SHEIKH Hasina lives in perpetual danger, in that literal sense of the meaning. There are too many wolves out there baying for her blood. While her supporters run into the millions, there is little question that her enemies are legion and are forever working away to dispatch her to kingdom come. She survived an attempt on her life in Chittagong in the times of General Ershad. In the era of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, she missed death when many around her fell in the grenade explosions of August 2004.
As prime minister, Sheikh Hasina lives through times that are a reminder of the troubles which assailed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the final year of his governance. In the end, Bangabandhu’s enemies, ranged in the country as also outside it, felled him in a macabre moment in history. In the recent past, the severity of hate and criticism hurled at Sheikh Hasina are a sign of the kind of calamity that could yet befall her if her security goes lax or if she makes a terribly bad move in her exercise of power. There are evil portents in the wind. The air is thick with intimations of ugliness.
Why does Sheikh Hasina matter so much in Bangladesh? Yes, she has made mistakes. Yes, she has done and said things she should not have. Even so, her place in history will be determined by all the positivism which has emanated from her administration. Whether you like it or not, she will leave a powerful legacy behind, the essence of which is that it was she who restored the legal and moral fabric of the nation’s politics. It is disturbing when you remember that between 1975 and 1996 and then between 2001 and 2006, the state simply lost its way — because the ruling classes cheerfully ignored both law and morality in their pursuit of power.
When you reflect on such sordid truths, it becomes easier to understand better the Hasina legacy. Observe:
Sheikh Hasina was the first politician in the land to let the nation know that the notorious Indemnity Ordinance, issued by the Moshtaque cabal and sanctified as part of the constitution by the Zia regime, would go. Her party did away with it in parliament. That was part of our shame being erased from our lives. And we were glad that Sheikh Hasina swept that darkness away.
Where it ought to have been the responsibility of the governments which held power after November 1975 to bring the killers of Bangabandhu and his family to justice, it remained for Sheikh Hasina to have the wheels of justice turn and for the judiciary in her time to pass judgment on Bangabandhu’s assassins. It is our undying shame that we needed, in an emasculated country, a daughter to pursue her father’s killers and have them walk the gallows. But where everyone else had failed, or was not bothered, Hasina did it. It is that legacy of a restoration of the rule of law that assures her a place in history.
The task before Sheikh Hasina’s governments, both in 1996 and 2009, was fundamentally to clear the country of the refuse and filth that had been strewn all over the place for years by those who benefited directly from Bangabandhu’s assassination. The re-ordering of investigations into the November 1975 killings of four Mujibnagar government leaders is part of that clean-up programme. Where the nation’s military rulers and their rightwing followers sought to undermine history through their long, vicious stranglehold on power, Sheikh Hasina went for sweeping action in tackling the forces of counter-revolution head-on.
One other area where the Hasina legacy promises to leave a lasting imprint is in her government’s bold move to bring the collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army to trial. No one believed that these collaborators could ever be tried in Bangladesh, just as no one had ever imagined that Bangabandhu’s murderers would ever face justice. That Sheikh Hasina has now compelled the friends of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan and, lately, of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, into experiencing their comeuppance lifts a burden from the conscience of the nation. Political classes in future will think twice before soliciting the support of the 1971 quislings, or of any other collaborators of any other sinister forces, in a furtherance of their political agenda.
Through initiating transparent legal proceedings in the matter of the ten-truck arms haul case and the August 2004 grenade explosions case, the Awami League government has let it be known that state-sponsored criminality is not on, that those who have indulged in such criminality have left constitutional politics grievously wounded, that they must pay for their crime. Such purposeful action toward a restoration of decency is part of the legacy Sheikh Hasina will leave behind on the nation’s body-politic.
The government’s tough action against the Hefajat-e-Islam has been proof of the determination of the state to handle unbridled nonsense with the firmness it calls for. In an environment where appeasement of religious fanaticism has become the norm, Sheikh Hasina and her government have done what a modern state would have done in a similar condition. They have let it be known that the state cannot be held hostage to obscurantism.
Sheikh Hasina has presided over a happy state of agriculture in the country. Education has been taking up increasingly wider spaces. Money siphoned off abroad by corrupt elements has been identified and brought back home. Bangladesh is no more a base for terrorists aiming to undermine other countries.
The country is certainly not a symbol of perfection. The government is surely not one that fulfills our everyday needs. It is the bigger picture, though, that matters. That picture is what will stamp Sheikh Hasina’s legacy on the history of this Bengali republic. She will be remembered for letting shards of light into what had been a widening circle of darkness for the people of this land.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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