As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina aims to secure a fourth term in upcoming general elections, cinemas across Bangladesh are running a soft-touch biopic of her life, depicting her rise from martyr’s daughter to “mother of humanity.”
The film portrays her life as entwined with the evolution of her country, from its impoverished, bloody beginnings 47 years ago to its current transition out of least-developed-country status.
“We have crossed many hurdles to reach this position and nobody can ever hold us back again,” Hasina said during a speech marking Armed Forces Day earlier this month.
Hasina, 71, has been praised for economic, health and educational advances in the South Asian country. Her government’s willingness to shelter hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled brutal violence in Myanmar has led some fans to dub her the “mother of humanity.”
But critics say her government has become increasingly autocratic, through laws that stifle freedom of expression, interference in judicial independence, accommodation of growing Islamic fundamentalism and deployment of security forces accused of forced disappearances.
The film, titled “Hasina: A Daughter’s Tale,” tells how she was in Germany when her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of her family members were assassinated in 1975.
She was not allowed to return home to perform last rites for her slain father, the founding leader of Bangladesh.
The Center for Research and Information, a group affiliated with Hasina’s Awami League party, spent five years financing and filming the biopic.
Director Rejaur Rahman Khan Piplu said he wanted to present Hasina as a mother.
“People watched the 70-minute long film and could find Sheikh Hasina as someone very close to their heart,” he told BenarNews.
Piplu said Bangladesh’s leader gave him some motherly advice during filming, and often fed him and his crew at her residence.
Looking at the director’s shoes, the prime minister once remarked, “Piplu, tie your shoe lace, you may stumble and get hurt,” he recalled.
The political opposition dismissed the film as campaign fodder.
“She is a political figure. She has her own perspective of various events of history, of changes of regime, and of different issues of the land. All were shown from a singular [perspective],” said Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior opposition leader, adding, “This is a total violation of electoral rules.”
Faruk Khan, an Awami League official, denied the allegation that the film broke campaign rules, telling reporters that people were buying tickets to watch it.
A politician’s life
Scenes in the film narrate the tumultuous partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, when predominantly Muslim East Bengal was carved out of India to become a detached province of the new nation of Pakistan.
The picture also delves into the language movement of 1952 that pressed for recognition of Bengali as the official language East Pakistan province; the vicious war of independence from Islamabad in 1971; and Bangladesh’s birth in December of that year under her father’s leadership.
Hasina, who was born on Sept. 28, 1947, began to be groomed as a political leader long before her family members were assassinated in ’75, according to a government website.
As a pupil at Eden Girls’ College in Dhaka, she was elected vice president and later became president of the student parliament. Later, at the University of Dhaka, she was an active member of the Awami League’s student wing.
Her career in national politics started in the early 1980s, in London, where she was elected president of the Awami League before she returned home.
From 1983 to 1990, she was placed under house arrest seven times, as a military government cracked down on the opposition, and, in 2007, Hasina was imprisoned by an army-backed caretaker government.
She was elected prime minister in 1998, and again in 2008 and 2014. The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the 2014 election because Hasina’s government refused to let a neutral caretaker administration run the country during the electoral season.
Since entering the political spotlight, Hasina has survived nearly 20 armed and targeted attacks. The first was in Dhaka in 1983 when the army entered the Dhaka University campus and fired bullets and used batons on students. More recently, she survived a grenade attack in 2004.
For many Bangladeshis, Hasina is an unparalleled leader, according to Ataur Rahman, a professor at Dhaka University.
“She had real bad days, but she can overcome all hurdles through her personality and leadership quality,” he told BenarNews.
Hasina should be judged from two angles, political and economic, he suggested.
“Discrimination [and] corruption during her regime was high, but progress was made. Financial stability and construction of the Padma Bridge is a great achievement,” Ataur said, referring to a 6-km bridge across the Padma River slated for completion sometime next year, and touted as an economic lifeline for southern Bangladesh.
Azizul Haque, who works as a driver, said he was happy with the country’s direction under Hasina.
“She listens to us. She has constructed roads and gave allowance to poor and destitute,” he told BenarNews.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh celebrated a U.N. declaration that it was beginning the six-year process of moving from the category of least developed country (LDC) to developing county.
To enter that transition, a country’s annual per capita income must be at least U.S. $1,242; it must achieve targets in nutrition, health, school enrollment and literacy; and its economy must demonstrate resilience in the face of risks such as natural disasters and trade instability.
Hasina delivered the news to parliament ahead of the U.N.’s announcement in March.
“The Father of the Nation led the country’s independence. He established Bangladesh as a least developed country. We are going to be upgraded one step,” she declared at the time. “We are going to be a developing country.
However, Hasina last year caused consternation among many Bangladeshis when she made concessions to Hefazat-e-Islami, a conservative Muslim group, amid fears that growing Islamization was eclipsing the secular traditions of Bengali culture.
Meeting with Hefazat leaders at her residence in April 2017, Hasina announced that her government would recognize degrees from thousands of unregulated Qwami madrassas – Islamic boarding schools. She also agreed to changes in public school textbooks to make them more Muslim-friendly, as demanded by Hefazat.
“I follow religious guidelines, but I do not mix politics with religion,” Hasina said in response to criticisms of her actions. “Recognition of the Qwami madrassa certificate will bring jobs to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students. There is no politics in it.”
Attacks on secularism
The growing ties to conservative Islam came on the heels of a fierce counter-terrorism campaign, following the worst terror attack in the country’s history, which left 29 dead, including five attackers allied with the so-called Islamic State group, at an upscale café in Dhaka in July 2016.
The attack took place after a series of murders of secular writers and activists convulsed Bangladesh during the previous three years, causing some intellectuals to flee the country or go into hiding.
After the first of these killings, in February 2013, Hasina visited the victim’s family, and described him as a martyr during a speech to parliament. But she later suggested that secular writers themselves were at fault.
“No one in this country has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment. You won’t practice religion – no problem. But you can’t attack someone else’s religion,” Hasina said following the August 2015 slaying of secular blogger Niladri Chottopaddhya (also known as Niloy Neel). “It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.”
Hasina also attracted criticism from free press and free speech advocates over laws passed under her leadership, such as the 2018 Digital Security Act. They say these have stifled a climate for unfettered expression and led to arrests of critics of her government.
S. K. Sinha, a former Supreme Court justice who left the country abruptly in 2017, claimed in a memoir released this year that he was forced to resign after resisting attempts by Hasina to change a key ruling, and after military intelligence officers abducted one of his friends.
International rights groups such as Amnesty International have reported that Bangladesh security forces routinely abduct opposition members, some of whom later turn up dead. More than 80 people vanished in this way in 2017, the London-based group said.
“These are all the same old comments. These are not true. We reject the report,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews at the time. “We take every reported cases of so-called abduction seriously.”
Another human rights controversy that has marked Hasina’s rule is her government’s prosecution of suspected war criminals and pro-Pakistan collaborators from the 1971 war of independence. At least six opposition leaders have been convicted and hanged since Bangladesh established its International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2009.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had initially supported the ICT, expressed concerns in 2012 about its capacity to deliver restorative justice.
“It is only when both sides are treated as equals, and when codes and laws of professional conduct are strictly adhered to, that victims of atrocities and the wider public can be confident that the justice they have sought for so long is based on a legitimate trial process,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said at the time.