Sheikh Hasina's emergence on Bangladesh's political landscape in May 1981 was, in simple terms, a campaign for a restoration of dignity for the Bengali nation. The subsequent efforts she expended in her crusade to revive the values lost through the mayhem and murder of August-November 1975 are today part of history.
It would be safe to suggest that had General Ziaur Rahman survived the putsch which put an end to his life, his regime would have had to deal with the resolute politics Sheikh Hasina, newly anointed as chief of the Awami League, was beginning to give shape to soon after her return from exile. But then, it was not just a struggle against military and quasi-military regimes that was the focus of her political programme. It was a much broader canvas she shaped. It was values she espoused, the need for those values, lost through the illegitimate commandeering of power following Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination, which called for a return in national life.
Sheikh Hasina's initial steps in politics, though, were linked to the need to reunify a fragmented Awami League once she took charge of the party. Indeed, it remains testimony to the wisdom of those party elders who, convinced that only Bangabandhu's daughter could reshape the future of the party, took it upon themselves to invite her to accept the leadership of the party which had till that point of time operated in three factions. Once Sheikh Hasina assumed the mantle of leadership in the party, the path lay open for her to broaden her campaign for a restoration of the values underscored by the War of Liberation. It was a concerted, brilliant campaign she waged in her tortuous struggle against the Ershad dictatorship, enough to cause endless headaches for the second military dictatorship which had seized the country. The times were tough, with the regime, guided as it was by everything that militated against the spirit of Bangabandhu's politics, constantly hounding her through arrests, home incarceration and restrictions on her political activities. It is to Sheikh Hasina's credit that more than anything else, it was her determination to send the regime packing which eventually opened up the possibilities of a new era for Bangladesh in December 1990. It would be five more years, though, before power would come to rest with Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League. That would be in June 1996, a remarkable period which saw the lid placed over historical truth, over the rule of law and the concept of justice, finally lifted. The shame the country had lived with, in the form of the notorious Indemnity Ordinance, was one of the earliest priorities of her administration. A particular reason why Sheikh Hasina's place in history remains assured is the determination with which she went into doing away with the ordinance and bringing Bangabandhu's assassins to justice.
The trial of the assassins was a slap in the face for those who had kept the state in their grip for twenty-one years. More importantly, it was a powerful sign of Bangladesh's natural inclination, given its democratic history, to restore to itself the concept of justice, the idea that crime would not go unpunished. In clear terms, Sheikh Hasina's preoccupation with the concept of justice, the cornerstone of her politics as Leader of the Opposition in the JatiyoSangsad, as a politician driving public protests against illegitimate rule, was once more reinforced in the political chaos arising out of the rigged by-election in Magura in 1994. Electoral integrity underpinned the Awami League's campaign for fresh general elections under a neutral caretaker government. It was a goal which reached fruition in June 1996. The trajectory followed by Sheikh Hasina marked her out as a personality to whom political integrity mattered. She came under threat of assassination in Chittagong in 1988, was the target of those who sought to blow her up along with her party colleagues in 2004. There were too the dark elements who even took potshots at 32 Dhanmondi in a sinister bid to re-enact the darkness of August 1975. Today, as the Prime Minister completes seventy-four years of life and steps into the seventy-fifth, it cannot be said with certainty that the threats which have regularly pursued her are there no more. That is the argument which today necessitates the need for caution --- and not just for Sheikh Hasina but for the nation as a whole.
In these years she has been in office, from 1996 to 2001 and from 2009 till the present, Sheikh Hasina has convinced the world of her supreme command of Bangladesh's national stage. Her party remains beholden to her. Her cabinet colleagues are rendered wise through advice which flows from her. The many components of her domestic policy have endeared her to those who have consistently observed in her the embodiment of bold and enlightened leadership, one which is in consonance with national goals. Sheikh Hasina speaks with conviction, just as Bangabandhu did in his time, for the nation abroad. For her, leadership has come tempered, where necessary, with magnanimity. The instance of the million-plus Rohingya refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh is revealing. As Bangladesh's leader, she could have shut the doors to the refugees and so project herself as being indifferent to the cause of suffering men and women. She did not take that road. On the issue of climate change, a threat Bangladesh is clearly confronted with, the Prime Minister has reassured the world beyond Bangladesh's frontiers that her government is ready to be part of international efforts to roll back the threat. And yet she has let it be known that those responsible for the dire straits the world's climate is in cannot evade their responsibility, that they must retrace their steps and do what must be done to roll back the oncoming disaster.
There is little question that Sheikh Hasina has gradually risen to a stature where history acknowledges her as the most powerful head of government Bangladesh has had. There have been the reasons behind such a perception. Take the matter of the foreign policy Bangladesh has pursued under Sheikh Hasina. Implementing Bangabandhu's dictum of 'friendship for all and malice toward none' in its totality, Sheikh Hasina has presided over an expansion and deepening of the country's diplomatic objectives. Relations with India, which sceptics had voiced worries about with the rise of the BJP in India, have been to the satisfaction of both Dhaka and Delhi. There is certainly the issue of the Teesta waters, but pragmatism in waiting for a mutually acceptable solution has been at the heart of Sheikh Hasina's India policy. Additionally, diplomacy under Sheikh Hasina's government has been a constant reaching out to the wider world. It is not merely a balanced foreign policy which underpins Bangladesh's ties with nations. More significantly, it is an approach where Bangladesh takes into account the benefits that will accrue to it of its overseas contacts. Relations with Russia, China, India, the United States --- key players in global politics today --- have been on an even keel. That is surely an achievement. With the European Union, with Britain, the country enjoys ties based on mutual respect. And there are too the areas where the government has been deepening the economic factors so necessary for Bangladesh to promote the welfare of its citizens. The increasing numbers of Bangladeshis travelling to the Middle East, to South-east Asia in search of employment and their remittances home is a sign of diplomatic success on a different plane. With Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina's exchange of messages with Prime Minister Imran Khan have been cordial and yet she remains aware of the fact that any improvement in ties must come on the heels of steps only Islamabad can take through acknowledging the genocide by its army in 1971. Relations with Myanmar are fraught and yet the Bangladesh leader has carefully stayed away from any possibility of the waters being muddied more than they have been over the Rohingya issue.
Sheikh Hasina's legacy promises to be long and lasting. There is little question that Bangladesh is in requirement of her continued leadership as it moves into the future. Through her deft and firm handling of religious militancy, she has convinced the nation that this country is no place for crime committed through a dark interpretation of faith. The historically necessary role her government has played through prosecuting the war criminals of 1971 and having them face justice, decades after they committed their crimes, was the closing of yet another dark episode in national history.
Back in the early days of Bangladesh's sovereign status as a nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman set some important pillars in place across the nation's socio-political landscape. It will now be for Sheikh Hasina to deepen those pillars --- through ensuring rule of law in the country, through presiding over the creation of a society of equality, through clamping down hard on corruption, through keeping yes-men at bay, through strengthening all those institutions of state on which depends the welfare of the masses, through widening the social welfare net in terms of a provision of efficient medicare, through reassuring the people of Bangladesh that their government is a vehicle of enlightened passage to the future.
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is a political commentator and author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad)