Monday, August 23, 2010

Bangladesh bans enforced Islamic dress code

ANBARASAN ETHIRAJAN

After Bangladesh higher courts have banned Fatwa (religious edicts), demands secularism to be reintroduced in state constitution, now come another blow to the Mullahs and religious bigots – banning of make-believe religious dress code….

A BANGLADESH court has ruled that people cannot be forced to wear skull caps, veils or other religious clothing in workplaces, schools and colleges.

The ruling came after reports that a college in the north had forced students to wear veils.

The high court also ruled that women cannot be prevented from taking part in sports or cultural activities.

The court said that wearing any form of religious clothing, for students and employees, should be a personal choice.

It has also asked the authorities to explain why it should not be made illegal to prevent girls from taking part in sports and cultural activities.

In April this year, the court ordered schools and colleges not to force women to wear the burqa, a garment that covers the entire body except the eyes and hands.

Mahbub Shafique, one of the lawyers who filed the latest litigation, told the BBC how this ruling goes a step further.

"The difference between these two is that, this particular ruling today doesn't apply only on females it also applies to males as well.

"Because any kind of religious attire is imposed, that has been declared illegal to some extent."

The repeated interventions by the court show that these orders are likely to be ignored by most people living outside the capital Dhaka.

Though Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority nation, most people practise a moderate version of Islam.

In the long run, the country's politicians want the country to transform into a secular democracy rather than an Islamic republic. #

First published BBC News online, 22 August 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bangladesh made boat reaches France

“Unsinkable eco-friendly” boat TARA TARI made of jute fibre has reached the coast of La Ciotat, South of France today (Wednesday). The historic solidarity voyage came to an end. The 8 months long grueling sail on a made in Bangladesh “journey by boat” from river Banshi, Savar, Bangladesh to south of France is a indeed a challenge.

The mission of the sail was to highlight the problems facing Bangladeshi fishermen, for whom the sea is becoming increasingly dangerous due to the global warming.

The two-member sailors led by French born Corentin de Chatelperron, 26 deserves pat on their back!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Master'da Surja Sen appears in Bollywood movie

HIREN KOTWANI

ASHUTOSH GOWARIKER has made period films before, including the Oscar-nominated Lagaan and the Mughal extravaganza Jodhaa Akbar. But Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (KHJJS) is his first historical, in the true sense of the word.

This time he’s going strictly by Manini Chatterjee’s book, Do And Die — The Chittagong Uprising: 1930-34. The movie features Abhishek Bachchan as Surja Sen, Deepika Padukone as Kalpana Datta and Sikander Kher as Nirmal Sen.
Gowariker has worked with ace actors such as Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, but maintains that Bachchan was his first and only choice for Surja Sen, popularly known as Masterda. Actress Asin was initially considered for Kalpana Datta’s role but in retrospect, the filmmaker believes that Padukone makes a convincing revolutionary.

He points out that the Chittagong uprising spearheaded by the trio was the biggest revolution in India against the British. “We have heard and read of it but few know exactly why it was triggered off and the people behind it. And curiosity has faded over the 63 years since Partition when Chittagong went to East Pakistan and later became a part of independent Bangladesh,” Gowariker rues. “Hopefully, after the film’s release, people will be more aware of this long-forgotten chapter in the history of India.”
Interestingly, Gowariker went to Bangladesh for a recce of the location of the 1930 uprising. To his shock, nothing from the era has remained. “That’s why I opted for the village Sawantwadi on the Maharashtra-Goa border. It opens into the Arabian Sea like Chittagong does to the Bay of Bengal. The topography is similar, complete with flora and fauna,” he says. “Besides, it was easier to cart a crew of over 300 to Sawantwadi than it would have been to fly them to Chittagong.”

