Sheikh Hasina: Her Life and Work
Sheikh Hasina
Honourable Prime Minister
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

 

In 1947, when the British left the Indian sub-continent, two independent countries, India and Pakistan, emerged. Pakistan had two wings, one separated from the other by more than one thousand miles of Indian territory, and what is Bangladesh today was the Eastern wing called East Pakistan. Though the majority of the people lived in East Pakistan, effective political and economic power was concentrated in West Pakistan and East Pakistan virtually came to be reduced to a colony of the western wing. In late sixties, the people of East Pakistan rose against this discrimination under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom they preferred to call Bangabandhu, Friend of Bengal. Awami League, the political party of which Bangabandhu was the chief, won the majority seats in the parliament in general elections in 1970. But the military rulers of Pakistan refused to transfer power to Bangabandhu. Instead, on 25 March 1971, they unleashed a reign of terror in East Pakistan, starting a genocide, which lasted for nine months and took a toll of millions of people. In the early hours of 26th March 1971, Bangabandhu declared independence and the independent and sovereign state of Bangladesh was born. A Liberation War followed and Bangladesh emerged victorious on 16th December 1971. Bangabandhu, who was taken a prisoner by the rulers of Pakistan, was released from captivity and returned home in January 1972 to take charge of the government of the newly born country. Bangabandhu is regarded in Bangladesh as the Father of the Nation.

On 15 August 1975, some military men assassinated Bangabandhu. All members of his family living with him at that time too were assassinated, including Russell, his eleven-year-old son. His two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, escaped this fate, since they were out of the country. Sheikh Hasina is now the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She was sworn in on 23rd June 1996.

After the brutal murder of her parents and other members of her family, Sheikh Hasina’s life in exile and loneliness began. She moved from country to country and lived in constant fear of meeting the same fate as her  father. When she eventually returned home on 17th May 1981, she was given a tumultuous welcome by millions of people and she declared, " I have lost my parents and my dear ones. I have nothing more to lose. I dedicate myself to the cause of the people and make a pledge to restore their democratic rights." Waseda University of Japan, which conferred a Doctor of Laws degree, honoris causa, on Sheikh Hasina in July 1997, described her as a person of ‘indomitable courage and fierce determination.’ These are qualities, which Sheikh Hasina demonstrated from the very day she set her foot on Bangladesh at the end of her exile.

Since the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975, Bangladesh came to be ruled by military dictatorships of one kind or the other, either overtly or in the disguise of planted democracy. Sheikh Hasina was elected the chief of Awami League on her return home and as the leader of Awami League, she waged a relentless war on military dictatorship and autocratic rule. When in 1982, General Ershad, the then Chief of Army Staff, took over power through a coup d’etat, Sheikh Hasina was the first to raise her voice in protest. She had to suffer imprisonment time and again, but never gave up her cause. But hers was a peaceful movement and she was committed to making only constitutional protest. In 1986, in spite of general elections being stage-managed by the military dictatorship in favour of the political party it had floated, Awami League and its allies secured nearly one-third of the total number of seats in the parliament. When Sheikh Hasina, as the Leader of the Opposition, started voicing the grievances of the people in the House, the Parliament was dissolved all on a sudden. Fresh general elections were called for. Awami League decided to boycott it, since there was little point in participating in an election the outcome of which was predetermined. But her resistance to military rule continued and, in fact gained momentum. As the Boston University put it while conferring an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on Sheikh Hasina in February 1997, in the years following Sheikh Hasina’s return home, Bangladesh ‘was ruled by an unstable series of overt and covert military regimes. Against this unstable background, there were two constants : the Bengali people and Sheikh Hasina. Neither forgot the democracy to which Bangladesh was born.’

In the face of mass upsurge, General Ershad was faced in December 1990 with no option but to quit. Sheikh Hasina issued a 24-hour ultimatum for General Ershad to step down and he did. But this was done through a constitutional process. Sheikh Hasina and her political allies formulated a constitutional way for the peaceful transfer of power to a caretaker government headed by the Chief of Justice of the Supreme Court. Sheikh Hasina never deviated from her firm commitment to constitutional means.

