It was a defining moment in Bangladesh's history. When Sheikh Hasina came home following nearly six years of exile abroad and took charge of the Awami League, something of the electric was in the air. It rained on 17 May 1981 when the elder daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made it back to the country her father had led to liberation a decade earlier.
With the rain came dollops of hope --- of a nation returning to its original ideals, of a people reclaiming a country which had been commandeered by assassins and extra-constitutional elements. Of course, the Zia regime yet had its stranglehold on the land. Of course, it was a regime which had history upended, had sought to airbrush the truth out of the narrative of time and heritage.
Sheikh Hasina's return opened the doors and windows to hope. Even in that rain, it was dreams of a restoration which took shape in the cloudburst that pelted the land. For those who remembered, it rained on the day when the assassins of the Father of the Nation laid his body with alacrity to rest, in fear and in sheer nervousness, in Tungipara. The rain on that day spoke of the sudden, tragic death of dreams. On 17 May 1981, the rain promised a rebirth of freedom. Through her tears mingling with the downpour, Bangabandhu's child reassured us that the future was ours, that the present would soon be giving way to a luminous new dawn.
Reflections on 17 May necessarily shine the light on the year, for 1981 was in a number of ways symbolic of momentous change around the world. Francois Mitterrand, that dedicated socialist, had just been elected President of France. And Ronald Reagan was months into his presidency in Washington. A resurgent Indira Gandhi, humbled in 1977 and triumphant once more in 1980, was in her element as India's unquestioned leader. The Soviet Union, an ailing Leonid Brezhnev in charge, was beginning to make a mess of things in Afghanistan, with the Americans, the Mujahideen and Pakistan's Ziaul Haq dictatorship cheerfully adding to the growing chaos. Deng Xiao-ping, in post-Mao China, was busy initiating economic reforms under the umbrella of the Communist Party.
No one had any illusions about the challenges Sheikh Hasina would be expected to confront as the new leader of the party that had led Bangladesh to freedom. That change would come to Bangladesh, that Ziaur Rahman and his associates knew full well that Bangabandhu's politics was on its way to renewal was a given. And how soon that renewal would come to be was the question. For the new leader of the Awami League, a full plate of priorities lay on the table. She would need to unify her fractured, faction-ridden party. A political organization which had borne the brunt of assault unleashed by the power of the state, seized though by the elements of darkness the state was, needed massive reconstruction.
And then there were the entrenched classes holding on to power, men who had in the six years since the assassination of Bangabandhu and the murder of the four national leaders pushed Bangladesh into a communal, militaristic mould. These men were not happy that Bangabandhu's daughter had come home, not just as the child of the country's founder but also as the woman who could push all of them out of power. These were individuals whose politics rested on historical falsehood, who had undertaken the dark, divisive campaign of having a spurious 'Bangladeshi nationalism' supplant Bengali nationalism. In May 1981, all these men were creatures driven by fear. And fear also made its sure way into the hearts of the 1975 killers, all of whom had been strutting all across the country through the patronization of the military regime.
For Sheikh Hasina, then, politics was a tall order. She could have declined the offer of the presidency of the Awami League. She could have come back home and lived out her days as a citizen, as merely Bangabandhu's daughter. But taking on herself the mantle of leadership in that moment of uncertainty in the life of the nation was an imperative, an act that had become necessary. On 17 May, Bangladesh's future rested on the shoulders of the young new leader of the Awami League. Having grown to adulthood in Bangabandhu's family, having experienced the vicissitudes which regularly were visited on the family through the systematic persecution of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, she slipped easily into the role of a national leader.
Of course, the commandeered state put up the roadblocks before her. She would not be allowed into the home that was hers at 32 Dhanmondi. The merchants of falsehood were out there to decry her assumption of her new role. Her nation gave short shrift to all such parochialism. Her party came together on her watch --- for she was young and therefore the image of the future, for she took to political authority in the manner of one experienced in the exercise of it. Party elders, all associates of her father, spontaneously acknowledged her as the leader in whose light shone a future Bangladesh.
On 17 May 1981, history moved on, beyond the crossroads it had been stranded in. A candle burned bright at 32 Dhanmondi once again.