Dacca, Bangladesh — IT could have been a scene from the French Revolution, like the storming of the Bastille. Two columns of demonstrators, at first cautiously, then with a newfound boldness, approached the fortresslike government secretariat in Dacca, whose high walls protect the seat of power of the military regime.
Their numbers swelled to 50,000. Then one column surged toward the main entrance, blockading the gate. The other veered off, squatting in front of the entrance at the rear. As incredulous bureaucrats peered down from the windows, it was clear that both columns were led by women.
Both women wore mourning white - one for her assassinated husband, the other, her assassinated father. Both men were former presidents of Bangladesh. They had been the country's most popular and charismatic figures, and both had died at military hands.
Yet well before the demonstration last Nov. 28, Khaleda Zia, the widow, and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter, stood in the forefront of the opposition to Bangladesh's military regime. They had thus assumed their places in the volatile politics of the Indian subcontinent, taking over political empires created by men.
They are not alone. Some of today's most powerful and interesting political figures in former British India - from India to Pakistan, Sri Lanka to Bangladesh - are women. One is hard pressed to think of anyone as charismatic or controversial as these women, male or female.
It is a curious and, sociologists say, an unnatural mix of religion and economics that has played havoc with the subcontinent's accepted, and male-dominated, political tradition.
* Indira Gandhi rules India with an iron grip, despite the continuing backward attitudes of many toward women. She assumed the leadership of the Congress-I Party nearly two years after her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964. She was then regarded as little more than a rather shy hostess, presiding in her father's house. No threat, thought the veteran Congress-I politicians. History, it turns out, has proved them wrong.
* In Pakistan, Begum Nusrat Bhutto and her daughter, Benazir, are leaders of the Pakistan People's Party, founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They and the indomitable Begum Walid Khan are among President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's most contentious and most controversial foes.
* In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike rose from nowhere when her husband, the prime minister, was assassinated in 1959. She first led his party, then the country. She remains a highly visible thorn in President Junius Jayewardene's side.
''From teacups to politics,'' one rather stodgy Bangladeshi professor mused. ''But it will not continue. It's just a curious happenstance. . . . Rather bizarre really, yes, bizarre that they've all inherited power at exactly the same time.''
Some ascribe it to name recognition, a powerful political force in a vast region, 75 to 90 percent rural, where a large measure of illiteracy means that few people read newspapers or magazines.
Thus in Bangladesh, when a name has been built up painstakingly through political action or a countryside blitz, a soft-spoken widow, fighting to overcome a lifelong habit of being painfully shy, can become, much to the incredulity of this country's military rulers, an overnight success.
Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of a general, whose husband kept her very much at home, is on the surface supremely confident. Yet when asked if her husband, Ziaur Rahman, former martial-law leader and later President of Bangladesh, had schooled her in the fine art of politics, she suppressed a giggle. Then she said , ''My husband was a very liberal man. But he never would have dreamed that I would be his successor.''
Neither did General Ershad, nearly 20 years older than Khaleda, and the present leader of Bangladesh. He lives in the same Dacca military cantonment as Khaleda does. He smarts when he sees her saluted by an enlisted man, or jawan.
When she was arrested at the government secretariat during November's demonstration and placed under house arrest, she was first saluted by the arresting party. When she toured the countryside in November, during Bangladesh's short-lived, two-week period of ''open politics,'' she attracted the largest crowds that this mostly rural country had seen in years. From Chittagong to Comilla and Bogra, large numbers of the audience were military men.
Such remains the appeal of Ziaur Rahman, the nationalist general who, as a major in December 1971, took control of the radio station at Chittagong during the Indo-Pakistani war, and was the first person to announce to this Bengali nation that independence had been won. After climbing the pyramid of power, he was assassinated in 1981.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed, whose father was the legendary founder of Bangladesh, is a far more explicable political phenomenon than Khaleda is.
She was active in student politics at Dacca University and lived in the three-story house that dominated Bengali politics for over 20 years. During the days that Bangladesh was East Pakistan, she often served as deputy for her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was often in the western sector or more often in jail.
Sheikh Hasina lost not only her father, but also her mother, her three brothers, and all of their wives, when a mutinous group of officers stormed into the family bungalow in August 1975 and brutally massacred the entire family. Today, she uses her father's study. Bullets remain in the walls. The glass of the bookcase is still broken. Shrapnel remains on the floor.
When Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda are not bringing the country to a standstill during a general strike, they score impressive victories at the ballot box.
The Awami League remains the country's strongest political party and, during municipal elections earlier this year - together with Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party - captured, on a nonparty basis, 80 percent of the municipalities in which elections took place.
Both of Bangladesh's two most formidable political creatures called for a boycott of controversial county-level elections held on March 24. Neither has been impressed by the political concessions of General Ershad earlier this year. Consequently - and on the heels of a general strike in early March in which five died - both women, as has happened previously, were placed under house arrest. They have since been released.
Each time they are arrested, their legendary powers grow in this contradictory Muslim nation, where, even though traditional attitudes changed considerably as a result of the genocide of the liberation war, only 13 to 15 percent of women are literate.
''It is a very atypical situation that has propelled all of these South Asian women into positions of power,'' one female diplomat said.
''They began as useful symbols. There was the lack of an acceptable alternative. . . . Yet here in Bangladesh, a traditional Muslim society, they have flourished. And, if you look behind the scenes, the way in which inside roles and outside roles are divided, a woman, inside, is absolutely supreme.''
In fact, women make the major family decisions: They control the money and have power over property purchase and distribution of land, over dowry, and over an arranged marital match.
Said one browbeaten male politician, ''If you come home even 30 minutes late, your wife immediately says, 'You've been with your girlfriend. I want a new piece of jewelry. . . .' She manipulates guilt as a weapon of control. And, although we're now talking about a class that represents less than 3 percent of the Bangladesh population, this is the class from which Hasina and Khaleda Zia come.''
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, as India's Indira Gandhi, were first propelled into the political limelight because they were considered no threat. In the case of the Bangladesh women, there was the added inducement of what sociologists call the ''pedestal'' concept.
''It is actually a double-edged sword,'' said one Dacca University professor. ''We place our women on a pedestal as a symbol of the weaker sex, to be protected by the extended family unit. In the case of political pragmatism, the extended family unit was the state. The politicians believed that neither Hasina nor Khaleda could be easily touched by the police. . . . But then, neither of the two would leave.''
Politics on the subcontinent is often gestures rather than programs, charisma rather than plans. Charismatic devotion is well grounded in religion, mores, and customs of village life. Most Hindu festivals are presided over by charismatic goddesses, not by gods. It is assumed that charisma will be inherited.
''The mother figure is also grounded in religion and village life,'' said one Dacca sociologist. ''She is less contested (and) brings about less conflict than men. . . ''
This is certainly something that would be disputed by the generals of Bangladesh.