"We want to form the government after the elections on the basis of national consensus. We want to build a society free from terrorism, corruption and poverty. We want to fully equip the nation with the ability to enter the 21st century along with other developed countries of the world", Sheikh Hasina announced in her election manifesto on 10 May 1996. Then came the June 12 parliamentary elections. The Bangladesh Awami League, under the dynamic leadership of Sheikh Hasina, won a majority of seats in Parliament and formed the government on June 23.
June 23, 1996 is not merely the day on which Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the founding father of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Muiibur Rahman, was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh. On this day, the people of Bangladesh once again perceived the outcome of their right to freely elect their representatives. After 21 years of ruthless oppression, free-wheeling corruption and overt and covert martial law, democracy has finally been restored.
On the day of the cruel assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, along with members of his family, Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana escaped the gruesome act as they were away from the country. After the tragedy Sheikh Hasina was forced to remain outside the country. but she continued to work for unifying the Bangalees at home and abroad for launching an all-pervasive democratic movement. On May 17, 1981 after nearly six years in exile, Sheikh Hasina returned to Bangladesh as the President of Bangladesh Awami League. She was then only 33 years old. Ever since that day, she has constantly been fighting to establish the rights of the people of Bangladesh. She had to struggle for 15 long years to prepare and lead the Awami League for the task of carrying out a ceaseless political movement for the restoration of democracy in the country. Throughout this difficult struggle, the poor masses of Bangladesh stood firmly beside her.
The dream that had once seemed impossible became a reality on March 30. A popular upsurge forced the autocratic regime to surrender to the people's demand for holding national elections under a neutral caretaker government. The pioneer of the movement was Sheikh Hasina, a relentless fighter, carrying forward the legacy of her illustrious father Bangabandhu Sheikh Muiibur Rahman. Sheikh Hasina dedicated 15 years of her life fighting for restoration of the democratic rights of the people of Bangladesh. Her indomitable spirit, political farsightedness and complete devotion to the cause of the people finally helped efface the legacy of military coups, political murder and oppressive regimes.
Throughout her college and university years Sheikh Hasina actively participated in political movements. The death of her father on August 15, 1975 was the turning point in her career. The brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many of his family members placed the hope for the country's future in his two exiled daughters— Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana.
The impact of the coup on Bangladesh was quick and powerful. It placed the country completely at the mercy of some ambitious and greedy generals and changed the course of the history of Bangladesh. What happened was not just a change of government. The coup leaders attempted to transform a democratic nation into a military oligarchy. The pro-Pakistan forces, which had suffered an ignominious defeat in the War of Liberation in 1971, regained control of the government and introduced policies to undermine the democratic and secular ideals and values which the Bangalees had firmly cherished and upheld, and which had inspired the creation of Bangladesh. The first move was the imposition of Martial Law to deprive the people of their democratic rights. This was followed by concerted efforts at breaking the spirit of the to struggle. Murders, unlawful imprisonment and tortures sponsored by the then government followed.
Bangabandhu's entire life was dedicated to the emancipation of the people of Bangladesh. All the dreams he had cherished throughout the turmoil of his life blossomed around the somnolent. The volcanic potential of the life of the people of this land manifested in his struggle. He could not have enough time to take care of his family. Bangabandhu's wife Sheikh Fazilatunnesa took care of their children and family, and at times even of party matters in his absence. Her father's ideals, family traditions and a strong personality, coupled with her mother's guidance, helped Sheikh Hasina get transformed into the great leader that she is today.
She had been keen in politics since the beginning of her life. In her own words, "I have been associated with the political ups and downs of the country and with the Awami League since my childhood. I witnessed the unbearable oppression suffered by my father and his colleagues during the democratic movements. My father spent most of his life in prison. Whenever he was free, he used to remain busy with political activities and in organizing the party. I have seen my mother guide the party along with other leaders in the absence of my father, and carry out his plans while he was in prison. My first lesson in politics came out of my family atmosphere. The first time I directly got involved in politics was when the country was in political turmoil demanding autonomy and democracy. Later, I fully participated in the students' movement in 1962. Political unrest was widespread among students in 1962. Students, workers, farmers and ordinary people came out on the streets with their political and economic demands. I attended meetings and took part in processions against the undemocratic and anti-people Pakistani rulers. No conscious Bangalee could remain aloof from the political mainstream during those tumultuous days in the sixties. I too could not keep myself away from the path of revolution and resistance".
