It was on the front page picture of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, freed from the Agartala Conspiracy Case, in the newspaper Dawn that I had a glimpse of Sheikh Hasina. She was clearly in a cheerful mood and so was Bangabandhu in what was certainly a seminal moment in Bangladesh's history. Sheikh Hasina was holding her father in a close embrace, which was testimony to the Bengali tradition of daughters generally being close to their fathers.
That photograph was momentous too in that it was symbolic of a political leader who had, in that literal as well as figurative sense, returned from near death, a condition in which the tottering regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan had planned to put him through that trial. That picture, again, was the joy of a child whose happiness at seeing her father come home thus, in enhanced honour, manifested itself in her happy demeanour.
In all these years which have gone by since that picture appeared in Dawn and all other newspapers in what used to be Pakistan, I have followed Sheikh Hasina's trajectory in politics. I recall talking to my mother about the pains she and her sister were going through abroad, in exile, in the aftermath of Bangabandhu's assassination. There was despair abroad in the land, with little sign of Sheikh Hasina's return to the country. A military regime, comprising the old collaborators of the Pakistan army and determined to airbrush Bangabandhu out of history, had Bangladesh in its sinister grip.
And yet there was no stopping Sheikh Hasina from returning home once the Awami League decided to hand to her the mantle of its leadership. It was a move steeped in wisdom. Six years after she had left Bangladesh, she came home in May 1981. Many were the tears of joy we shed at her return, for we were convinced that she was the future, that on her young shoulders lay the burden of taking the nation back to its history, to the respectability that was lost when Bangabandhu and most of his family were gunned down in August 1975. We wept; and so did Sheikh Hasina as the crowds, braving the inclement weather, welcomed her home.
It was the second return of the native, the first being Bangabandhu's homecoming back from incarceration in January 1972. And yet the Zia regime would not permit Sheikh Hasina to step inside 32 Dhanmondi, where the assassins had felt no compunction in shedding so much blood, in trying to shoot down Bangladesh's history. Sheikh Hasina sat on the road before the gate and prayed. And the nation waited for the darkness symbolised by the regime to lift. A time came when it did lift. A time came when the call went out from Sheikh Hasina for change to come into politics, for usurpers to be driven out of the civilizational. She took on the Zia regime. She took on the Ershad regime. And she would not let their political descendants rest easy as long as justice did not return to the land.
A few days after her return to Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina was guest of honour at the Paribagh home of the reputed architect Muzharul Islam. I made my way there, indeed gate-crashed the party in the company of my YMCA colleague, Islam's daughter Dalia Nausheen. All the notables of society were there. When Sheikh Hasina turned up, it was sheer joy for all of us to see her, for in her was young leadership determined to bring about change. She greeted everyone in that typically deferential Bengali way. I salaamed her, not knowing at that point that in the years ahead I would be interacting with her on a more definitive level.
On a monsoon morning in 1987, a relative of Sheikh Hasina informed me that the Awami League chief would like me to meet her and have breakfast with her at 32 Dhanmondi. It was thrilling to know that. I stepped into 32 Dhanmondi, my very first visit inside the premises and was conducted into Bangabandhu's library on the ground floor. Sheikh Hasina came in, a typical Bengali young woman, told me she had been reading my articles in the newspaper I then happened to work for. Conversation flowed as the items for breakfast were consumed. She spoke of Bangabandhu's unfinished tasks. And I recalled the time when I had dinner with Bangabandhu in 1970.
My links with Sheikh Hasina were reinforced when she undertook the job of turning Bangabandhu's home into a memorial in 1994. I was part of the team selecting the photographs that would be displayed in the house and the captions that would be attached to them. Prior to that, in 1991, I was taken into the media team Sheikh Hasina organised in the run-up to the general election of February 1991. In early 1997, I was packed off by Sheikh Hasina's government to London as the media spokesperson at our High Commission there.
In a way one could say that I have been a witness to the leadership demonstrated by Sheikh Hasina in the decades since she took over as the president of the Awami League. Her absolute lack of fear, so well demonstrated when she came under attack in Chittagong in 1988 and in Dhaka in 2004, have been reminders of the courage under fire that Bangabandhu epitomised in his lifetime. Add to that Sheikh Hasina's ability in bringing the various factions of the Awami League together and restoring to it the formidable strength it possessed in the years before 1975. Today, the party is indeed Sheikh Hasina. She is its bright, enduring symbol.
In these fourteen years since she led her party to victory at the December 2008 elections, Sheikh Hasina has presided over what is clearly an economic miracle. Bangladesh is today a rising economic power, a nation poised to graduate from LDC status to that of a middle income country. Her Ashrayan project, geared to helping the destitute through giving them shelter, is a responsibility which promises to be the first step in ending poverty in the country. It is the first step in the creation of a welfare state.
On the global stage, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a formidable figure. She speaks boldly for the country despite the many pressures she is or has been under. Upholding the national interest has always been her preoccupation, for that old spirit of nationalism which underpinned our resolute struggle for freedom has been part of her political message. Her foreign policy has been a fine balance in cultivating and maintaining links with India, China, Russia, the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world.
Firmness of leadership, based on rebuilding a secular and democratic Bangladesh, has defined the Hasina persona. That explains how she has weathered so many storms in her life and how effectively she has been able to guide Bangladesh in the fourteen years she has held office as Prime Minister since 2009.
Sheikh Hasina has restored the nation's self-esteem through doing away with the dark legacy of the usurper regimes in this land of proud Bengalis. She ensured justice through bringing the assassins of Bangabandhu to trial. She deftly moved toward bringing the ageing collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army to justice. We sleep a lot easier today than we did before Sheikh Hasina emerged on the scene.
That is leadership. That is the mark of a stateswoman.