Bangladesh: Is Sheikh Hasina Nearing the Exit?

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by R Chowdhury     3 November 2022

Invincible Hasina!

Having stayed in power for nearly 14 years, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh thought she was invincible. She had reasons for her assertions. She had carefully crafted the steps.

First, the previous constitutional provision for an election time Caretaker Government (CTG) was unceremoniously discarded. It was aimed at managing the poll to ensure her party’s perpetual victory. National elections in 2014 and 2018 and thousand others at local levels provide testimony.

Losing the 1991 elections, the Hasina led Awami League staged devastating stoppages for 193 days demanding national polls under the CTG. With a view to saving the situation, the then government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) conceded. The Awami League narrowly won the next elections in 1996, that too by deceit. But it lost again in 2001 and would not allow future elections in which it was deemed to lose. Her Logi-Boitha and other terror acts invited the military to step in on January 11, 2007, commonly known as 1/11 Conspiracy or 1/11 Betrayal. Hasina’s sponsor India was suspected to have worked behind the scenes to stage the 1/11. Projecting the BNP-JI alliance as an Islamist front– a totally mistaken notion– India got the US and others to its side. The Wests was in the grip of post 9/11 Islamist phobia, another false flag. The conspiracy catapulted Hasina to power with an unprecedented majority. Once saddled in authority, Sheikh Hasina immediately did away with the constitutional provision of CTG and reverted to elections under the ruling administration and continued to stay in authority by manipulating subsequent elections. If she hears the word CTG now, her heart misses a beat and sees nightmares. Hasina’s misdeeds over the past years made her extremely detestable, as the people did to her father in 1975.

Second, over the past 14 years, she succeeded in making the administration–that included the judiciary, military and law enforcement agencies– almost partisan and totally loyal. With absolute control of the parliament, she enacted such laws as to maintain and perpetuate her control over the administration and the country. Media is forced to toe its line. When law did not fulfill the objectives, other means such as money, positions, lures were lavishly thrown in to buy the loyalty. It mostly worked. For the rare uncompromising elements, worse treatment met them. In a fascist system, everything is possible as there is no opposition or challenge.

Third, in the past 14 years, she has installed all supporting elements at all levels. Through managed and rigged elections, most local level officials came to belong to her party. During elections, they are the most active elements to help the party interests.

Fourth, she has the tools of fascism: the draconian Rapid Action Battalions (RAB) and Police to do all the dirty works that include killing, abduction, torture, harassment and detention of dissident elements. Many of the abductees and detainees have never been seen or heard again. In addition, the Digital Security Act ensures that nobody goes or talks against the government. Even a mild criticism or a parody line is not tolerated under the DSA. Many faced torture, death and jail terms under DSA.

There is a strong local and international outcry against such practices. The US was forced to clamp sanctions against the RAB and some of its top officials in December 2021.  

Finally, it has the unqualified backing from its sponsor India, which maintains a strong network of agents from its Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to help and protect its protege in Bangladesh. RAW is New Delhi’s external intelligence agency. It was also suspected that India was covertly involved in the three large scale massacres committed by the Hasina regime: Peelkhna in 2009, Jamaat-e-Islam and Hefazat in 2013. The general public in Bangladesh believe that the Hasina administration is run by the dictates from New Delhi. It was also confirmed by the former Army Chief, General Aziz Ahmed, in a widely known phone conversation with a friend. In exchange, India extracts all the economic and geopolitical benefits from its eastern neighbor even at the cost of the country’s sovereignty and national interests. Hasina is obliged to comply with her master’s demands, right or wrong, to stay in power.

Shambled Economy

Sheikh Hasina’s selling point has been economic growth. But it is a facade! No depth. We see the consequences. A “Sri Lanka syndrome” is looming large. In fact, this trend of progress started after the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who made the country a “bottomless basket.” President Ziaur Rahman (1975-81) bailed the nation out of the economic graveyard and put it in a development mode. Subsequent governments, including Hasina’s, maintained the trend. The garment sector and overseas employment, the two wheels on which Bangladesh’s economy rolls, were Zia’s initiative.

In its pet and showcase development projects, such as Padma Bridge, Metro Rail, River tunnels, Over Bridges, the regime took huge external loans at an unfavorable rate. The government coffer became dry and the country ran into default financing. The power sector, mostly run by ruling elites, is in a disaster. Food grain shortage, an empty exchequer and restricted exports point towards a drumbeat of famine. Hasina continues to blame the Ukraine war and consequent economic sanctions for her country’s economic woes and failings.

True, Bangladesh’s economy grew considerably over the decades. In Hasina’ time, what grew concurrently is the looting and flight of capital, losing $8.27 billion annually, according to the US based Global Financial integrity (GFI)’s 2021 estimate. The business community and the people at large are increasingly growing hostile towards the government’s faulty and corruption-oriented policies. Donors are not ignorant either.

Wind of Change!

Lately, Sheikh Hasina is facing a number of roadblocks. It started with the sanctions against serious human rights abuses from the US last year. The UN and others supported the move but refrained from joining the bandwagon, perhaps assuming that Washington’s pressure was good enough. The rights organizations at home and abroad intensified their outcries against the unprecedented human rights violations by the RAB and police, as well as other serious malpractices by the Hasina regime.

The international community, led by the US, also started voicing for fair, participatory and accountable elections in Bangladesh, due in a year. They made it clear that the types of 2014 and 2018 will no longer be tolerated. They are also speaking against harassment of political opponents and restricting their political activities.

