The two most powerful political figures in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia, do not like each other much. Their mutual distrust (both personal and political) is reportedly so deep that the two women haven’t spoken to each other in many years – until this past weekend.
Bangladesh media reported that on Saturday, Hasina, the longtime leader of the ruling Awami League Party, and Zia, the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, engaged in a bizarre 37-minute phone conversation, ahead of what is expected to be a very contentious election next year.
The phone chat was ostensibly arranged in order to solve a looming crisis over how the next parliamentary vote will be held by starting preliminary talks. The Calcutta Telegraph noted that the two grande dames of Bangladesh had not spoken in at least a decade.
Hasina is the daughter of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while Zia is the widow of former President Ziaur Rahman, who founded the BNP. The two women have essentially taken turns ruling Bangladesh for the past two decades.
But what did they talk about? About everything and nothing, while often speaking over one another and lodging one snide remark after another. While making extremely serious charges against each other (including murder), the two women fought over who should have called whom and when, as well as complaints over the quality of their respective phones. But in other ways, it simply sounds like a chat between two bickering old pals. The chat also provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of Bangladesh, stretching back to its foundation in the bloody 1971 war of independence.
The Dhaka Tribune acquired the full audio of the telephone chat and printed a transcript verbatim (translated from Bengali to English).
Here is the full transcript* of the "historic" phone call:
HASINA: Hello. How are you?
ZIA: I’m fine. How are you?
HASINA: I called you around noon, you didn’t pick up.
ZIA: This is not correct.
HASINA: I want to inform you that…
ZIA: You have to listen to me first. You said you called me, but I didn’t get any call around the time you mentioned.
HASINA: I called your red phone.
ZIA: My red phone has been dead for years. You run the government, you should know that. And if you intended to call, you should have sent people to fix the phone yesterday. They should at least check whether the phone is working or not.
HASINA: The red phones always work.
ZIA: Send people over now and to see whether the phone is working.
HASINA: You were prime minister yourself. You know that the red phones always work.
ZIA: They always work? But mine is not working at all.
HASINA: It is working perfectly. At least, it was working when I called.
ZIA: I checked it just recently. You can just not tell the truth.
HASINA: There is no reason for me not to tell the truth. I have called several times.
ZIA: How can a dead phone come to life all of a sudden? Is your phone so powerful that it will bring life to my dead telephone?
HASINA: All right, you could not receive the phone for some reason.
ZIA: No, that is not true. I have been sitting here. There is no reason not to receive if a phone comes. A dead phone does not ring. Did you understand? This is the truth.
HASINA: The phone was dead or kept disconnected...
ZIA: It was dead. Several complaints were made. But you... there is no one I can talk with through the red phone. Thus, who will I talk with?
HASINA: I will see to it tomorrow, why your phone was dead.
ZIA: It is good that you will see to it.
HASINA: I am calling you to invite you in the evening to Ganabhaban [the prime minister’s residence] on Oct. 28. You already know that I have spoken to several political parties about the next elections. I am inviting you.
[Ed. Note: Hasina is trying to resolve the impasse over how to hold the next elections; she wants to have talks with other parties to form an all-party government, which Zia opposes. Instead, the BNP is demanding that elections are held under the auspices of a caretaker government.]
ZIA: If you are really sincere about a dialogue, I will come. I will not come alone, of course, there will be others.
HASINA: You can bring as many people as you want, not a problem.
ZIA: I don’t want to bring my full party over. I will bring those I think will be needed.
HASINA: I am urging you for the sake of the nation, the people, withdraw the hartal [general strike].
[Ed. Note: The BNP called a 60-hour strike on Sunday morning, which led to clashes that killed at least 21 people.]
ZIA: No, I cannot go on Oct. 28.
HASINA: Killing people, throwing fires ... stop these.
ZIA: Killing people, throwing fires is in your habit to kill people. Not ours. We are not in the habit of doing things like that. You torch people, kill people, kill people with logi-boitha [poles and oars] -- these are all recorded. These words came out of your own mouth. That is why you cannot deny it. Therefore the hartal will be on. It will end at 6 p.m. on the 29th. We can talk afterwards.