Soon after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other members of his family, Sheikh Hasina began to communicate with party workers while living outside Bangladesh. Despite being forced to remain in exile, on August 15, 1980 she attended a huge political rally in London, on the occasion of the observance of the fifth anniversary of the death of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Soon after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other members of his family, Sheikh Hasina began to communicate with party workers while living outside Bangladesh. Despite being forced to remain in exile, on August 15, 1980, she attended a huge political rally in London, on the occasion of the observance of the fifth anniversary of the death of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Sheikh Hasina's first speech in York Hall established her as a political leader. Then in 1981, still in exile, Sheikh Hasina was made the president, in absentia, of the largest political party of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Awami League. Within a very short period of time she proved to be as charismatic a leader as her father had been. Keeping in mind her father's hopes and dreams for the country, she began to speak out against the oppressive military rulers in an attempt to establish the democratic rights of the people.
It was Sheikh Hasina's unbounded courage and inner strength of personality that sustained her during the traumatic period that followed her return to Bangladesh in 1981. It was not an easy task for a young woman who had been stranded for years with her husband and small children in a foreign country. A hostile government persecuted all those who were loyal to her father and the Awami League. Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina's courage did not fail her, nor did she lose faith in the future of Bangladesh. Her profound commitment to Bangalee nationalism, secular values and democratic ideals fortified her morale, during those lonely years of her life. In the manner of her illustrious father Sheikh Hasina's deep love for the people of Bangladesh was combined with the conviction that the voice of the people would ultimately be heard. After the initial period of shock and mourning, she began to mobilise and organise Bangalees at home and abroad, especially inspiring those who had lost all hope in the future of Bangladesh. The people responded and welcomed the daughter of democracy with open arms and renewed hope.
In 1981, the Bangladesh Awami League, reeling under the assault of the military regime of General Ziaur Rahman, invited Sheikh Hasina to assume the leadership of the party that had led the country through its war of independence in 1971. She accepted the challenge and returned to a hearty welcome by millions of followers of Bangabandhu. Since that memorable day, as the President of the Awami League, she led the party through a period of reorganisation and rehabilitation. Sheikh Hasina suffered imprisonment several times, fought two national elections and led a massive popular movement through which she ousted an autocratic military dictator from power.
Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League spearheaded a struggle against the despotic rulers. She initiated and led an uncompromising movement against the military dictators in an attempt to bring democracy back to Bangladesh.
In 1982, she was the first to raise the voice of protest against assumption of state power through military coups d'etat. Taking great risk, she put tremendous pressure on Ershad's regime to end martial law and hold free and fair elections. Though political activities were banned at that time the Awami League was the only political party that had the courage to demand democratic rights for the people of Bangladesh. In 1983, Sheikh Hasina formed a 15 party alliance from which grew a powerful student movement protesting against the military government. On February 14, 1983 the army entered the Dhaka University campus and fired bullets and used batons to quell the agitating students. On February 15, as she protested the inhuman act through organising a peaceful rally at the Shahid Minar (the memorial for the martyrs of the Language Movement of 1952), Sheikh Hasina was arrested and taken blindfolded to Dhaka cantonment along with her associates. She was kept incommunicado for 15 days. In October 1983, Sheikh Hasina said, "The tactics previously applied to usurp the office of the President since the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman have been adopted once again by General Ershad. The process is, first, staging a coup d'etat, then consolidating power and finally declaring the usurper as President. If the usurper goes to the electorate after he captures power, the result of the election is determined beforehand in his favour. As a result, political instability persists. That is why we demand that state power be handed over to the elected representatives of the people".
Thereafter, she had to suffer confinement time and again. In 1984 she was put under house arrest in February and then again in November. In March 1985, she was put under house arrest for three months at a stretch. On March 26, 1986 in a statement issued in Dhaka on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina said that her party would participate in the general elections as part of its movement to put an end to the politics of "coups, killings, conspiracies and martial law". She also said, "We want to have elections not only to form the next government but also to establish a system that represents the people as well".