In the general elections that followed, Awami League got a higher percentage of votes cast - 38% as against 31% secured by the other major political party - but a lesser number of seats in the Parliament. Sheikh Hasina was again in the opposition and its leader. These elections were held under a presidential form of government. The President was both the Head of the State and the Head of the Government; all powers were concentrated in his hands; and he was not accountable to the Parliament - in fact, he was accountable to none. The powers of the Parliament were very limited and it was, in fact, no more than mere rubber-stamp. The first thing Sheikh Hasina did was to launch a vigorous campaign both in the House and outside to undo this system and to change the government into a parliamentary one. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), then in power, hesitated for quite a while, but was eventually compelled to change the form of the government from the Presidential to the Parliamentary. The Parliament was now supreme and the government accountable to it.

Sheikh Hasina’s next move was to secure the basic right of the people to cast their votes in general elections in accordance with their own judgment and personal wish. There were good reasons for Sheikh Hasina to make this move. Elections held under governments formed by political parties were in most cases far from being free and fair, resulting in distortions in election results. "For the past twenty years," said Sheikh Hasina in a speech given at the Brown University in the United States in 1997,  "the people of our country could not choose their own government a government of their own. We have been struggling for the restoration of the people’s right to vote, since we believe that if the people cannot vote freely and change the government by ballot, democracy can neither be established nor sustained."

To explain the background of the move, there was, first, no guarantee that the name of a citizen eligible to vote in an election would, without fail, be included in the voters’ list. Secondly, even if one was fortunate enough to be included in the list, there was no guarantee that he would be able to vote. Reporting to the polling centre, many often found that their votes had already been cast. Stamping ballot papers in the box in favour of a candidate predetermined to win was a common phenomenon. Thirdly, even if one was fortunate enough to be able to cast his own vote, there was no guarantee that the vote would be counted. The counting process was more often than not abused to favour the candidate of the ruling party. Lastly, there was no guarantee that genuine results based on votes actually cast would be published and validated. Sheikh Hasina wished to see an end to all these. Her slogan was, "I would cast my own vote and I would cast it for whoever I like." She demanded that the national polls should be held under a neutral caretaker government and people should be allowed to freely exercise their right of franchise. Sheikh Hasina thus upheld a basic human and political right and made it the basis of her political movement.

But she was ignored. The general elections held in February 1996 at the end of the five-year term of the Parliament was one in which no voters at all turned up in many centres. In others, the results were cooked. Sheikh Hasina rejected the election results and continued to press her demand for free and fair elections under a neutral caretaker government. Eventually, the government had to yield. The constitution was amended providing for a neutral caretaker government for holding general elections for all time to come in the future. Fresh elections were held in June 1996 and Awami League won.  Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister.

One of the first steps Sheikh Hasina took as Prime Minister was aimed at improving the existing law and order situation, which was in a pitiful state, mainly because of political interference. Sheikh Hasina asked the law enforcing agencies to act against all who broke the law irrespective of their political identity and affiliation. Even if there was any one in her own party who broke the law, he or she was not to be spared. In order to establish the rule of law, Sheikh Hasina repealed the Indemnity Act, which provided that the killers of Bangabandhu would not face the process of law and would not be tried. Bangabandhu lives in the hearts of the people. It was not for him that the Act was repealed. It was repealed to establish the principle that no one was above law and that law must take its due course. This is a basic value and this guarantees the basic human right of redress against injustice and criminal action.

When the time came for election to the office of the President, Sheikh Hasina nominated a distinguished person, who was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court earlier and had headed the caretaker government after the fall of General Ershad, to contest for the office. Here was a candidate who was not a member of any political party and was held in high esteem widely. He was elected uncontested. The choice of a neutral person for the high office of the President is a tribute to Hasina’s mature political outlook and to her ability to rise above partisan politics.

Sheikh Hasina has said time and again that the Parliament should be the centre of all national activities. She has been consistently trying to make the Parliament effective. In order to ensure accountability, Prime Minister’s question hour has been established for the first time of the history of Bangladesh. Ministers have been replaced by other Members of the Parliament as Chairmen of Parliamentary Standing Committees in order to make these more transparent. Sheikh Hasina insists on having regular debates in the Parliament on all major issues facing the nation. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition group in the Parliament, absented itself from the sessions of the Parliament for more than six months, complaining of unfair treatment. The government of Sheikh Hasina negotiated with the party and it is now back in the Parliament, participating in debates on such important issues as the peace accord in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