HASINA: I am telling you, for the sake of the people and the nation, please withdraw your hartal.
ZIA: No, the hartal is for the sake of the people and the nation. It is because you are not willing to come for a dialogue. Your ministers said there would be no dialogue. You said yourself that you rejected our proposal. You have said there is no need for dialogue. Now you are talking about a dialogue. So this dialogue can wait till our program is over.
HASINA: I am requesting you...
ZIA: No, I will not lift the hartal, it is not possible. If you had done this one day earlier, it could have been possible.
HASINA: This is not a matter of one day earlier. You know I sat for talks with several parties...
ZIA: I know you are a busy person. We are also busy people, though we might not be as busy as you are. But where there is a will, a way can be found. You did not do that. Yesterday, the permission you gave us yesterday for the rally, why did you grant the permission so late? We requested it many days ago. Why did it come so late? You didn’t even allow us to connect speakers. People come to rallies hear speeches. You didn't let us connect speakers, and people couldn’t hear a thing. What kind of democracy is this?
HASINA: I have let everyone know that I would sit in talks with everyone from beforehand...
ZIA: Why didn’t you allow speakers in our rally?
HASINA: We did allow speakers.
ZIA: I will put up speakers as far away as I wish, so that more people will hear. You stopped transport to prevent a gathering, imposed Section 144 [prohibition of large public assembly]. Is there a state of emergency in the country? Is it a time of war? Are we in a state of war that you have started this behavior? What is this?
HASINA: I don’t want to talk you about this now.
ZIA: If you don’t want to talk, there is nothing further to say.
HASINA: What you say is not true. You are holding meetings.
ZIA: You will allow meetings, but ban speakers. You will allow meetings, but you give permission at the last moment, with hardly enough time to construct a stage. Haven't you held meetings before? You know what is involved…
HASINA: I remember everything, I remember the Aug. 21 grenade attack...
[Ed. Note: Hasina barely escaped a grenade attack on Aug. 21, 2004, which caused her serious hearing loss.]
ZIA: We were not involved. It was you who did that.
HASINA: You gave permission at 11 at night, I remember that. These words does not suit you.
ZIA: The rally was in Muktangan. But you changed the venue to your office, you did not even let us know. There is no point talking about these old issues. I am telling you now, if you are really sincere, then after our program...
HASINA: We don’t want to quarrel.
ZIA: You are quarrelling.
HASINA: You are only one doing the talking. You are not allowing me to talk.
ZIA: Why would I do that? You are asking questions, I am replying.
HASINA: I am not getting a chance to speak.
ZIA: You are only talking about the hartal. The hartal will not be revoked. After our program is over... you know... if you...
HASINA: Will you keep killing people in the name of hartal?
ZIA: I don’t kill people. You kill people. You killed nine people yesterday... Your Chhatra League [Awami League’s student arm], Jubo League [Awami youth wing] doesn’t.
ZIA: I can show you photos of your Chhatra League-Jubo League with arms. How your Chhatra League-Jubo League kills innocent people.
HASINA: We don’t do the politics of murder; on the contrary I see...
ZIA: This is your old habit. Since after independence in , you have been killing people. You killed so many people, did you forget that?
HASINA: We killed people in ’71?
ZIA: Yes of course, after ’71.
HASINA: For justice for the war criminals...
ZIA: Not justice for war criminals.... If you had tried the war criminals properly, you would have had our full support. But the tribunal you formed... it was biased. You did not try the war criminals in your own party. You have not touched a single one of them. Why is that? You are the prime minister of Awami League. You were not able to be the prime minister of this country. You could not achieve neutrality. Otherwise, you could not have behaved as you have with me, the things you have done... the things you have done in my party office. Do I need to say more? You don’t know how to respect the opposition, then what is your democracy?
HASINA: To answer this I need to turn the pages back to 2001 [when Hasina’s Awami League lost a contested election].
