dictators. When General Yahya Khan decided to hold elections in the hope of establishing a puppet government in Lahore, the Bengali voters of East Pakistan rallied behind the Awami League led by Bangabandhu. The Awami League secured 166 seats in a 300-member National Assembly in the elections held on December 7, 1970.
Instead of calling Mujib to form the government, Yahya had him arrested on March 25, 1971, and the people of East Pakistan were subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the Pakistan Army. It was in this scenario that an Awami League-led government was formed in exile in Kolkata and a rebel movement broke out, led by the Mukti Bahini. India’s intervention, when the Pakistan Army attacked Indian forces on the Western Front, resulted in the humiliating defeat and surrender of the Pakistan forces and the creation of Bangladesh as an independent country.
Released from prison after 10 months, Bangabandhu returned to Dhaka on January 10, 1972. When leaving London for his triumphant return, Mujib asserted at Heathrow Airport that “I never considered myself a Pakistani and I never shall.” He wanted Bangladesh to be moulded on principles that mark a total departure from Pakistan. “This independence of mine will be futile”, he exhorted in a speech delivered to several million people who came to welcome him back to the motherland, “if the people of my Bengal are not fully fed on rice, if the mothers and sisters of Bengal do not get clothes for the protection of their modesty if the youth of mine do not find employment or do not get jobs”. He proclaimed “establishing the country on a firm financial footing” as his life’s motto.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh couldn’t escape the evil shadow of Pakistan. On August 15, 1975, as India was celebrating its Independence Day, the Bangladesh Army attacked Mujib’s mansion and killed him and dozens of his family members, including his wife and three sons, the youngest being just 10 years old. General Ziaur Rahman, who later seized power in November, was not directly present but said to have told the conspirators, “I am a senior officer. I can’t get involved in that. If a junior officer wants to do it, go ahead”.
Against the wishes of Bangabandhu, Bangladesh lapsed into a Pakistan-style military dictatorship and remained so for 15 years. General Hussain Muhammad Ershad became the military dictator after the assassination of Ziaur Rahman in 1981 and continued in that role for almost a decade. All this while, sham elections became a norm with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Ziaur Rahman and the Jatiya Party of Ershad running the governments successively by proxy.
It was only a major democratic revolution by the students in 1990 that forced the army back to its barracks and Bangladesh saw the return of a semblance of democracy. In the last three decades, the BNP and the Awami League shared power, with the League leading the race with 20 years in office.
Sheikh Hasina and her sister Rehana were in Europe when her father and the entire family were assassinated. The survivor sisters were provided asylum by Indira Gandhi in Delhi. Hasina returned to Dhaka in 1981 as the elected head of the Awami League but faced oppression and arrests by the military regime for many years. Finally, as democracy returned in 1990, she became one of the two prominent players and has held prime ministership for 20 years so far. The victory of the Awami League in the 2024 elections gave her another term of five years and a record for an elected prime minister to be in office for twenty-five years.
Her life experiences have taught Hasina many important lessons. She firmly stood against terrorism and religious extremism. Her focus on economic revival brought Bangladesh’s economy to an impressive level where the country went from the UN list of Least Developed Countries in 2018 to become a Developing Country. It stays ahead of its neighbours in parameters like per capita GDP, human capital index and economic vulnerability index.
Yet, the fragility of Bangladesh’s democracy remains a major challenge. The elections last week too were marred by boycott by the principal opposition, BNP, and incidents of violence. The BNP’s decision to boycott the elections cannot be supported by anybody. Nobody can argue, whether in India or in Bangladesh, that it is the ruling party’s duty to strengthen the Opposition. Hence the criticism from some quarters in the West is untenable. However, Sheikh Hasina must keep in mind that she is the only leader capable of addressing that challenge and realising the dream of her father that “there will be democracy in this Bangladesh. Bangladesh will be a secular state”.