Bangladesh: Sheikh Hasina’s Mourning Call from “Vacation” As The Country Grapples with Serious Crises
2 August 2019 R Chowdhury
On August 1, 2019, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, Prime Minister (PM) of Bangladesh, asked the people to donate blood to redeem her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death.
Sheikh Mujib died on August 15, 1975, in an early morning military coup. His daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996 and designated August 15 as the Mourning Day. When she regained state control in January 2009– and not willing to step down at any cost since– she made the whole month of August as the Mourning Month. Her government makes elaborate and extensive programs at taxpayers’ expense to observe the occasion, irrespective of people’s choice or thoughts. All government offices, including military and law enforcing agencies, are required to make befitting homage and “weeping” program for the late leader. Educational institutions and private farms are not spared from these obligations. Outside the Awami circle, few show much interest in the issue, more so when they recall Mujib’s oppressive rule in 1972-75.
The Prime Minister made the call from London where she has virtually been vacationing since July 19, 2019, in the name of eye treatment. Well, as the PM, she is entitled to medical facilities at state expense, but the question arises why she needed to go to London, with all her personal paraphernalia, for nearly three weeks for reported cataract surgery? Such treatment is routinely done in Bangladesh. Even if the PM did not have trust in her own doctors, eye physicians from London could be brought to Dhaka at a much cheaper cost. What was ‘eye-catching’ was that to make her trip and extended stay abroad “official,” she summoned all Bangladesh ambassadors in Europe in London for a pleasantry chat, also at a considerable expense to the government. One wonders if Bangladesh envoys had hitherto been out of the orbit of its mother ship, the Foreign Ministry.
Sheikh Hasina left at a time when three-fourth of the country was sinking. Within a few days, floodwaters reached rooftops and treetops at most places. The calamity was aggravated by the surge of additional waters from upper regions in India, which surrounds Bangladesh from three sides. People in the affected areas lost everything from houses to household properties to food provisions to crops to even the livestock and poultry. And they starved as they remained afloat by whatever means possible.
Additionally, there were complaints of government’s insensitivity and inadequate response to the needs of the victims. Disruption of communication with affected parts made the situation worse and added suffering to the people. Reports of deaths due to drowning, food poisoning, diarrhea, snake bites, and other related causes kept pouring in, even as the PM enjoyed her time in London.
Lately, the water in some areas started receding, but the damage had already been done, which will run into hundreds of millions of dollars. People in the affected areas will continue to remain in the receiving end of misery for years to come, the PM’s claim of the Role Model of Development notwithstanding!
Then there is the fast-breeding army of menacing Dengue mosquitoes to infect and kill whoever they can pinch their needles in. Hospitals and clinic all over the country are overcrowded with patients, thousands adding daily amidst news of deaths. Professor Uttam Barua of Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Hospital admitted that they had to keep the patients waiting in the verandas and corridors as there were no beds available. So is the scenario in all hospitals, which are still above the water level. The crisis is further confounded by non-availability of requisite testing and treatment drugs for Dengue, as well as insufficient preventive medicines to kill the mosquitoes. Government officials, civil surgeons, doctors, city and town officials blame each other for the mega failure in combating the killer epidemic.
Mosquitoes do not grow overnight. Their fertile breeding spots and safe havens are in every backyard. Due attention to those spots in time could have reduced, if not totally eliminated, much of this deadly enemy. Chest-thumping and wailing relatives around their lost ones on Dengue is a common sight. Pathetic!
Misfortune did not come alone. Bangladesh was also in the grip of a killing spree of suspected “head hunters.” Rumors spread that the government’s prestigious Padma Bridge project needed human blood for its completion. More than a dozen suspects, including a woman in Dhaka, were beaten to death. The superstitious fear and suspicion continue unabated. I recall, as kids, we heard scary stories from elders that head hunters roamed in the countryside looking for lonely children to pick and sacrifice at the altar of a demanding construction, said to be an age-old practice. Whenever we noticed a stranger with a sack, we spat a load on our chests in fear and ran for life. Padma Bridge regenerated that superstitious parable.
Also, the Priya Saha saga. The Bangladeshi Hindu lady came to the limelight when she joined others to meet US President Donald Trump on July 17, 2019, and tried to make an emotional appeal to save the Bangladeshi Hindu community that was tortured and evicted from their ancestral properties by “Muslim fundamentalists.” The US Ambassador in Dhaka and the Hindu-Bouddho-Christian Oikko Songstha, which Saha represents, categorically denied her accusations. Priya Saha came under salvos of attack from all sides, including the government. In a subsequent phone interview, Ms. Saha dragged the PM into the fray, saying that she just copied Sheikh Hasina when she was in the opposition. An embarrassed PM quickly ordered her ministers not to make Priya Saha an issue and not to charge her. But the damage to the sectarian peace in the country received a volcanic jolt with aftershocks continuing. And, Priya Saha got the publicity she needed.
Earlier, when the devastating Cyclone Fani was about to hit Bangladesh in early May, Sheikh Hasina chose to leave the county abandoning the people at the mercy of nature. This time again, the PM opted to stay at a safe distance from all these home crises. She has her priorities.
The older generation may recall a similarity of the situation with her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 25, 1971. When the murderous Pakistan military attacked the unarmed and innocent Bengalis in East Pakistan on the night of March 25, 1971, then supreme leader Sheikh Mujib chose to surrender to the military after ensuring safety for self and his family, that included today’s, PM Sheikh Hasina. Mujib nonchalantly ignored the seventy million Bengalis who had reposed all their trust on him.
Forced mourning apart, people will have much more to endure. The Hasina administration designated 2020 as the Mujib Year. The nation will face another kind of flooding, flooding of Mujib and his ten-second oratory: Ebarer Songram Swadhinotar Songram..Muktir Songram… (Our struggle this time is for independence, for freedom…) People will not be allowed to question what Sheikh Mujib did when the songram knocked at the door! And what did he say to his deputy Tajuddin Ahmad who produced a draft declaration of independence and a tape recorder at his residence on the night of March 25. Mujib had nothing to do with those. (Please see Tajuddin Ahmad Neta O Pita by Sharmin Ahmad, 2014, pp 59,60,148).