"Our philosophy of economic growth is," says Sheikh Hasina, "development with equality. We know that the Government cannot bring about these changes alone. We have therefore given to the non-government organisations a greater role to play to bring these about, particularly in the rural areas where the majority of our people live." The government of Sheikh Hasina believes in a free market economy. Wherever outside the country Sheikh Hasina has gone as Prime Minister and whatever might have been the business in hand, she has met with potential investors and tried to attract foreign investment in the country. Possibilities of such investment now look very bright and there are good reasons to believe that the economy of Bangladesh will undergo positive changes for a better and brighter future in a short period of time. To give an example, Bill Richardson, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, said in Dhaka on April 13, 1998 that US investment in Bangladesh had reached US dollar 200 million in last two years from 25 million in June 1996 (that is, when Sheikh Hasina came to power). He hoped that U.S. investment in Bangladesh would rise to one billion US dollar by the turn of the century.

Sheikh Hasina maintains, "We are aware that our people cannot be kept deprived of their economic rights nor can they wait for a better quality of life much longer. We know that we must help them break away from the vicious poverty cycle into which they have fallen. We have thus focused on poverty alleviation with a great sense of urgency. We have given priority to education; to agriculture, that employs the majority of our people; and to rapid industrialisation." In one year of Sheikh Hasina’s tenure in office, the economy has grown at a rate faster than any in recent years, the rate of growth being 5.9%. Export and remittance from citizens of Bangladesh living abroad too have increased. Officials of  Asian Development Bank, while releasing  the latest issue of the Asian Development Outlook in Dhaka on 27 April, 1998, said : Bangladesh is going to have the second highest growth rate in Asia in the next fiscal year;  in the first six months of the present fiscal year, the industrial sector of Bangladesh has achieved a growth rate of 12.1% ; foreign exchange reserves of the country have gone up; Bangladesh had the lowest inflation rate - 4% - in South Asia in the present fiscal year; and Bangladesh economy in 1996-97 fiscal year was marked by an acceleration in economic growth with improvement in fiscal and current account balances.

Sheikh Hasina is keen on the promotion of trade, business and investment in the region. This is what had led her to take a personal initiative to organise what has come to be known as a Business Summit between the three countries of the sub-continent India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Summit was held in Dhaka on 15 January 1998 and was attended by Prime Ministers of all the three countries. The Summit boosted trade and business relations between the three countries and gave these a new impetus. It had three objectives : first, to create an environment in which political differences between the countries participating in the Summit would not stand in the way of regional co-operation between them to improve the economic lot of the peoples of these countries; secondly, to secure the participation of the private sector by the side of the public sector in strengthening efforts to improve the life-style of the people and to bring about a qualitative change in it; and, thirdly, to remove differences in the investment related laws, rules, procedures and practices in these countries and to bring about harmony between these. One outcome of the Summit was a resumption of talks between India and Pakistan on bilateral issues. These talks had halted some time back and their resumption is of crucial importance in the political context of the sub-continent. The resumption of talks between the two countries is a testimony to Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to promotion of peace in the region.

Sheikh Hasina is a good manager and if the first and the foremost human right is right to life, she has performed very well indeed during natural calamities which Bangladesh has to face, unfortunately, from time to time. On May 19, 1997, a severe cyclone hit Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina, who was about to visit Spain, immediately cancelled her trip. 155 persons lost their lives and a little more than nine thousand persons suffered injuries. On 29 April, 1991, another severe cyclone had hit Bangladesh. The highest speed of the wind then was 220 kilometre and the height of the tidal wave about 5 metres. By comparison, the highest speed of  the wind in  the 1997 cyclone was 232 kilometres and the height of the tidal wave 4.5 metres. The 1997 cyclone hit a wider area than the 1991 cyclone. In 1991 cyclone, 1,38,000 persons lost their lives and nearly 1,39,000 persons were injured. By contrast, in the cyclone of 1997, 127 persons lost their lives and a little more than nine thousand persons suffered injuries. It was possible to save lives because of quick and extensive measures taken by Sheikh Hasinas’s government to evacuate people to safer places and because of repeated warning given to the people of the impending danger. Sheihk Hasina had taken upon herself personally the responsibility of  organising, supervising and co-ordinating disaster management activities and was the first to rush to the affected areas as soon as the cyclone had subsided.  Immediately afterwards, Sheikh Hasina launched a project called ‘Asrayon’ (‘Shelter’). The project aims at building strong houses and shelters capable of withstanding cyclone and tidal surge. It also incorporates income generation and poverty elimination programmes for the poorest of the poor.

