A midnight's child

Aug 19, 2013, 07:21 IST | Smita Prakash

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh was born a Pakistani. On 28 September 1947, the eldest child of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was born in Tungipara in Gopalgonj, which had become East Pakistan only a few days ago. Being a political activist's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wazed was thrown into the rough and tumble of politics very early in life.

Need of the hour: To prevent the danger of a resurgence of Islamist extremism, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina needs to pull some rabbits out of her hat very quickly

She was imprisoned several times by the Pakistani establishment bent on crushing the freedom struggle in East Pakistan. Married to a nuclear scientist, Sheikh Hasina was witness to the genocide of over 2 million Bengalis by Pakistan. Colonel Ashok Tara, a retired Indian Army officer, recalled to this columnist how on a December night in 1971 he responded to the cries of help of Mujib’s family who were locked up inside a house with Pakistani soldiers on guard. He dropped his weapon and walked towards the nervous Pakistani soldier at the gate. Colonel Tara told the guard that Pakistan had lost the war and Bangladesh was liberated. If he allowed Mujib’s family to leave unharmed, then he could guarantee safe passage to the Pakistani soldiers. The soldier agreed and Mujib’s family, which included Sheikh Hasina and her child, were handed over to the Indian Army. But not before Mujib’s wife went up to the terrace, pulled down the Pakistani flag, stamped on it and said “Joi Bangla.”

Another day is very significant in the life of the Sheikh Hasina. On 15 August 1975, her parents and three brothers were assassinated by disgruntled Bangladeshi Army officers. She had a providential escape as she was out of the country. But since then, there have been several attempts on her life, many of them allegedly sponsored by the BNP, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. The rivalry between the two Begums is legendary. Khaleda Zia celebrates her birthday on August 15 even though her matriculation certificate records it as August 9. While Sheikh Hasina mourns her family and the rest of Bangladesh observes that day as National Mourning Day, Khaleda Zia and her supporters cut birthday cakes and celebrate.

Sheikh Hasina has single-handedly taken on Islamic extremists in Bangladesh. She set up the International War Crimes Tribunal and gave it all the executive support needed to bring to justice the war criminals of 1971. She has cracked down on terrorism in her country like nobody before her. Her government in Bangladesh stands out like a beacon among countries where Islamists have threatened to run amok.

“Those who can lie inside a mosque are not Muslims….Those who set fire to mosques and Qurans in the name of saving Islam, what kind of Islam do they want?”, she recently said at a public meeting in Pirganj. The Bengal Tigress is fighting valiantly against Islamists who have undertaken violent protests demanding promulgation of an anti-blasphemy law, revocation of the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and shelving of the war crime trials.

The general election of 2014 is thus an existential election for Sheikh Hasina. Strategic expert Ajai Sahni says that if she loses, then it is quite likely that the Islamists of Bangladesh -- allied to the BNP -- would assassinate her.

But there is slim chance of Awami League winning a second consecutive term as no elected government has ever done so in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina needs to pull some rabbits out of her hat very quickly. If not, Bangladesh faces the danger of a resurgence of Islamist extremism financed by Saudi money and abetted by Pakistani agencies.

When Bangladeshi PM visits India next month, she comes with two longstanding requests. One is the Teesta Water Sharing deal and the other is the Land Border Agreement (LBA). On both, we have committed our support to her but domestic political compulsions have muddied the waters. On Teesta, Mamata Banerjee is not convinced while on the LBA, which needs parliamentary ratification, the BJP has “apprehensions”.

It is time our leaders saw the larger picture. Sheikh Hasina's government is not just good for Bangladesh, it is proactively cooperating in cracking down on India-centric terror groups. The UPA government is to introduce the LBA bill this week in Parliament but there are fears that it will get snuffed out under the ruckus that will come up due to the Food Security Bill also to be tabled this week. The government has to reach out to the BJP to join hands on this critical matter but with political name calling reduced to frog and cockroach, there is little hope that the two will agree on anything. 

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