ZIA: I also have much I can say . You and I both can...
HASINA: ... what happened with [former President Hussain Muhammad] Ershad and his party. And in 2001....
ZIA: We did nothing in ‘71. Whatever happened with Ershad, it was you who did it. When Ershad snatched power from an elected government, you said "I am not unhappy," then you told the BBC ...In this case, what more can I say? And what about Fakhruddin-Mueenuddin [caretaker government of 2007]? Under which constitutional provision did they take power?
HASINA: Fakhruddin-Mainuddin was your choice.
ZIA: They were not my choice. You said it yourself, that your movement produced fruit. Why do you forget all this? You want to forget all our deeds, but the people do not forget.
HASINA: You made Mainuddin [Ahmed] the army chief, ignoring nine other officials.
ZIA: You sent many officers home; the numbers do not matter, you did the same. That's not the issue. Mainuddin or anyone else.... When this happened, why did you go there? That was unconstitutional. Why did you go there? Both our parties were out of power... Then you did not think of dialogues. You did not think that it would be wrong to go with unconstitutional Fakhruddin-Mainuddin. You went there smiling.
HASINA: ... I can smile even when I am sitting on fire. My father, mother....
ZIA: I do not want to linger on the past. Now if you really have a true intention to go forward... we want to go forward too.
HASINA: You have complained a lot. I do not want to do the same…. Aug. 21 grenade attacks and the attempt to kill me.
ZIA: You orchestrated the Aug. 21 attacks. Nobody wanted to kill you. The longer you linger, the better it is for us. The longer you linger, the better it is for us.
HASINA: When you cut cakes on Aug. 15 [anniversary of assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman]...
ZIA: It is my birthday, I will cut cake..
[Ed. Note: Every Aug. 15 Hasina commemorates the anniversary of her father’s death and also the death of her 10-year-old brother Sheikh Russell. This year, on that same date, Zia cut a huge 69-pound cake at her office to celebrate her 69th birthday. But there are doubts that Aug. 15 is really Zia’s birthday.]
HASINA: When you encourage the killers of Banglabandhu [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] and cut a cake on Aug. 15...
ZIA: Do not talk like this... will not anyone be born in Bangladesh on Aug. 15? You talk a lot about Ziaur Rahman. He [Zia] did a lot for you. You were Baksal [Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League party]. If Zia had not been there, you would not have been Awami League.
HASINA: You have come to our Dhanmondi 32 residence on many ocassions. You have seen little Russell [younger brother]. Do not you remember him at all?
ZIA: If anyone is born on Aug. 15, will they not celebrate their birthdays? You make these accusations all the time. Stop this. Ziaur Rahman gave you a new life. Do not talk about all these. You were Baksal. Ziaur Rahman was a gentleman and that was why you could do politics as Awami League, otherwise it would have been impossible.
HASINA: You have seen Russell in that house.
ZIA: Drop the topic. I do not want to talk about this. I have made my statement, leave this, we can start something new. If you agree, we can hold a dialogue. If you want to talk, it has to be after the hartal.
HASINA: You will not withdraw the strike?
ZIA: No, we cannot do this. This is not my decision, this is a decision of my alliance. How can I change it on my own?
HASINA: Call others in your party and tell them.
ZIA: No, there is no time for that now. The manner in which you unleashed police on our men, everybody is on the run.
HASINA: Why would we do that?
ZIA: Who else could have done it? Do [the police] act on my command? You are making [the police] raid the houses of our men. Police are taking them away.
HASINA: It is natural that the police will raid houses of bombers.
ZIA: You are the bombers. You blast the bombs and put the blame on us. This is an old tradition of yours. Do not come back to the same old discussion. I want to say: If you can talk after Oct. 29, we are interested.
HASINA: You gave two days’ ultimatum, I called you up within this time, but now you are staging hartal and want dialogues after Oct. 29 – what have you said in your speech and what are you doing?
ZIA: I have said: Movement and dialogue will run simultaneously.