Sheikh Hasina became Leader of the Opposition in Parliament commanding the support of 104 elected MPs belonging to her party and alliance. As the youngest Leader of the Opposition she demonstrated her political acumen and sagacity in and outside Parliament. She forced the treasury bench to withdraw a number of bills which went against the fundamental rights of the people. Sheikh Hasina remained Leader of the Opposition until the dissolution of Parliament by General Ershad in December 1987.
In October 1986, Sheikh Hasina, in defiance of marital law, addressed a huge rally in Bogra. On her way from Bogra to Rajshahi, she was detained and forcibly sent back to Dhaka. On November 11, 1987 she was again put under house arrest for a month, despite her being the leader of the opposition in Parliament at the time. During a demonstration in front of the government secretariat on November I0, 1987 the police opened fire on Sheikh Hasina and tried to lift her car with a crane while she was leaving the National Press Club. In the face of strong resistance from the people, the police failed to arrest her and she was able to slip out of the car. On January 24, 1988, while addressing a public meeting in Chittagong, police fired on the crowd, killing nearly 80 people and narrowly missing Sheikh Hasina and her aides. Undeterred by these threats on her life, she went on touring the country from one end to the other to inspire and motivate the people to defend their democratic rights.
Sheikh Hasina took a resolute stand against military rule from the day she returned to Bangladesh. Since then, she never compromised on her commitment to the people. Her 15 year long struggle against military rule was crowned with success when the last military dictator had to surrender power in ignominy.
Today, Sheikh Hasina stands transformed from the political fugitive as she was in 1975, to be in the center of the political life of the nation, pioneering the struggle to re-establish the ideals for which millions of Bangalees fought and died. Sheikh Hasina steered the historic mass movement which toppled the autocratic regime of General Ershad and forced him to transfer power through constitutional means. At a huge public meeting in Dhaka on November 6, 1990 Sheikh Hasina announced the constitutional formula for the peaceful transfer of power in accordance with Articles 51 and 56 of the Constitution. This was eventually accepted by the entire nation. On November 27, 1990 Sheikh Hasina was again confined in Bangabandhu Bhaban following the proclamation of a state of emergency. But the government was forced to release her the same day, in the face of a mass protest against her arrest. On December 4, 1990 General Ershad was compelled to step down and accept the demand of the people following a 24 hour ultimatum Issued by Sheikh Hasina.
It was a matter of great disappointment, however, that her party did not get an absolute majority in Parliament in the 1991 national elections. the Awami League received 38% of the popular vote and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party received 31%.
Sheikh Hasina's accomplishments as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament drew the admiration of the entire nation. As in the past, she stood firmly on the side of the people on every issue in which the interests of the people were involved. She observed how the Presidential System had been abused by previous leaders. Sheikh Hasina steered all the political parties towards a parliamentary system which eventually had to be accepted by the BNP government. Indeed, it was due to her initiative and leadership that today the nation has been able to attain its goal of establishing a parliamentary form of government.
Sheikh Hasina has always stood by the poor masses of Bangladesh. In 1992, she launched a nationwide campaign to help the farmers and workers who had been suffering from negligence and indifference under the BNP government. In 1995, peasants raised their protest against an artificial fertilizer crisis created by the BNP leaders and their henchmen, which resulted in the death of 18 peasants in police firing. Sheikh Hasina reacted sharply in support of the poor peasants and mobilised a strong peasant movement across the country to protect their interest. Soon after, the BNP government killed 17 workers who had been agitating against the closure of several hundred mills and factories. Sheikh Hasina rushed to the aid of the workers to share their concerns and helped them to unite in the defense of their rights.
In August 1995, a teen-aged girl Yasmin was raped and brutally killed by a gang of policemen in Dinajpur. Seeing no justice being done a group of people surrounded the police station and demanded justice. The police opened fire and killed seven of the protesters. Sheikh Hasina strongly protested against this cruelty and, using the example of the Dinajpur incident aroused public awareness about similar crimes committed by the BNP government. This led to an enormous public reaction against the BNP all over Bangladesh.
As Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Sheikh Hasina always upheld the interest of the people and the cause of democracy. Witnessing what happened during the previous by-elections Sheikh Hasina began to demand the creation of a permanent system which would ensure free and fair elections in the country. She demanded the resignation of the BNP government and proposed the establishment of a non-party, neutral, caretaker government to conduct national election.
