Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Secular path

Photo: Secularist rejoice court verdict

WHILE BANGLADESH is a predominantly Muslim state, the current dispensation in the country is making efforts not to mix religion and politics.

When the movement for an independent state for the Indian Muslims in British India was gaining momentum in the beginning of the twentieth century, Bengali Muslims were in the forefront. In fact, the biggest political party of the Indian Muslims - Muslim League - was launched in 1906 from the city of Dacca (now Dhaka), which later became part of East Pakistan and is now the capital of Bangladesh. When Pakistan was created on August 14, 1947, irrespective of a vast distance between the two wings of the country, the spirit, zeal and the objective of every Pakistani were the same - to build a nation in the newly independent state and take the country to great heights of progress. Unfortunately, what followed after the independence did not auger well for building of a nation or the progress of the country due to the early loss of genuine leadership of the Pakistan Movement

The Quaid-e-Azam's vision of Pakistan, according to most historians, was that of a modern Muslim state with politics separated from religion and where citizens would be free to practice their religion without any discrimination on the basis of religion or caste. This was clearly defined in his speech of August 11, 1947. However, after the death of Mr. Jinnah the vision underwent a drastic change and the secular nature was converted into a religious version when the Constituent Assembly sat down to pass the Objectives Resolution in March 1949. In East Bengal the secular character of the state was appreciated by the intellectuals and the Hindus who were in good number but the four provinces of the western wing had a vast majority of religious and ultra- religious populace who did not approve of secularism.

The content of the Objectives Resolution did not go down well with the influential Hindus of East Bengal and the intellectuals whose opinion was respected by the leaders of that province. It was obvious that when Bangladesh was created after breaking away from the rest of the country in December 1971 the character of its constitution was bound to differ from that of Pakistan. Its Constitution passed in November 1972 declared "Bangladesh as a secular democratic republic where sovereignty rests with the people". The constitution named the newly born country as the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh and pledged "nationalism, secularity, democracy and socialism as the fundamental principles defining the Republic."

As the years passed and political changes took place in Bangladesh due to various factors, constitutional changes were forced to favor Islam. Amendments during socialist party and military rule in the country altered the secular and liberal democratic nature of the Constitution. Secularism was dropped and Islam made the state religion through the 8th Amendment. In 1977, during the era of President and Chief Martial Law Administrator Gen Ziaur Rahman a Presidential Decree later legitimized by the second parliament of Bangladesh emphasized, "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" and "the State shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen federal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity." This was however undone in August 2005 when a Bangladesh High Court declared constitutional amendments during military rule as illegal and unconstitutional. Later in January 2010, after a legal battle, the Bangladesh Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the High Court thereby allowing restoration of the original nature of the 1972 Constitution which defines Bangladesh as a secular democratic country.

It is interesting to note that the verdict of the Bangladesh Supreme Court came during the tenure of Sheikh Hasina (Awami League) who had crushed her rival Begum Khalida Zia's party - Bangladesh Nationalist Party - and her ally Jamaat-e-Islami in the 2009 elections. With the judiciary at her back and the support of the armed forces, Sheikh Hasina is likely to dominate the political scene for years to come. It has been declared that religion and politics will remain separated. Most of the Islamic literature including the books of Maulana Abul A'la Maududi was banned.

It is a fact that successive post-Mujib governments have heavily depended on the support of the Bangladesh armed forces for survival. It is also a fact the Bangladesh armed forces traditionally draw on the Islamic heritage having no interest in secularism and the earlier change in secular character of the Constitution had their full support. The not-too-friendly stance towards India of a majority of officers and men, partly due to the poor treatment received from the Indians during and after the civil war and also the Chinese interest in keeping Bangladesh as a military equipment buyer, makes them consider China as a friend to depend on in case India ever had any aggressive designs against them.

India, too, has started viewing the Bangladeshis with suspicion after the border clashes between Indian Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifles and the impact of growing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. Also, the rebellion of Bangladesh Rifles last year was an un-nerving experience for the regimes in Dhaka and New Delhi. As of today, it is obvious that the situation is such that Sheikh Hasina's government will need to tackle it with utmost care and sensitivity for the sake of stability in Bangladesh and the region. #

First published in Southasia magazine, September, 2010

Munir Ishrat Rahmani is a retired Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He writes regularly on current affairs and the social sector