Sheikh Hasina sensed that global support towards her administration is shrinking. For a country which survives on foreign aid, investment and market, can ill afford to go against or even annoy them. Even her ardent supporter, New Delhi, is said to be having a second thought about its protege, perhaps facing outside pressures. Sheikh Hasina’s SOS pilgrimage to her master two months ago did not go as expected. During her 18-day, 160-member entourage, chartered-plane journey (What an extravaganza for a cash starved country!) to New York later the same month. was also a disappointment. No senior member of the Biden administration was interested to meet her. She spent her lengthy sojourn in the US addressing an almost empty UNGA, (said to be) picking up a fight with her wayward son and talking to her own delegate members and partymen in “press briefings” in New York and Washington. It was interesting to hear her say in one such “briefing” that the Awami League never came to power by vote rigging. It should go to the Guinness Book as the biggest lie of all time.

BNP’s Show of Force

The political opposition seems to get the message too. The hitherto battered leaders became increasingly vocal against the fascism of the illegal administration and seeking its ouster. They are more or less united on the ouster of the Hasina regime and elections under a neutral caretaker administration. The BNP, the largest opposition party, finally decided to come out of its prolonged hibernation and make a show of force. The party held a number of gatherings in Chittagong, Mymensingh, Khulna, Bogra and other places. Despite various obstacles from the ruling coterie to disrupt those gatherings, the outcome was overwhelming. People in hundreds of thousands braved all the hazards and reached the rallies. The party is planning more regional assemblies. A grand national rally in Dhaka on December 10 is under preparation.

BNP’s success sent shockwaves to Sheikh Hasina and her cronies. They seem to have lost balance and started making crazy utterances. What surprised the regime was that despite its all- out efforts to destroy the opposition party over the past 14 years, the BNP and its support bases seemed intact and strong. As such, it renewed its attack on the party, the latest being fresh litigations against Zia family members.

Additionally, in a party gathering in Dhaka, Sheikh Hasina vowed that she would reduce the BNP to the fate of Hefazat. It was a hint at how she destroyed the Hefazat, an organization of religious teachers and students, at its gathering in Dhaka on May 5 and 6, 2013. In another party meeting, she sternly warned that she would “do everything to destroy terrorism and fundamentalists, and even their overseas sponsors would not be able to save them. All actions are planned.” The term terrorism and fundamentalism are used to denote the BNP and Jamaal-e-Islam. Some analysts suspect that the fascists will create terrorism themself, as they did in 2004 (Grenade Attack) and  2006 (Logi-Boitha Tandob, Oars and poles attacks), and put the blame on the opposition party.

Sheikh Hasina’s Days Coming to an End?

Not so fast. Hasina’s fascist tools are intact, in place. As beneficiaries and largely partisan, the administration will continue to remain loyal to her. Most importantly, New Delhi is not likely to abandon its protege so soon, so easily. No other leader is likely to oblige with all its demands, right or wrong.

Fascists and dictators do not quit easily or peacefully. They will fight till the last breath to stay in power. In an article on July 10, 2019, I wrote, Sheikh Hasina “is riding a raucous tiger of her own breed. If she falls, she will be doomed. Even the animal she is on may not spare her. That sense of insecurity pushes her to be reckless and make her go any length to continue her perilous journey, feigning a façade of “development” to shield her crimes.”

In the same article, I also added that as with all dictators, Sheikh Hasina “built a core of loyal foot soldiers to carry out her commands of mischief, trickery and foul play. The soldiers have little choice other than obeying their commander less they are threatened with their own extinction.” (Please see http://southasiajournal.net/bangladesh-sheikh-hasinas-fear-of-fall-is-the-issue/)  

People’s Power

But the people’s power is stronger than the combined tools of the fascists. The trend in the BNP organized rallies is encouraging. The people seem to be rising against the fascists. But no time to feel complacent. The momentum must be maintained and intensified. The ball must be rolling and gaining in strength. The people’s power must overcome and destroy all the obstacles and barricades that the fascists will surely erect. The journey will not be easy but the light at the end of the difficult tunnel is always the sweetest.

Encouraged by the party’s show of strength, the BNP may think of going alone. Their recent activities point towards that direction. It will be a big blunder, if it thinks so. To oust the deeply entrenched fascists, a national movement of people’s power would be needed. That power must come from the entire population, sans the fascists. All parties, big or small, in the right or in the left must join this national rally. There is no scope of making divisions within the people, or within the party. BNP committed many blunders in the past and is paying the price. It cannot afford to commit any more. As the largest party, national unity falls on its shoulders. In a give-n-take, it is magnanimous for the largest one to make a little sacrifice. National interest must stand tall. For now, the objective is one ONE.

Like Father, Like Daughter

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. So is Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  After 21 years in political wilderness, Hasina came to power, somewhat by deceit, and resumed from where her father left. She doggedly followed the footprints of her father in destroying opposition, in political killings, in the abuse of human rights, in wanton detention, and finally, in running a corruption-filled one-party fascist rule. In many cases, she exceeded her father, such as placing national interests at the altar of her sponsor.

A patriotic group of the army risked their lives to salvage the nation out of the scourge of Mujib’s misrule. The suffering people today silently recall their sacrifice. But Surja Sontans (Divine/Heroic Children) do not grow in trees. However, one never knows. The saviors may appear in a different form, in a different style: In 1975, People’s Power was behind the scene. This time, it could be in the forefront. Let’s hope for the best.

Writer is a Bangladesh freedom fighter of 1971. Wrote five books and co-authored half a dozen.