As a child, I loved having breakfast with my grandfather. I insisted on eating whatever he ate exactly the way he ate it. My grandmother objected to this idolization only once when, as a joke, my grandfather allowed me to puff on one of his lighted pipes. Grandma got angry. He gave one of his famous, big laughs as I coughed my little lungs out.
This year is the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. His daughter (my mother) and I are celebrating — along with the entire nation of Bangladesh. My grandfather, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is affectionately known there as Bangabandhu or “Friend of Bengal” and as the Father of the Nation. He led what was then East Pakistan to independence from Pakistan in 1971, the year I was born.
Public service is my family’s business. My grandfather was Bangladesh’s first prime minister. My mother, Sheikh Hasina, is Bangladesh’s current prime minister. Both were elected to those positions. Bangladesh is proudly a secular democracy – just as my grandfather had envisioned it – and one of Asia’s great success stories as a result.
When I was four years old, my grandfather’s hopes were nearly destroyed. While my mother, father, sister, aunt and I were visiting West Germany, army officers attacked my grandfather’s home, murdering him and the rest of our immediate family. A cruel military junta took over the government. My mother and I were not allowed to return to our homeland until 1981.
Sacrifice has been a way of life for us. My grandfather spent 14 years as a political prisoner. When he finally came home, his eldest son didn’t recognize him. My mother was also imprisoned several times before being exonerated of any wrongdoing. As the head of the opposition in 2004, she narrowly escaped a grenade attack on a political rally in the capital city of Dhaka. Years later, a court ruled that the attack was orchestrated by Tarique Rahman, the son of the junta leader who is believed to have ordered my grandfather’s assassination.
The politics of Bangladesh has been bloody and personal too often. Pakistan and its collaborators committed genocide by killing three million people during the War of Liberation that created Bangladesh. Afterward, government control seesawed between the party led by my grandfather and mother, the Awami League, and its violent, Pakistan-backed opponents headed to this day by the wife and son of the junta’s leader.
But after years of exile, struggle and persecution, my mother was elected prime minister, first in 1996, serving until 2001. She was returned to office in 2009 and since has been re-elected twice, making her the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Bangladesh and one of the most powerful women in the world. A recent poll by the independent, U.S.-based International Republican Institute found that that the Awami League government’s approval rating was an astonishing 83 percent last year. Three quarters of those polled said they think the country is headed in the right direction.
My grandfather would have been proud to see this but not entirely surprised. My mother, the eldest of my grandfather’s five children, believed, like him, in gender equality long before it was fashionable. As a consequence of their combined policies, Bangladeshi women are increasingly well educated, are often the breadwinners of their families and serve in record numbers in elected positions – all radical changes that, in part, have led the United Nations to declare Bangladesh eligible soon to graduate from a Least Developed Country to a Developing Country.
Bangladesh’s economy has grown 188 percent since the start of my mother’s second term in 2009. Last year, Bangladesh posted a record high economic growth rate of 8.1 percent, up from 7.9 percent in 2018. People from every walk of life have benefited. Since 2009, 15.8 million people were lifted out of poverty. During that period, the poverty rate fell from 31.5 percent to 21.8 percent, and per capita income nearly tripled. HSBC Bank has predicted that Bangladesh will be the 26th-largest economy in the world by 2030.
Almost no one except my grandfather thought that was possible when Bangladesh was first established. For decades, democracy seemed like an impossible dream. Henry Kissinger even called Bangladesh “a basket case.” But my grandfather’s big heart filled our homes with friends, fellow believers and optimism from morning until midnight every day. Our public and private lives intertwined. The nation became our family. And a happy family it is thanks to his legacy.
Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed Joy is the ICT Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He is also the son of Sheikh Hasina and grandson of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This commentary was originally published on Chicago-based realclearpolitics.com