HASINA: You have said it yourself, that you would not call hartal if a dialogue was initiated… It seems like you are making a speech in front of the camera.
ZIA: I do not have any camera in front of me, I am alone.
HASINA: Same with me, there is no camera at my end either.
ZIA: I am talking from my home. If I was in my office, there would have been cameras. I do not want to stoop so low. And then later, it will be seen that you have broadcast it on televisions. Check my Gulshan [affluent neighborhood in Dhaka] house, see who told you that my telephone was okay. I want to see an end to this matter.
HASINA: Your phone is all right.
ZIA: My phone is not okay.
HASINA: I called up 10-12 times. The phone rang.
ZIA: Do you think we were all deaf; the phone rang and we did not hear. You might hear it.
HASINA: How will I hear? One of my ears is damaged.
ZIA: It is you who have said that my phone had rang, but we are saying that it didn’t.
HASINA: Phone...... Phone, I made the call myself.
ZIA: It does not matter if you say you have called. You are saying that a dead phone has rung.
HASINA: The phone rang.
ZIA: How will it ring? A dead phone does not ring. This is a display of your mentality, shows if you are telling the truth or not.
HASINA: I am telling the truth.
ZIA: I checked the phone yesterday... We told your people that the phone was dead, but no one came. Nobody thinks of us as human, nobody feels it important to fix our telephone.
HASINA: Why are you blaming the telephone and telling a lie?
ZIA: Why will I tell lies? A dead telephone is dead.
HASINA: ...21602, I remember.
ZIA: You might have the number memorized or written down somewhere nearby, but, the fact is – that the telephone is dead. Nobody will believe anything else otherwise.
HASINA: A cameraman once came... This is nothing. The telephone exchange can be contacted to know what had really happened...
ZIA: Who of Gulshan exchange said that the phone was ringing? Actions should be taken against that person.
HASINA: The red telephone of yours belongs to a separate exchange.
ZIA: That is true..... Why is it being said that the phone was okay... Did the person you spoke to told you as such? I was sitting here waiting for the phone call. We talked over the phone many times, during anti-Ershad campaigns that we waged together. Why will we not talk? We talked so many times, went to your home, why not talk now? Come let us sit together for talks for the sake of the country.
HASINA: Come let us sit for talks on Oct. 28.
ZIA: No, I cannot come on Oct. 28. If you are really willing to talk, set a date after Oct.29. I will respond.
HASINA: You said yesterday [Friday], that you will not call hartal if dialogue was arranged.
ZIA: You did not act in time. You should have said much earlier.
HASINA: Listen to your own speech, the one you placed yesterday [Friday].
ZIA: Yes, I said, but there is nothing to do now, it is too late. I said dialogue and movement will run simultaneously. The program has been set with 18-party [a BNP alliance]. Now where can I find them for revoking the decision?
HASINA: You can get to them. It is not credible when you say you cannot reach the 18-party leaders.
ZIA: It is true that no one will believe it. Dialogue was possible, but, you are late.... If you had said last night [Friday], something could have been done. I went to the office after the rally. If you had called immediately, something could have been done.
HASINA: I do not stay up till late. I wake up early, recite the Quran...
ZIA: I know that you are pious, you create militants and then shoot them, I know everything. These are nothing new.
HASINA: Everyone knows who burnt Qurans..
ZIA: You made people do it, because that is what you believe. If you want a dialogue after Oct. 29, we can see to it. There is no scope to sit for talks before that.
HASINA: I called you within the time you set for us. We arranged a dialogue within the stipulated time. Now, if you retract you said yourself citing alliance-related reasons, there is nothing to do. The people will see it.
ZIA: My leaders are not around. They are not available. The leaders of 18-party are not available. Who will I talk to for revoking the hartal?
HASINA: It is not believable that you will not get someone to discuss the issue with. Everyone will be around on your command.
ZIA: How will they come? Your law enforcers are on our heels. How will they come?
HASINA: This is not true. Drop your weapons, come to talks.
