Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, exudes confidence. I visited Dhaka for the first time in April 1972, within four months of the birth of Bangladesh. Dhaka, then pronounced Dacca, was a small town, desperately trying to accommodate the demands of a sovereign state. There is no doubt that the city's old thick greenery has been devoured by multi-storeyed buildings, but that is more or less the story of every capital in the world, except perhaps Islamabad, which still retains its openness and vegetation.
In 1972, Dhaka airport had frustratingly long queues inching past the immigration counter, and had luggage strewn all over. But I heard the passengers shouting "Jai Bangla". It was as if they were returning to the Promised Land. When I went round the city and assessed the pluses and minuses, I wondered if the country would ever make it. 40 years later, a plush airport and an orderly crowd tell you that Bangladesh has arrived. I can say confidently that the nation has proved sceptics wrong. The hard labour of people, working within and outside the country, has paid off. Its growth rate is 6.4% compared to Pakistan's 2.3%, the country from which it separated. I found Bangladeshis looking forward to a better and more stable future.
This is in sharp contrast with Pakistan, which I visited a fortnight ago. It is downcast and does not know what the future holds. There is also fear of terrorism, which Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has eliminated by not showing any mercy to the fundamentalists and by ousting organisations like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which was operating from Bangladeshi soil.
I met Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus at the 20th anniversary function of a newspaper. He was neither bitter nor downcast, and talked about his plans to help the poor. He told me that as many as 108 Grameen Banks from all over the world had sent him messages of solidarity. I wondered how Bangladesh would have benefited if Hasina had appointed him the country's ambassador-at-large. All doors would have opened to Bangladesh. His removal has given Hasina a bad name. But it is surprising that despite wide criticism she is not repentant.
Sheikh Hasina has eliminated the fear of terrorism by not showing mercy to the fundamentalists.
The problem with Hasina is that she has streaks of authoritarianism and does not tolerate other points of view. I saw how Indira Gandhi acquired these drawbacks and destroyed the institutions her father Jawaharlal Nehru had built so that the system would have checks and balances for correction from within. India has not yet been able to recover from the harm Indira Gandhi did to the polity.
The judiciary in Bangladesh was always considered above reproach. Lately, the judgments, particularly on the removal of Muhammad Yunus have made people wonder whether what they hear about the Indian judiciary being 15% corrupt may well be true about their own judiciary. Eminent lawyer Kamal Hussain told me that he did not even get a proper hearing when he was arguing Yunus' case. In third world countries, rulers are known to be putting pressure on the judiciary and Bangladesh may not be an exception.
Sheikh Hasina's undemocratic behaviour can wreak more havoc because forces of terrorism and fundamentalism are lurking on the side. They have already checked out the scenario and have found it favourable in the few hartals they have organised. Hasina is conscious that her popularity graph is going down. That is the reason why she does not want to hold even Dhaka's mayoral election lest she should lose. She does not want the Opposition to think that the time has arrived to take to the streets and stage hartals, a mania for the Opposition but a bane for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman did away with the Opposition when he founded a one-party system and wanted only two newspapers in the country, just as the Pravda and Izvestia in the Soviet Union. But he was an icon who could sell anything to the people who adored him. Hasina, his daughter, neither has her father's stature nor the sweep of support. She can only do harm to herself as well as the nation.
Kuldip Nayar is a senior journalist, human rights activist and author.
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