“Big Brother” has negative and offensive connotations. A big and powerful country exerting undue pressure on a small and weak nation is branded “Big Brother” in modern diplomacy.
India itself is often labelled as “Big Brother” in South Asia for throwing around its considerable weight. But now there is a strong case for New Delhi to step in and counsel Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as elder brother — if not as “Big Brother” — to stop messing around with ex-PM Khaleda Zia and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. And if Hasina listens to us, it would boost not only her own image but also India’s ahead of the January parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, whose outcome is crucial for both her and India.
The eminent Bangladeshis Hasina is gunning for are in their 70s and 80s. They deserve to live the rest of their lives in peace. But Hasina has made their lives hell. Zia is 78. Yunus is 83. And Hasina is herself 77 and a grandmother, but bereft of the kindness or compassion that grandmothers embody. She is playing with Zia’s life by denying her permission to go abroad for medical treatment, and subjecting Yunus to the worst form of judicial harassment which is taking a toll on his health.
Zia is a two-time former PM who heads the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and is languishing under house arrest since her release from a 17-year prison sentence in 2020. Last week, Hasina’s government turned down her family’s request to allow her to travel to Germany for a liver transplant. She has advanced liver cirrhosis, diabetes and heart problems. Bangladeshi doctors are openly saying that Zia is at "high risk" of dying without urgent medical treatment abroad. A panel of 17 top doctors has announced that all options in Bangladesh have come to an end and they cannot do anything more.
Hasina is not only stopping Zia from flying out for medical treatment but is arguing that she is so old that she is going to die anyway. “Every day I hear that she is dying. She is about eighty. So it’s about time. There’s no point in shedding tears,” Hasina recently said at a social function in London to absolve herself of any responsibility in the event of her death — leaving even her supporters aghast at her insensitivity and heartlessness.
Yunus, the other victim of Hasina’s personal vendetta, is arguably the most famous Bangladeshi alive today. He is a hero in his country since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, his fame rivalling that of Hasina’s father and Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His ground-breaking work in micro-finance is implemented in many countries, including Bangladesh, to fight rural poverty. Known as the banker of the poor — particularly women whom he has pulled out of extreme poverty — he enjoys a huge following outside Bangladesh too, and can count many world leaders among his personal friends.
But this month, Yunus had to cut short a trip to the United Nations headquarters in New York in order to appear before the Anti-Corruption Commission in Dhaka. As he left the tribunal after being grilled, Yunus defiantly declared that he is not scared of anyone as he has not committed any offence. He didn’t name anyone but everyone knows who the celebrated economist was alluding to.
The Nobel Laureate’s misfortune is that he has fallen foul of Hasina who is known to be unforgiving. She has been waging a campaign for years to discredit and defame Yunus. The premier has publicly slammed the Nobel Laureate as “bloodsucker of the poor”. The case which necessitated his recent appearance before the Anti-Corruption Commission is only one among 175 separate criminal and labour tribunal cases, related to institutions he has set up in Bangladesh for creating jobs and bringing services to the poor. All the cases have been slapped on Yunus either by Hasina’s government or litigants backed by the administration.
Yunus is being made to pay for the crime of toying with the idea of launching a political party to take on Hasina’s Awami League way back in 2007. At that time, both Hasina and her bitter rival, Zia, were thrown into prison by the army-backed interim administration. As Bangladesh’s most famous son, Yunus responded to calls by ordinary Bangladeshis to set up a political party and provide an alternative to Hasina and Zia who epitomised corruption and nepotism in governance.
He formally launched a party called Nagarik Shakti, or Citizens’ Power, and dramatically announced: “I just can’t keep myself away from politics any longer. It’s high time to do something.” Although he abandoned his political career in two months as he felt like a fish out of water, he is still bearing the cross. Hasina, who won the 2008 elections, hasn’t forgiven him for wading into politics and calling politicians corrupt. After winning three successive national elections in 2008, 2014 and 2018, she is keen to become the PM for a record fourth term.
The barrage of cases Yunus is having to fight shows the extent to which Hasina is using the judiciary to hound and harass him. And unfortunately for Yunus, courts in Bangladesh today are increasingly toeing and endorsing the government’s line and denying the accused the protection that they are legally entitled to.
As many as 170 global leaders have already written to Hasina to stop the judicial harassment of Yunus. Among the signatories are former US Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and over a 100 Nobel laureates. But Hasina is sticking to her guns. She denies that Yunus has been framed and has told the signatories to stop lobbying for him as it amounts to meddling in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
In this grim scenario, only “Elder Brother” India can come to Yunus’ and Zia’s aid. So New Delhi has no other option but to perform its sacred duty without further ado.
SNM Abdi is an independent, Pegasused reporter and commentator on foreign policy and domestic politics