Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Bangladesh and Secularism

The Independent
Post Editorial
Saturday, 08 January 2011
Author / Source : M Serajul Islam

The annulment of the 5th Amendment by the Supreme Court early in the current term of the Awami League led to the need to restore certain fundamental elements of the 1972 Constitution that the 5th Amendment had deleted. Of these, the need to restore secularism is the most important. A section within the ruling party and civil society has been putting strong pressure on the government for its restoration. In a parliament where the Awami League has a 3/4th majority, acceding to the demands of these groups is a fairly simple matter. The Law Minister who has the primary responsibility for restoring secularism as a fundamental principle of state policy has assured unequivocally that this would be done. Nevertheless, a long time has elapsed but the government has not yet restored secularism in the Constitution.

The delay naturally raises questions in the public mind on whether the government has doubts about the issue. The delay also gives credence to what some feel that restoration of secularism in the Constitution may not be as easy as the protagonists would like them to believe. When the 1972 Constitution was written, the country had just become independent after a war of liberation during which the Pakistani army and their local collaborators used Islam to justify genocide and crimes against humanity. Thus when Secularism together with Nationalism, Socialism and Democracy were named as fundamental principles of state policy, the provision was perfectly in tune with the sentiments and emotions of the people.

The period preceding the 5th Amendment was tumultuous in the history of Bangladesh. The 4th Amendment, better known as the BAKSAL amendment, had frustrated a lot of people. Thereafter the dastardly nature of the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family added to their disappointment and frustrations. Hence when Secularism was deleted and Islam and other Islamic provisions inserted, there was indifference among the people who had more serious issues to be concerned with. During the decade-long Ershad regime, when democracy was held captive, the movement was against the military dictatorship. The political leadership of both the BNP and the AL that led the movement were too involved with restoring democracy and not secularism. There was little interest to restore secularism as a state principle even after democratic rule was restored in 1991. In its first term in office, the AL too was little bothered with secularism. In fact, the demand for bringing back secularism into the Constitution was the result of the High Court ruling of 2005 during the BNP era.

When a plaintiff asked for a ruling against a martial law regulation against the ownership of Moon Cinema, the Court ruled the entire 5th Amendment that had deleted secularism had also validated executive orders under martial law following the change of government in August 1975, as illegal. The BNP Government used legal means to hold the ruling of the High Court from going to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for a final ruling but when the AL returned, it moved the Supreme Court that called upon the government to restore the 1972 Constitution, not just with the issue of secularism but together with the Islamic provisions introduced through the 5th Amendment.

More than three decades have passed by between the deletion of secularism and introduction of the Islamic provisions. In those three decades, while the people politically marginalized the parties who collaborated with the Pakistanis in 1971 and used Islam as a political weapon, Islam itself gained in strength. Further, Bangladesh is an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country where the majority of the people are good Muslims who love their religion. Most of them are not educated enough to understand secularism the way its protagonists know and understand the concept.

Unfortunately the latter in their enthusiasm to turn Bangladesh secular by re-insertion of the concept into the Constitution also went ahead and demanded the banning of political parties that use religion as a strategy. This was reflected in the media as a call for banning Islam-based political parties. In fact, senior leaders of the ruling party have demanded the banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami that is an Islam-based party.

As things stand, the government must just not reinsert secularism to abide by the court’s ruling on the annulment of the 5th Amendment but must also ban parties that use religion as well and other Islamic insertions such as making Islam a state religion. If these are not done, the secular character of the Constitution cannot be restored nor the court’s ruling. There lies the dilemma because the government is aware of the consequences of taking out the Islamic provisions. As one senior civil servant said in a TV talk show: taking out secularism was easy but once the Islamic provisions have been inserted, taking these out in a predominantly Muslim state like Bangladesh would be almost impossible unless the government wants to establish secularism in the Constitution at any cost. Clearly, the government is unwilling to take the test and statements have been made by senior leaders of the ruling party that the Islamic provisions introduced by the 5th and 7th amendments would not be taken out of the Constitution.

Between the 5th Amendment and today, while Islamic parties have been marginalized, Islam itself has grown stronger. Thanks to the international press, with the active support of the media next door, and encouragement given to Islamic fundamentalists by the last BNP Government, a wrong perception was given about Bangladesh that it was going the fundamentalist way. However, with the end of the BNP tenure, the fundamentalist threat folded and even the executions of the top terrorists like Bangla Bhai and his associates did not cause the faintest of backlash. Those five years of BNP notwithstanding, Islam has become a moral and ethical alternative to many, including the new generations.

It is time to take a fresh look at Islam in Bangladesh in a historical perspective. Bangladesh has not seen the type of communalism the rest of South Asia has seen. The majority Muslims of Bengal, later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh have lived in harmony with the minority Hindus. In next door India, Hindu-Muslim riots occur regularly where, as in the Gujarat riots, the State Government has actively participated against the Muslims. In recent times, Christians have shared the fate of the Muslims in the wake of rising Hindu fundamentalism. Yet, India protects secularism as a constitutional guarantee; Bangladesh does not. In one of the WikiLeaks disclosure, Rahul Gandhi has been quoted expressing more fear for Hindu fundamentalism than Islamic. Bangladesh, on evidence, thus has better secular credentials without constitutional guarantee than India with it.

The reason is a simple one. Bangladeshi Muslims are by nature secular. They respect religious leaders on religious matters but when the religious leaders have sought their votes, Bangladeshi Muslims have always rejected them. There is thus a safety net among Bangladeshi Muslims against Islamic fundamentalism and those who use Islam for politics.

Therefore, inserting secularism at the expense of the Islamic provisions and banning religion based parties in the Constitution would achieve little but could hurt the Islamic sentiments of the people and, in case of Jamaat, end up giving it a cause to fight and create political instability. Without taking the Islamic provisions out and without banning parties like Jamaat and just inserting secularism would leave the Constitution facing a contradiction that would demean its credibility.

Thus the government needs to show maturity in dealing with secularism if it wants to save the country from becoming another Algeria. The Islamic fundamentalists have no cause now. If the issue of secularism is not handled with a perspective of history and reality, it could create the very conditions for which the Islamic fundamentalists are praying.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh

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