February 22, 2020
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Disfigure Of Speech

A tough-talking Hasina irks Musharraf, stirs up an uproar at home

Disfigure Of Speech

MINUTES before her scheduled meeting with General Pervez Musharraf, on September 8 at the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was told it had been postponed at the request of the Pakistani side. No specific reason was cited, but it left no one in doubt that her blistering attack a day earlier against military dictatorship in her speech at the Security Council prompted an embarrassed Islamabad to call it off.

Sheikh Hasina hadn’t named any particular country; her speech only harped on the pernicious effect and disastrous consequences of military rule worldwide. Succinctly, the Bangladesh prime minister wanted the international community to shun those countries where democratically-elected governments had been overthrown by generals.

But the aggressive tone and the invective she employed to denounce military dictatorships, and the tough action she proposed against the despots, visibly angered Gen Musharraf - the only military ruler who was present among the 150-odd heads of government who attended the recent three-day millennium summit in New York.

The slanging match between her and Gen Musharraf continued post-New York. Claiming she couldn’t understand why Musharraf took the speech personally, Hasina told a news conference here that the democracy-loving people of Pakistan would be happy to endorse her views as they too were victims of successive military takeovers.

The uproar her speech caused in Pakistan was quickly seized by her opponents at home. They lambasted Hasina for being reckless and juvenile, and claimed that her comments now threatened to undermine Dhaka’s relations with Islamabad as well as diminish Bangladesh’s role as peacemaker in the region.

Indeed, Hasina has been trying to bring both India and Pakistan together on a common platform. Three weeks ago her special envoy C.M. Shafi Sami, the foreign secretary, visited Delhi and Islamabad in a bid for an early resumption of the stalled saarc summit.

The prime minister, predictably, dismissed such accusations as ludicrous. But she does seem to have miscalculated the diplomatic fallout of her speech. In an apparent effort to repair the damage, she delivered a lengthy statement saying, among other things, "Who knows better than me about what military rule is."

What followed was an emotional account of her own sufferings at the hands of the military junta. Pregnant with her first child in 1971, she was forced to sleep for months on a dank floor as the Pakistani military authority placed her family under house arrest and her illustrious father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, languished in captivity in then West Pakistan. Again, in 1975 the military takeover culminated in the brutal murder of her father and almost all other family members.

The sympathy her account generated did not deter observers from questioning the timing and the tone she adopted to denounce military rule. First, they said, the world is now largely free of despots, what with the democratisation process receiving a fillip following the collapse of the ussr in 1990.

So, the obvious question: why did Hasina decide to speak on a subject which isn’t as relevant as it was a decade back? Did she do it at someone else’s behest? This theory has quite a few takers since the UN desk at the foreign ministry had nothing to do with the speech. It was instead the handiwork of her close confidants at the Bangladesh permanent mission in New York.

In fact, at the press conference she held on her return, journalists quizzed her on the Pakistani media charge that she had made critical comments against military rule at the behest of India, keen as it was to malign its arch rival in the world forum. Although she dismissed the allegation as "complete hogwash", there’s a vocal section here, essentially anti-liberation forces such as the Jamaat, which believes she could have been swayed to attack military rule because of the traditionally close ties the Awami League has with India.

Others feel she might have used the summit to convey a message to her domestic rivals who’ve vowed to dislodge her at any cost. The entire Opposition has combined against her, and the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has its provenance in the army, born as it was in the cantonment. The scenario is perilous because its leader Khaleda Zia has repeatedly stressed that Hasina might meet the same fate as her father. In other words, the tirade against military rule in New York was aimed at obviating the possibility of her being overthrown undemocratically.

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