Heritage structures restored
‘We redid the entire palace’

Ashutosh Gowariker had several heritage structures restored so he could film there. “A considerable portion of the palace, where the King and Queen of Sawantwadi still live, was falling to ruins. We had it carefully reconstructed, and rebuilt the garden so the British cantonment could camp out there,” he says.
No doubt there were delays due to bureaucratic red-tapism but the filmmaker says that extra time had been taken into account when planning the production and didn’t knock their schedule haywire. “My team got in touch with the officers at the Archaeological Survey of India and local authorities for the required permissions,” he says. “It took us about four to five months to restore the structures, including a few bungalows. We also worked on the coastal landscape, and made the jungles and hilly terrain more accessible for the film crew.” #

The author Hiren Kotwani could be reached at hiren.kotwani@hindustantimes.com

First published in The Hindustan Times, Mumbai, Indian, August 15, 2010
© Copyright 2009 Hindustan Times

Friday, August 13, 2010

ISI-backed LeT establishing junction in Bangladesh to launch attacks on India

Photo: Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps location bordering disputed Kashmir international border

THE ARREST of three Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives from a madrassa in Chittagong, one of Bangladesh's largest cities, in November last year, has underlined the expanding reach of the Pakistan based militant group, and security analysts believe that militants are now trying to establish their base in the country to launch attacks on India that could inflame regional troubles.

The LeT, which carried out the deadly November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, is believed to be working swiftly to prepare a base for itself in Bangladesh from where it can target India easily.

The Bangladesh government has been trying hard to check the spread of the extremist group, but the country's internal political squabbling is making the task difficult.

"Unfortunately, Bangladesh has become the junction point of people who are interested in militancy. It is not likely to be eradicated very soon. The two major political parties have never been able to come to a common approach to the problem," The Christian Science Monitor quoted a former army official and a security analyst Syed Muhammed Ibrahim, as saying.

US military experts and Western military officials have also raised concerns over the LeT's expanding movement.

"Right now our concern is the movement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and specifically their positioning in Bangladesh and Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka," Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Navy's Pacific Command, had told a recent Senate hearing.

"What LeT has been able to do is lay a very solid foundation in Bangladesh. They're playing for the longer game. They're building up the infrastructure, building up the support networks," said John Harris, a terrorism expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The greater cause of worry, as underlined by the official who led the last November raids on the Chittagong madrassa, is the arrested extremists' claim of getting assistance from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

"They explained that the ISI helped them with the preparation of their passports. They were taken to Pakistan for training. They are all here to organize attacks against India," the official, who requested anonymity, said. (Asian News International)

First published in Sify, August 8, 2010

Monday, August 09, 2010

End of Battle

Dr. MOONIS AHMAR

THERE IS no way Bangladeshi politics can rid itself of the personal schism of the two ‘begums' unless one leaves the scene.

Eighteen months after the assumption of power by Awami League (AL) and the crushing defeat of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the last general elections, political environment in that impoverished South Asian country is as polarized as it was before. There is no respite as far as charges and counter-charges against each other are concerned. In order to exert pressure on the AL led government, BNP leader Khaleda Zia announced general strike on June 27 and also decided to continue the boycott of parliament.

Bangladesh is a democracy in terms of holding elections but in reality, like many post-colonial states, it has not settled down as a stable country. Rampant corruption, energy shortages, poor infrastructure, climatic change causing serious environmental degradation and deepening of poverty are the issues which question the credibility and legitimacy of those who wield power but are at the same time also involved in the excessive abuse of power.

Indeed, 160 million people of Bangladesh are paying the price of unabated political strife between Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister and Khaleda Zia, the former Prime Minister. Both begums, regardless of enormous price of their confrontation are unwilling to patch up their personal discord and schisms. Both have not learned lessons from the past and are still a victim of paranoia and personal grudge against each other. Both are oblivious to the plight of millions of people of their country who live in an abject poverty and have no promising future.

When this writer asked the editor of a Dhaka-based English weekly magazine, "Is there any sign of reconciliation between the two parties or are they adamant on confrontation?" she responded: "No sign of reconciliation whatsoever. And Awami League is going all out to keep BNP down by using the war criminal trial. BNP is most of the time out of parliament in protest, so that parliament too is totally an ineffective tool for any democratic practice. When BNP is in power, it uses corruption and criminal cases to keep Awami League in submission and vice versa. There is no reconciliation in the foreseeable future."

The problem is around 70% of the population of Bangladesh is under 35 and by engaging in a relentless war of words and political confrontation, both Awami League and BNP seem to augment the level of pessimism and gloom particularly among the young people. When asked the question that what is the present situation of their fight, the editor responded that, "it is still very much on. They cannot see eye to eye on a single issue. When they come face to face, on very rare occasion like the Armed Forces Day, they just exchange the briefest of greeting, with strained smiles and pleasantries that ring hollow. The media has a field day on such occasions and the newspapers and TV challenges can talk of nothing else other than what they said to each other, what color saris they wore, their expressions, etc."