Sheikh Hasina is particularly keen on the welfare of the women and the children and in the promotion of their interest. She was invited, along with the Queen Sophiya of Spain and US First Lady Hillary Clinton, to co-chair the first ever Micro-credit Summit held in Washington in February 1997. This summit aimed at changing the lives of the poorest section of humanity, decided to provide, by the year 2005, one hundred million families with credit and an opportunity for self-employment. Hasina played a crucial role in turning the Summit into an important humanitarian movement.

Peace and stability are, Sheikh Hasina believes, necessary pre-conditions for development. "We are conscious," she said, "of the importance of the external environment for sustained growth. We are also aware that peace in our neighbourhood is not only necessary; it holds the key to our future." It was not surprising therefore that Sheikh Hasina made concerted efforts to find a lasting peace with India, Bangladesh’s closest and biggest neighbour. Relations between the two countries had been strained for the last two decades over the issue of the sharing of the waters of the Ganges. In less than six moths time in office, Sheikh Hasina succeeded in making a treaty for the sharing of the Ganges waters. The treaty ensures that Bangladesh would get its due share of the Ganges water during the lean period when every thing goes dry and agriculture suffers for want of water. This has affected the people in the western areas of Bangladesh very badly for many years. Now, not only a dispute has been amicably and equitably resolved, leading to a lasting peace between the two countries and therefore in the region, but people of Bangladesh have been provided with new hopes for economic growth and an end to their miseries. Enhanced flow of water in the Ganges would also halt the deteriorating state of ecology in the affected areas. In March this year, when the first lean period set in, Bangladesh got, according to reports appearing in the press, more than its share of the Ganges waters. Life has returned to areas turned nearly into a desert in Bangladesh. Peace in various parts of the world is threatened by water disputes and here is one, which is amicably resolved. This makes the treaty particularly remarkable.

Sheikh Hasina realises that economic emancipation is not all that is called for, for the betterment of the lot of women and that they also need to be politically and socially empowered. There are more than four thousand unions in Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is basically an agrarian country, with more than ninety per cent of the people living in villages. A few villages taken together make a union. Each union has a council, known as the union council. This is the lowest tier of local government in Bangladesh. The people directly on the basis of adult franchise elect members of the union council. What Sheikh Hasina did was to keep three seats in each union council reserved for women. Women can also contest from the general seats, that is, a seat not earmarked for them, and they do. The last elections to the union councils were held in late 1997. And now there are more than twelve thousand women elected as members of union councils all over the country. They have a voice in managing their own affairs at the local government level. With this political empowerment of women, women are bound to emerge as a force to reckon with. The entire social fabric is going to be changed.

But the crowning success of Sheikh Hasina’s political career so far is, however, the peace accord which her government has signed with Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS- representative tribal body) in December 1997 bringing to an end nearly two decades of unrest, confrontation, hostility and violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh and ushering in an era of peace.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, located in the south-eastern corner of the country, is an area where the majority of the tribal people of Bangladesh live. They have their own culture and tradition, their own way of life, even their own dialect, all very different from those of the rest of the people of Bangladesh. They are an ethnic, religious, linguistic and social minority group. It was natural for them to wish to preserve their distinct cultural identity and to continue to enjoy rights they have been traditionally enjoying for a long time. One of these rights was the right to use land both for building habitats and for cultivation. But they never had any formal ownership of land, for it was not necessary to have such ownership under their custom. Some people from other parts of the country took advantage, unscrupulously, of the situation, moved to the Hill Tracts and grabbed their land through formal documentation. This naturally led to discontent among the tribal people. A large number of them were earlier displaced when, in early sixties, a dam was built in Rangamati, a district in the Hill Tracts, and a vast area of arable land had gone under water. Many were not adequately compensated for, though they were supposed to. The situation deteriorated from bad to worse when a deliberate attempt was made to transport people from other parts of the country to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to settle them there. The tribal people thought their entity as a distinct ethnic group was threatened. They made protests and eventually took to arms. Insurgency became the order of the day in the area. A military solution to the problem was sought, but in vain.