In 1994, Sheikh Hasina succeeded in organising a campaign that brought together other major opposition parties closer to hers in the movement for democracy. When all negotiations with the government failed, the opposition members in Parliament resigned on December 28, 1994. Sheikh Hasina launched a renewed movement demanding that general elections be held under a neutral caretaker government. The movement gained momentum when the BNP held polls on February 15, 1996 which was boycotted by all political parties. The boycott was universally supported and the turnout of voters was as low as 5%. On March 9, 1996 Sheikh Hasina declared a non-cooperation movement against the BNP government. People from all strata of society along with government officials and employees fully cooperated with the movement. As the non-cooperation movement approached a climax, at the directive of Sheikh Hasina, the 'Janatar Mancha' i.e. people's platform, was organised in Dhaka. Thousands of people from all walks of life expressed their solidarity with the movement. This turned out to be the final blow to the BNP government, and on March 30, 1996 the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was forced to resign and a non-party caretaker government was formed. Even the most virulent of her critics were compelled to congratulate Sheikh Hasina on her political sagacity in the creation of a neutral caretaker government and her successful exercise of leadership in mobilising popular support. The idea of a neutral caretaker government is seen by political observers as a significant contribution of Sheikh Hasina to the cause of democracy. Political thinkers feel that this system may be applied to other Third World countries in future.
Sheikh Hasina has made it clear at various points of time that she would continue her struggle for the economic emancipation of the poor masses. This has always been her fundamental political objective. She has often said, "The rich minority of the people must stop exploiting the poor majority". Sheikh Hasina has vowed to eliminate corruption. According to her, " Corruption at the top levels of government is the root of many evils in society". She believes that corruption can be checked at all levels only if corrupt government leaders are dealt with an iron hand.
Sheikh Hasina's courage and charisma have often invited attempts on her life. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on her residence several times. On September 11, 1991 during the parliamentary by-elections, a group of armed BNP hooligans shot at her. The bullet narrowly missed her. During her Train March in 1994, gunmen opened fire on her compartment at Ishurdi railway station. In the last anti-government movement, Sheikh Hasina's rallies were attacked by BNP activists, who opened fire and hurled bombs to disrupt those meetings. However, defying such attacks, she boldly addressed the rallies and declared that if the Awami League could form the government, it would eliminate terrorism from society. No threat could deter her from the struggle to achieve the right to vote and bring about economic emancipation of the people.
Despite the heavy responsibilities of being the leader of the largest political party in the country, Sheikh Hasina has also been working tirelessly to promote international peace, disarmament, racial harmony, goodwill and fraternity among nations. In 1984, she attended the Sixth Congress of the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) in Algiers as a special guest. At the invitation of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Sheikh Hasina visited the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in 1985 and exchanged views with PLO leaders on international affairs and matters of mutual interest.
Sheikh Hasina was also a special quest at the First Eleanor Roosevelt International Caucus of Women Political Leaders, organised by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in San Francisco in 1987. In 1988, she delivered the keynote speech on Disarmament and Development at the Seventh Congress of Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation in New Delhi. In 1988, Sheikh Hasina attended the meeting of the Presidium Committee of the World Peace Council in Prague as a member of the Presidium of the World Peace Council. She was a special guest at an international seminar held in Dhaka by Bangladesh Peace Council in 1992. She also attended the Convention of the Democratic Party in New York in 1992.
Sheikh Hasina has also been very active in the promotion of bilateral relations in the South Asian region. She has visited India on a number of occasions for deliberation with its leaders on bilateral problems. As a special guest, she visited Katmandu in 1992 to attend an International Seminar on Lord Buddha organised by the Nepal-Bangladesh Friendship and Cultural Association. She attended a meeting of the Leaders of the Opposition of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) held in Karachi in 1992. On November 5, 1993 she visited China as Leader of the Opposition where she discussed bilateral and multilateral issues relating to agricultural and industrial development of Bangladesh with Chinese co-operation.
