DAUGHTER OF SLAIN BANGLADESH LEADER ENTERING THE POLITICAL WARS
STUART AUERBACH . SEPTEMBER 10, 1981
The door was unlocked reverently and inside stood a large unmade bed filled with an untidy jumble of clothes. Off to one side were shelves with shoes, and a dust-covered rack holding a man’s pipes was thrown on the floor. There were splattered stains on the far wall that the guide said were blood.
This is the second-floor bedroom of the father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, looking today exactly as it did when it was returned to his relatives after he and most of his immediate family were slain in that house as part of a bloody coup on Aug. 15, 1975.
Across the family living room, behind another locked door, is the front staircase where a framed Bangladesh flag covers the spot on the stairs where Mujib’s bullet-riddled body was found. His blood was reported to be still on the steps, covered by the flag.
The family house was taken over last week by Mujib’s 34-year-old daughter, Sheik Hasina Wazed, who was elected president in February of his Awami League party while she was still in exile in New Delhi. She and her sister, both out of the country at the time, were the only members of his immediate family to escape the 1975 assassination.
Her rise to power within the party responsible for the founding of Bangladesh illustrates the dynastic quality of politics in South Asia, where India’s Indira Gandhi took over from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and now is grooming one son to succeed her after another died in a plane crash.
In Pakistan, the chief opponents to the martial law government of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq are the wife and daughter of executed former president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and in Sri Lanka, former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over from her late husband and now is battling her son for leadership of the opposition party.
“Whatever I have is because of the people’s love of my father, so they love me and respect me too,” said Sheik Hasina during an interview here last week in the library of her father’s home, with the neatly labeled shelves filled with his books arrayed behind his small desk at which she sat.
Her aim is to avenge her father’s death, and leaving his house–bloodstains and all–as a monument to the massacre of her family appears to be part of that aim.
Since her father’s assassination president Ziaur Rahman–himself slain three months ago–has built up a formidable personal following and political machine that the acting president, Abdus Sattar, has inherited.
Sattar, though he is 75 and ailing, is favored in the Nov. 15 elections, which were twice postponed to meet Awami League demands.
The acting president, a former justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court before he was appointed vice president, has pledged to continue the policies of Ziaur Rahman. Since he is considered too infirm to rule for very long if he should win the election, most of the politicking within the ruling Bangladesh National Party concerns who will be selected as vice president and become the heir to Sattar.
The Bangladesh National Party, created by Zia, has managed to capture the middle ground in Bangladesh politics and to pull together many differing factions into one group. Furthermore, it has left the many opposition parties–with the exception of the Awami League–so badly fractured that they are seen as having no chance.
The only other candidate of note is retired Gen. M.S.G. Osmany, 63, who led the Bangladesh forces in the independence battles. He is running under the mantle of a citizens’ committee, not a party, and is calling for a switch from the presidential to the parliamentary form of government.
During her interview, Hasina remained coy about whether she would run for president and, indeed, whether the Awami League would participate at all in the election.
“If the elections are not free and fair,” she said, “what is the use of participating?”
Furthermore, some of her close associates in the Awami League are known to have advised her to stay out of the election on the grounds that she is unlikely to win this time around.
She has no base of her own in Bangladesh, and her only support comes from being Mujib’s daughter. Both she and the Awami League are tarred with the brush of being pro-India at a time when feeling against New Delhi is running high in the country.
The pro-India taint intensified when Hasina hesitated for months before returning here after Zia guaranteed her a safe conduct and the Awami League elected her its president. Moreover, her husband, an atomic scientist, has remained in New Delhi where he works for the Indian government.
Although India played a major role in Bangladesh’s independence struggle, the two neighboring nations have fallen out in recent years. At present there are major points of friction, including a longstanding dispute over water rights and strong disagreement over the ownership of a newly formed island in the Bay of Bengal that Indian forces have occupied.
It is difficult to say how much popular support Hasina’s Awami League retains. Most political observers here believe it still can muster crowds of faithful for its rally on the strength of Mujib’s name alone.
But the mob of followers who normally cluster around major political figures in South Asia was missing from Mujib’s house after Hasina moved in last week. There were only a handful of people in her downstairs waiting room one morning last week compared to the hundreds that gathered there in her father’s day.
That was viewed as significant by long-time Western and Bangladeshi observers of South Asian politics
For this desperately poor country, however, the more significant question is how much has its development program been hampered by the political confusion following the May 30 assassination of the energetic and well-liked Zia.
He was known as the nation’s cheerleader and had made an international reputation for trying almost singlehandedly to lift Bangladesh from its position as the basket case of the world to a country with a viable economy. He was far from accomplishing that aim, but he appeared to have injected a sense of purpose into Bangladesh missing from most Third World nations.
There is no question that the momentum has been stalled during the past three months because of the attention that has been focused on politics. Yet the constitutional process has taken hold and elections are scheduled.
Nonetheless, there are fears that the violent strain that pervades Bangladesh politics may be coming to the fore. Already there are reports of explosions in Dacca and Deputy Prime Minister S. A. Bari has called on the Awami League to shun violence. Hasina, however, denied that her party has been violent and accused the ruling party of attacking Awami League workers.
PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1981