Friday, January 22, 2010

Terrorism and the Fifth Amendment

The agreements reached between Bangladesh and India during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's state visit to New Delhi to combat terrorism is a positive move. It should allay fears abroad that Bangladesh could turn into “next Afghanistan”, a view expressed by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a visit to New Delhi in 2005. Bangladesh is also not in the list of 14 countries whose nationals have been placed on special security checks recently by US security agencies following the failed attempt by a Nigerian national to blow a Delta airlines plane short of landing in Detroit on last Christmas day.

Bangladesh is, thus, currently poised better to deal effectively with threats of religious fundamentalism and regain its position as a Muslim majority state with liberal traditions that it was on the verge of losing during BNP's last term, having also ensured in the last election that religion based parties were soundly trounced. The Prime Minister's resolve against terrorism makes that prospect more likely. However, Sheikh Hasina's resolve notwithstanding, Bangladesh could also be engulfed by religious terrorism. Early this month, the Supreme Court lifted a stay order on a High Court verdict given in 2005 that declared the Fifth Amendment (FA) to the Bangladesh constitution made in 1979 unconstitutional and illegal. It paved the way to revert to the 1972 constitution and reinstate Article 38 that bans the use of religion in politics. In narrow political terms, that reversion could ban Jamat which, unless handled with the utmost political wisdom, could be extremely dangerous for Bangladesh. The issue has also become deeply entangled in the ethos of Bangladesh's war of liberation, role of Jamat in 1971, trial of the war criminals; and a host of other related factors. These factors have joined together to evoke a lot of emotions that have made reinstating the 1972 constitution a matter of settling historical scores.

Most people now vocal on the Fifth Amendment are making a very narrow interpretation of what the nullification actually means and/or are not fully aware of its implications. The 5th amendment gave the constitution legality to all the executive orders that were issued by the military government between the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 1979. The amendment also included the insertion, into the constitution, of Islam as a state religion; other insertions favouring Islam and deletion of secularism and socialism as principles of state policy were also made. It also gave legal cover to agreements and treaties signed by Bangladesh and foreign governments. The Fifth Amendment further wrote into the constitution that Bangladesh would seek closer relationship with Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity (Article 28 (2)). The High Court decision of 2005 will now make all of the above actions/decisions unconstitutional and illegal. Most important of all, it will make all provisions on Islam in the constitution, as a consequence of the Fifth Amendment, also unconstitutional and illegal, if of course the High Court ruling is implemented fully.

The Awami League is, however, selectively using the issue of the Fifth Amendment to restore secularism but retain other parts of that amendment related to Islam according to statements of the Law Minister in the media. Most significantly, it wants to keep Islam as a state religion but reinstate the original article 38 prohibiting use of religion, including Islam (!) in politics. The pick and choose method of the ruling party has created confusion in the public mind about its real intention. It has also sidelined important facts about Fifth Amendment, like the fact that it restored democracy that the fourth amendment to the Constitution during the AL rule in 1972-75 had compromised. The way the Awami League is dealing with the Fifth Amendment is leaving little doubt that its main aim is to ban Jamat as a political party in the name of restoring secularism.

In going after Jamat, the AL is not taking into context changed circumstances. When the constitution was framed in 1972, it was fresh in people's mind that the protagonists of Islam like the Jamat had used the religion to justify the Pakistani genocide. Thus when article 38 banned political parties from using religion in politics and placed secularism out of the picture, it was accepted by everybody as the natural thing to do. Nearly four decades into history, when religion based parties have been sidelined by the people through the democratic process where the Jamat won just two seats in the last election, the Fifth Amendment issue has placed Bangladesh's politics on spot to decide on Islam and its role in people's lives. Today, while people are focused on Jamat's anti-Bangladesh role in 1971, they may not be, at least those who do not subscribe to the AL politics, at all keen to ban Jamat and other political parties by reinstating the original article 38. They would rather like the amended article 38 to remain that allows political parties the freedom to associate without religious restrictions. Article 38 in its original form may push Jamat out of constitutional politics into the underground and encourage it to adopt unconstitutional means for attaining their objectives for it would be wishful thinking to assume that a party like Jamat will just vanish once the doors for it to do constitutional politics is closed. Jamat will no doubt use the ban to appeal to domestic and international support on the sensitive plea that Islam is in danger. Such an appeal could attract many in the country who are not Jamat supporters. It is also not likely to be well received in the Muslim countries and could seriously jeopardize the fate of millions of our expatriates.

A senior civil servant said on a talk show that as long as Islam was not in the Constitution, people had no problem with it. The Fifth Amendment issue has placed Islam squarely at the heart of the Constitution. Taking it out now, partly or fully, would be difficult if not impossible without putting Bangladesh at risk with its future. It would be wonderful for Bangladesh to be a model secular country. But then when religion is coming back into politics even in western democracies, it is very difficult to understand why Bangladesh is trying to be holier than the Pope. Historically, the separation of state and religion has been a problem of the western Christian nations where the Church's negative, corrupt and reactionary role made it necessary to keep religion out of politics. Islam has not been a problem with statecraft like Christianity.

In next door India, it had a fundamentalist Hindu party as the BJP in power but no one questioned its secular or liberal character. In Bangladesh, Jamat does not stand any chance of getting political power in our lifetime or in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren. Even the BNP that has given Jamat political lifeline in the past thought of it as a political liability in the last elections. The people have proven time and again that they do not like parties using religion to seek their votes by marginalizing religion in every election that such parties have taken part. The liberal/secular nature of the people of Bangladesh has ensured this. It is thus a mystery why the ruling party is so interested to ban Jamat and other Islamic parties for such an action will bring them back into reckoning in our politics with dangerous prospects.

The Prime Minister should use her wisdom and experience to take charge in the matter because, if her party forces Jamat and religion based parties from constitutional politics, Bangladesh could become “the next Afghanistan” or go the Algerian way.

Published in The Daily Star, January 23, 2010

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