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Sheikh Hasina has done more for Bangladesh than anyone else, has no reason to attack Yunus

40 global leaders took out a full-page ad in Washington Post to publish an open letter to the Sheikh Hasina govt — stop attacking Muhammad Yunus.

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Bono and Richard Branson. Hillary Clinton and Sharon Stone. Al Gore and Narayana Murthy. Ban Ki-Moon and Vinod Khosla.

These names are part of a list of 40 global leaders who, in an open letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have expressed “deep concern” for the well-being of Bangladesh’s second-best-known citizen, Nobel Peace prize laureate Muhammad Yunus. The letter was published as a full-page ad in The Washington Post last week.

The best-known Bangladeshi, of course, is Hasina herself—and why not. Her sheer courage and resolve, in the face of the threat of physical annihilation as well as her refusal to kowtow to radical, powerful forces, makes her deserving of deep respect and admiration. I tip my metaphorical hat to her. If she ever wanted a place on my table, it would always be there.

So the question—three questions, actually—is why these 40 leaders felt it was important to make public their angst about the manner in which Yunus was being treated by the Sheikh Hasina government, why the defence was publicised as a paid advertisement, and why Yunus feels the government has been targeting him.

The so-called “attack” has been going on for more than a decade. But more on that in a minute. This latest defence of Yunus is remarkable of course because of the assemblage of personalities, but also because it is so direct.

It is “painful to see Prof Yunus, a man of impeccable integrity, and his life’s work unfairly attacked and repeatedly harassed and investigated by your government,” the letter reads.

So let’s get the most obvious question out of the way—Why a paid advert in The Washington Post defending Yunus? It’s simple. No newspaper worth its salt will give away precious space to what is essentially a lobbying exercise. The paper would have refused to be impressed by the celebrities signing the letter. They would have directed Clinton, Bono and Narayana Murthy toward the ad department. Pay up and publish, they would have said – smiling sweetly as they said it.

Which is exactly what these 40 global influencers did. So they put their money where their mouth is.

Remember, too, that elections in Bangladesh are scheduled for later this year. Hasina has been prime minister four times and, barring any unscheduled upset, she is well on her way to becoming PM for an unprecedented fifth term.

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Hasina’s legacy

Most would agree that Hasina has done more for Bangladesh than anyone else in her country, dead or alive — including her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He, along with most of his family, was tragically assassinated on 15 August 1975; even his youngest son Sheikh Russel, barely 11, was shot dead. Some of those darkened blood stains are still visible on the stairs of their ancestral home in Dhanmondi, in Dhaka.

The young republic was barely four years old. Hasina survived only because she and her sister, Rehana, happened to be abroad. That massacre must have left a deep scar on Hasina. She probably fights with those ghosts every night – and probably during the day too. Meanwhile, she has been an incredible leader, pulling her country out of its shameful, endemic poverty, in a mere 50 years. By 2026, Bangladesh is scheduled to leave behind its “least developed country” status. What an absolutely startling and joyful achievement.

Moreover, Hasina’s relationship with India — which helped birth the new nation in 1971 — has only gone from strength to strength under the Narendra Modi government, never mind the protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2021, when the slur of “being Bangladeshi” was on the lips of many across the country.

Nor did Hasina utter a word when then-BJP president — and now Union home minister —Amit Shah described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as “termites” (he used the Hindi word deemak). She kept her cool and emerged so much better for it.

A few years ago, under the Modi government, Hasina’s Bangladesh allowed, for the first time since 1971, an economic restoration between India and Bangladesh, by opening up water highways, roads and rail links. Indian goods — as well as, recently, a passenger cruise liner — can now connect West Bengal with the rest of the Northeast via Bangladesh, just as it was before 1947, cutting down time and cost of goods delivered.

She has also arrested several terrorist figures, especially from the United Liberation Front of Asom, and handed them over to Indian authorities. She has been a better friend to Delhi than anyone else in Dhaka.

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Hasina should drop Yunus

So if Hasina is such an unusual leader, the question begs itself. Why target Muhammad Yunus, a civilian who founded the most successful microcredit organisation in the world, Grameen Bank? In these past decades, the 82-year-old has shown the world that the poor are capable of not just learning how to fish, but also selling the fish in the market and making a profit.

Yunus’ achievements have been noted far and wide. As the celebrity letter in the ‘Washington Post’ says, he is only one of seven people worldwide, along with Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, who have received the Nobel Peace prize, the US presidential medal of freedom, and the US Congressional gold medal.

So why do these celebrities feel that Yunus is being “unfairly attacked and repeatedly harassed” by the Hasina government? Why did Hasina, at the launch of the Padma Bridge last year, say that Yunus should be “dunked twice” in its waters but that the dunkers must take care that he doesn’t die? Why is she so angry with him?

Yunus’ Grameen Telecom is being probed on corruption charges, accused of misappropriating workers’ money, embezzling Taka 45,52,13,000 without distributing the money to the worker’s welfare fund, and transferring Taka 2,977 crore to affiliated institutions through money laundering.

But there’s much more to Hasina’s anger than a few million dollars in alleged corruption. Truth is, in 2007-2008, when the army was pulling the strings in Bangladesh, running the quasi-democratic government from behind the scenes, Yunus threw in his lot with them and started the Nagorik Shakti Party. Hasina felt he was siding with the military and against traditional political parties like Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She was furious. It was the beginning of the antagonism between Yunus and Hasina.

Four years later, when the World Bank pulled its financing from the Padma bridge project, because of corruption kickbacks, Hasina saw red — she was convinced that Yunus was behind the embarrassment to her and to her beloved country. That’s where the “Yunus should be dunked twice in the Padma” comes from.

But the fact of the matter is that Hasina is too big and too powerful and too much of a role model to all of South Asia, if not the whole developing world to bother about Muhammad Yunus. She should just ignore the accusations and let the agencies do their job, instead of stooping to criticise him.

Truth is, Hasina is Bangladesh and Bangladesh is Hasina—there is no other leader worth her salt in that country. The BNP’s Khaleda Zia is ageing, her son Tarique Rahman is sitting in exile in London and she has the otherwise powerful Jamiat-i-Islami where it belongs — under her thumb. Certainly Yunus, a civil society type, has very little or no role to play in shaping the politics of Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina should simply forget her interest in Muhammed Yunus. The fact that she has been pursuing him for so many years, in fact,  undermines her and gives him importance totally disproportionate to his influence. Hasina has nothing to fear. In any case, the rest of the region is not just on her side, it’s in considerable awe of her.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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