Sheikh Hasina has been an active participant in promoting the cause of Human Rights as well as the rights of women. In June 1993, she addressed the NGO conference held in Vienna prior to the Second World Congress on Human Rights. She visited Washington D.C. on February 2, 1994 in response to an invitation of the Chairman of the Congressional Executive Committee to the National Prayer Breakfast. In March, 1994 while visiting India, she met with the Prime Minister of India and discussed the issue of sharing of the Ganges waters and demanded a reasonable solution. She also demanded that the "Tin Bigha Corridor" should remain open for the citizens of Bangladesh round the clock. In May 1994, she attended the Socialist International Seminar in Tokyo, Japan. In 1994, she was elected Vice President of the Eastern Vision Forum at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Sheikh Hasina has dedicated her life to the difficult and often dangerous task of crusading for democracy In her country, rather than opting for a safe and comfortable life abroad. In February 1996, an English news commentary broadcast on the BBC World Service programme described Sheikh Hasina as an 'Iron Lady' for her uncompromising stand on the issue of the democratic rights of the people.
In the midst of her pre-occupation with the day-to-day responsibilities as president of the Awami League and Leader of the Opposition, she never lost sight of her goals, nor did she falter in her firm commitment to the cause of freedom and human rights.
Now, at the apex of her political life, Sheikh Hasina is an outstanding Third World leader who has made great contributions in enlarging the scope of freedom for the people and enriching the human spirit. Today, Sheikh Hasina ranks first and foremost among the political leaders in Bangladesh. It is because of her leadership that she has successfully been able to lead her party through a relentless mass movement in ousting a military autocratic regime. Hers is the voice of the people, of reason and pragmatism. She is always graceful even after hectic organisational activities. She is a person with vision and balanced approach to life. An ardent protagonist of the parliamentary form of government, Sheikh Hasina believes in a mixed economy and healthy competition between the public and the private sectors. She is in full agreement with the essence of the foreign policy expounded by her father— "Friendship to all, malice to none".
"I have taken a vow to transform this country into a politically stable one. Deep in my heart, I believe that economic development that changes people's fate can come only through political stability." Sheikh Hasina has said, adding, "My political aim is to ensure the people's right to ballot and bread. I want to start from the grassroots, where the majority of the poorest of the poor live in inhuman conditions".
Sheikh Hasina's life has been dedicated to the people of Bangladesh. Her political ambitions begin and end with the welfare of the people of Bangladesh. Her goal is to fulfill her father's dream of building a golden Bangladesh, "Sonar Bangla". Her political aim is the establishment of a free, just and caring society. Sheikh Hasina has often said, "If I have to lay down my life like my father, I am ready for it".
It was Sheikh Hasina's unswerving commitment to democratic ideals and secular values which made her a symbol of the aspirations of the people. She launched her crusade for the restoration of democracy in the country right from the time she touched the soil of Bangladesh in 1981. Defying the then President General Ziaur Rahman's autocratic rule, she declared, "I have nothing to lose. I pledge to fight for the restoration of democracy in the country and the fundamental rights of my people". She has adhered to her promise.
Two decades of military and quasi-military rule destroyed the existing democratic institutions of the country. They also created a lumpen class at the helm of affairs of the state, who plundered the economy, destroyed values, crippled the education system and corrupted the society. Hardly any civil institution was left unscathed by all pervasive greed and hatred perpetuated by the Generals and their civil-military cronies.
Sheikh Hasina knew well that it would be a daunting task on her part to revive the shattered democratic institutions, if her party was voted to power in the June 12, 1996 national elections. Keeping this in mind, she made it categorically clear in her election manifesto that if the Awami League won the elections she would form a government of national consensus with a view to clearing the refuse and waste that had piled up in society during two decades of misrule.
After assuming power as Prime Minister on June 23, 1996 she re-assured the nation of her election commitments by inducting ministers from the Jatiya Party (JP) and the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) in her newly formed cabinet. Later, she inducted two ministers from the BNP in her cabinet. Regarding the economic policy of her government, she reiterated the prime need for alleviation of poverty through creation of maximum employment opportunity, both in rural and urban areas, especially in the predominantly agricultural sector.
In her first address to the nation after becoming Prime Minister, she said that peasants, who are the mainstay of the economy, would be rendered all possible support in the form of supply of agro-inputs, fertilizer, seeds, pesticides and irrigation equipment at low price, if need be, through price subsidy. She also reconfirmed that her government of national consensus would stick to its announced policy of pursuing a free-market economy by allowing the forces of demand and supply to determine the economic equilibrium. She also made emphatic mention of her government's policy of carrying out necessary structural reforms in the economy to put it at par with the global economic system.