Participating in a debate in the Parliament on 12 August 1992, Sheikh Hasina, as the Leader of the Opposition, demanded a just solution to the problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. She said that it must be ensured that no one lost one’s life or property in the area any more. She called for finding out a political, instead of any other, solution to the problem. She was the first to ask for such a solution. She asked for the formation of an all-party committee of the Members of the Parliament to seek solution to the problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

This political solution has at long last been found. What Sheikh Hasina dreamed of as the Leader of the Opposition, she attained as the Prime Minister. She constituted a committee to negotiate with the representatives of the tribal people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The committee included Members of Parliament both from the government and the opposition. Unfortunately, however, the MPs included in the committee from the main opposition party, BNP, did not participate in the negotiations. The peace accord that has been signed with the representatives of the tribal people provides for the setting up of a Regional Council, made up of both tribals and non-tribals living in the area, the tribals being the two-thirds in the Council, to co-ordinate and supervise general administration, law and order situation and development programmes. Both the sides are thus accommodated in the Council, with the tribals having an upper hand. The tribals have, on their part, agreed to cease hostilities with immediate effect and to surrender arms. Those of them who had crossed the border and gone to India in search of a shelter were to come back home.

A number of significant developments have taken place since the signing of the peace accord. Briefly, these are:

  • A complete cessation of hostilities has taken place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Since the peace accord was signed on December 02 between the government and the representatives of the insurgent tribal people, not a single incidence of violence or conflict has taken place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
  • The former tribal insurgents have surrendered their arms to the government.
  • Those tribal people who had crossed the border and gone over to India as refugees have returned home. Their number is more than sixty-three thousand. The Chakma refugee problem has come to an end.
Thorough the signing of the peace accord, the government of Sheikh Hasina has demonstrated its belief in the principle that democracy is for the majority and the minority alike, and that it is the duty of the majority to protect and promote the rights of the minority.  A high degree of autonomy has been granted to the Regional Council. This has been done to safeguard the rights of the tribal people and to create conditions for them to flourish in their own way without any interference or hindrance. The accord has been formulated within the framework of the constitution of the country. The government has retained the rights given to it under the constitution and has, at the same time, devised a mechanism to meet the legitimate aspirations of the tribal people. The peace accord will bring the people of the Hill Tracts back to the mainstream of national development and open up new avenues for their social and economic growth. As Sheikh Hasina put it, " The misunderstanding between one brother and another is over and the two are united again."

India has recently tested nuclear weapons. Pakistan is, it is believed, on its way to do so. There is tension in the sub-continent. Right at this moment, Hasina was in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, visiting the people there and telling them of  the measures the government plans to take for their welfare. Four bills have been passed by the Parliament for implementing certain aspects of the peace accord. The government has decided to spend 22,000 million taka (Bangladesh currency) from its own resources over the next five years for the development of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This will be supplemented by resources the development partners of Bangladesh have promised to make available. When the sub-continent is moving towards unrest, Sheikh Hasina is working relentlessly for peace.

Sheikh Hasina is on record to have said that the people of Bangladesh do not wish to see the rule of one autocrat replaced by that of another. The constitutional process must, she maintains, be allowed to take its own course and the people must emerge and function as the only fountainhead of political power. She has worked to give democracy in the country an institutional shape. No less significant is her contribution to the revival and reestablishment of the values associated with the Liberation War of the country, largely lost in wilderness after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the wake of the emergence of fundamentalist forces. She is all for peace and for the welfare of the people.

Bangladesh has decided to be a signatory to the Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and on their destruction. `Bangladesh is the first country in South Asia to do so. This is another testimony of Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to peace.

The All India Peace Council announced on 12 April 1998 that Sheikh Hasina has been given ‘Mother Teresa Award’.

Sheikh Hasina has been awarded M K Gandhi Award for 1998 for her contribution towards promotion of communal understanding, non-violent religious harmony and growth of grass-root democracy in Bangladesh. The Mahatma M K Gandhi Foundation of Oslo, Norway gives the award. The Foundation is named after Mahatma (meaning, Great Soul) Mohanchand Karamchand Gandhi, the great Indian leader, statesman and philosopher, known the world over for promotion of human rights and non-violence.  Previous winners of the Award include President Jimmy Carter of the United States, President Mikhail Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa (Nobel laureate for peace), Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Nobel laureate for peace) and Professor Johan Galfung of Norway, known for his work for peace science.

Sheikh Hasina is the author of a number of books in Bengali on society and politics. Sheikh Hasina was born on 28 September 1947 in Tungipara, a remote village in south-western Bangladesh. She has a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and is married to Dr M. A. Wazed Miah, a scientist. She has a son and a daughter.
 

 
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Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.Mozahed Alam

Last Updated July 27, 1999