Sunday, March 31, 2013

Death of a President, Shahabag and the 1972 Constitution

The Independent
March 30, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Two recent events in the country, the death of President Zillur Rahman and the Shahabag youth movement, have shown that the Constitution of 1972 that the secular forces of the country want to be restored to establish secularism in its pristine glory,  is after all not such an impressive document after all.  The death of President Zillur Rahman has shown how little the framers of the 1972 Constitution had focused on the important institution of the President of the Republic. Zillur Rahman is the first among the 19 President of the country to die in office and that too while in the final year of his 5 year term. His death in office has revealed the 1972 Constitution’s shortcomings on framing the provision on this important institution.  Under the relevant provision of the Constitution, the parliament must now elect a new President within 90 days. This is not a problem. The problem arises from the fact that the new President will be elected for another full five year term.

This will mean that the new President will be in office for full four years and a little more in the term of the next parliament. If the ruling party wins the next election, then no one will be wiser with this particular provision of the Constitution and the thoughtlessness with which it was put there. However, if the BNP wins the next election, then there will be a big problem. In the parliamentary system as conceived by the framers of the Bangladesh Constitution, the President is a ceremonial figure with practically no powers at all. He has to sign on the dotted line the way the Prime Minister wants or wishes. In fact, the Bangladesh Constitution in exceptional in the fact that it  gives the Prime Minister virtually dictatorial powers over the ceremonial head of state  unlike other parliamentary systems where the ceremonial head is required to follow the dictates of the cabinet.

Nevertheless, despite the ceremonial nature of the powers of the Bangladesh President, he (or she) can be a pain in the neck in the smooth functioning of the parliamentary system in the country when  he/she chooses to be difficult. The country witnessed a glimpse of this when the row between   President Abdur Rahman Biswas and the Army Chief took place in 1996 while the country was under the caretaker system and the President dismissed the Army Chief. The President’s decision was backed by the Head of the Caretaker Government that averted the crisis. President Biswas continued to be difficult till the AL dominated parliament elected Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed as the President soon afterwards and the grave crisis into which President Biswas threatened to push the country was forgotten.

President Zillur Rahman’s death has created the same situation as President Biswas had threatened in 1996, only this time politics has become more polarized where the bad faith between the two parties has intensified and each has shown the clear intent to annihilate the other. In such a situation, this particular provision of the Bangladesh Constitution is potentially a dangerous one because it has in it the seeds of not just bringing the government to a standstill but also to push the country to the edge. In the framers of the Bangladesh Constitution had a little vision, they could have corrected a massive error by simply stating that if a President died in office, the parliament would elect a new President to complete the term of the outgoing one. This would also have defended the constitution from a serious shortcoming; that of allowing an outgoing parliament to choose a President who would hold the maximum part of his tenure when a new parliament would be in place. Quite clearly, the framers of the 1972 constitution were not thinking about the possibility of a two-party system ever coming into existence in Bangladesh. Perhaps, the personality of Bangabandhu had influenced them too much to think of the office of the President seriously.

Those who want the restoration of the 1972 constitution to its original form, particularly on the issue of secularism must now take note of the Shahabag movement and think again about their demand to delete the Islamic provisions from the Bangladesh Constitution to restore the spirit of the 1972 Constitution.  The framers of the Bangladesh Constitution had placed secularism as a fundamental state policy. They  ignored the fact that the fundamental character of the Bangladesh society is the faith of its people on Islam, with of 90% of them proud to be Muslim. They simply assumed that as the Pakistani military and its local collaborators used Islam to commit crimes against humanity, they could push the religion of the majority out of public life and make it a private matter for them.

Shahabag has proved that the majority of the people of Bangladesh would like those who committed the crimes against humanity in 1971 to be served capital punishment. However, Shahabag also proved publicly that their feeling for   Islam runs much deeper.  Thus when the Islamic provisions were inserted in the Bangladesh Constitution after August 15, 1975, they did not disagree with the Islamic insertions although they may not have agreed with the regimes that put these provisions in the Constitution. However, when a small section of secularists who have an issue with Islam became vocal for deleting the Islamic provisions after the Supreme Court ruling on the 5th Amendment, they did not support their demand because they saw no harm in keeping the Islamic provisions or why this small group was so vocal for the deletion. Shahabag confronted them with a choice and they voiced that choice for Islam without in anyway undermining the demand of the youth for the maximum punishment for the alleged war criminals.

Islam and secularism have co-existed in Bangladesh for centuries primarily because of the influence of Sufism that has given its people a sense of tolerance that is a matter of pride for the majority of the Muslims of the country. Shahabag has established the fact that the majority of the Muslims of the country want Islam to be respected first and foremost. When the criminally abusive postings on Islam and Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) became public at a time when the euphoria about Shahabag was at its peak, its leaders failed to realize its potentials to damage their movement. At first, they blamed Jamat that did not succeed because some of the bloggers present in Shahabag were earlier reprimanded in a Dhaka Court for their anti-Islamic postings. The Shahabag movement then disassociated themselves from these anti-Islam but failed to condemn these postings and therefore failed to defend Islam. The fact that some secularists who have been demanding strongly for deletion of the Islamic provisions were present in Shahabag did not help the cause of Shahabag as many moved away from the movement for the anti-Islam postings that hurt the feelings of the Muslims deeply.

The death of the President and Shahabag has thus proved that the Constitution of 1972 is not really the ideal one that the secular forces would want us to believe. It was not framed with much of a vision or a good assessment of the society. Nevertheless, it may not be entirely fair to blame the framers for the way the 1972 Constitution has failed to deliver the expectations of the people; the governments that came to power must take a bigger share of the blame for the current predicament of the 1972 Constitution for having used and interpreted it to serve their very narrow self interests. Had it not been the 15 years of military rule, Bangladesh would have had 17 Presidents in 27 years! That alone shows what a mess the framers made with the Constitution while trying to establish the parliamentary form of government for the country with the image of a particular individual in perspective.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

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