ZIA: You killed [student activist] Biswajit [Das]. Did you not? It is you who have the weapons. Your men killed Biswajit.
HASINA: This is not true. Those who killed him, were ousted. The murderers have been arrested.
ZIA: This is not the only one. You killed people back in the days with ‘logi-boitha’.
HASINA: We arrested all criminals. After arrest, it has been known that their parents were supporters of BNP or Jamaat [Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, largest Islamist party].
ZIA: The murderers have not been held. Instead, you have brought in innocent people and harassed them. No they were not members of BNP. They said they were activists of the Awami League. It was published in all the newspapers. I will request you to set a date after Oct. 29 for talks, I am willing if you comply.
HASINA: What you have said in your speech, stick to it, withdraw your hartal. I am inviting you.
ZIA: Not possible. Talks will be possible after Oct. 29.
HASINA: Since your secretary-general is an acting, we agree to talk to him.
ZIA: Do not bring this up. Even you had an acting position of general secretary. If you had called last night, I would have called a meeting and have the hartal home.
HASINA: You will give more hartals, on earlier occasions you gave 330 days of hartal...
ZIA: You staged 173 days of hartal, we did not do 330 days of hartal.. We did hartals together against Ershad in those 330 days. But, when we came to power, you as the opposition leader said you would not allow us to live in peace even for a single day. You discussed [a] caretaker [government] in ’96 in consultation with Jamaat and brought the provision through movements. Now you abolished the caretaker provision. You asked deputy commissioners to seek votes. The next thing you know, you will be asking them to fill ballots for you. Now this is my final word: If you can hold talks on Oct. 30, it will be possible.
HASINA: My party is strong enough, I do not need others to seek votes for us.
ZIA: We also struggled a lot and came to power. Talks will breed talks.
HASINA: Tell your leaders that you made the withdrawal [of the hartal] after my phone call for the sake of the people.
ZIA: It is not possible. But for that to happen, you have to say that you have accepted our demand for a caretaker. Only then can the hartal be withdrawn.
HASINA: Then what is left there to talk about?
ZIA: No. There are many processes of a dialogue.
HASINA: Though I have 90 percent [of the] seats, I have asked you for an all-party government.
ZIA: An all-party government is not possible. We will not participate in an all-party government. Say, do you agree on the caretaker? If yes, then we will withdraw hartal.
HASINA: Those who wanted minus-2 [a theory that says that true democracy cannot be established in Bangladesh if the two major political parties of the country are not run democratically], why are you headed that way?
ZIA: We do not want to go there. But....
HASINA: You are sweet-talking....
ZIA: I know what language you speak in.
HASINA: My ears are ringing from all your sweet-talk.
ZIA: Your political language, we know of it. We ignore them.
HASINA: We both have been in parliament hot seat. We can talk in parliament.
ZIA: You give a neutral government... we will call off hartal.
HASINA: Accept all-party government. Or else, you might bring in someone like Fakhruddin-Mueenuddin again.
ZIA: No, all-party government is not acceptable. I will not bring anyone, you are the one with that intention.
HASINA: Come on Oct. 28, tell me who will you be bringing along.
ZIA: I will not come on 28th. I don’t know who is prompting you from there. The hartal won’t be withdrawn on 28th. I’ll go on 30th if you fix the date.
HASINA: Since you will not withdraw the hartal, thank you. Thank you.
It now appears that Hasina and Zia cannot even agree on whether the transcript of their “private” conversation should have been made public. Hasina has defended the leak, saying the public should know what its top political leaders are up to.
“The opposition leader said she will withdraw the hartal if the government takes initiatives for talks. But she did not keep her word,” said Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu. “I think the detail content of the phone conversation should be published though a part of it had already been published,” the minister added.
But Zia’s team is calling for an investigation on the leak
“There should be an investigation on how the conversation between the prime minister and our leader got leaked…. This is against the IT law of the country,” Maruf Kamal Khan, Zia’s press secretary, told The Telegraph.
*SOURCES: Dhaka Tribune, Calcutta Telegraph
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.