When the question about the prospects of rapprochement between the BNP and AL was put before a Chittagong University academician, he responded, "As the ideologies of the two parties are different, so it can be easily said that the possibilities of reconciliation between these is very low. Both parties want to be in power.

Consequently whenever a party comes in power then it always tries to deter the adversary one making whimsical issues and to stay long time in power. Another important point here that BNP always bears liberal ideology, in contrast, Awami League (AL) poses secular ideology but both the parties believe in democracy. But the process of belief is different. In a sense, it can be called vice versa. As a matter of fact, neither of these parties wants to leave their interests. They are very much rigid regarding their policies and strategies also. Whenever a decision is taken by one, whether the decision is right or wrong, another one strongly protest it. This is the culture of the two political parties of Bangladesh.

There are various reasons to prove why the political tussle between BNP and AL primarily revolve around the two begums. Personal vendetta, ego-centric approach, intolerance, suspicion, grudge and mistrust shape the basis of battle between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. If Hasina represents the force of Bengali nationalism, Khaleda Zia advocates the Islamic characteristics of the majority of people of Bangladesh defined as Bangladeshi nationalism. The two still thrive on dynastic politics and are least concerned about the ordeals of common people. While in power, both were charged of corruption, nepotism and incompetence. The only example when the two begums pursued a common approach was during the last days of General Ershad when both AL and BNP launched non-cooperation movement which forced Ershad to step down in 1990 and pave the way for general elections. Otherwise, there is a long history of personal discord and vendetta.

In the June 12, 2010 issue of London Economist under the title, "Bangladesh That's not the way to do it," it was maintained that, "18 months after Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won parliamentary election in landslide, Bangladesh's politics is back to normal: personal, vindictive and confrontational. Demoralized and in disarray, the BNP has just 30 seats in parliament, down from 193 in 2001. The two ladies' feud and obsession with the past have hobbled development for decades. But the habits of confrontation are hard to break."

Four factors tend to deepen polemics and confrontation between BNP and AL. First, the role of India, because if AL has a soft corner for India and wants to follow a submissive approach vis-à-vis New Delhi's covert objectives in Bangladesh, BNP pursues a hard line policy. BNP opposes AL's stance on providing corridor to India via Bangladesh to the North East states on the argument that such a concession given to New Delhi will undermine the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

Second, the role of Pakistan. While, AL follows a hard line approach on Pakistan and uses the tragedy of 1971 in order to justify its hostility towards Islamabad, BNP pursues a moderate policy based on reconciliation between the two Muslim countries, as was evident during its two stints in power (1991-1996 and 2001-2006). AL's obsession with war crimes and its decision to go for the trial of those who collaborated with Pakistan Army during 1971 is considered as an evidence of its policy to be hard on relations with Pakistan. Therefore, both BNP and AL possess divergent positions on India and Pakistan which undoubtedly also impacts on Bangladesh's domestic politics.

Third, while AL considers Sheikh Mujib as the Father of the Nation and an unmatched leader of Bangladesh, BNP terms Zia-ur-Rehman as a nationalist who not only declared the independence of Bangladesh on a radio broadcast on March 26, 1971 but also selflessly worked for the development and modernization of his country. He was called as a leader who pursued a forward looking approach for his country and was above corruption and nepotism. Finally, BNP is soft on the Islamic identify of Bangladesh whereas AL adheres to secular nature of state based on Bengali nationalism. Other issues like control over the power structures and the university campuses also contribute in widening the schism between the two political parties of Bangladesh. Furthermore, both BJP and AL have some common characteristics like lust for power, personal fiefdom, corruption, nepotism and letting down their voters.

If the phasing out of the two begums takes place in the foreseeable future, their legacy may continue to haunt the people of Bangladesh for a long period of time. Although, the military cannot directly intervene to depoliticize the country because of adverse repercussions domestically and internationally, it can certainly pull the strings from behind. If Bangladesh wants to proceed for a better and prosperous future, it must change its political destiny by inducting tolerance, accountability, rule of law and better work ethics. Since the people of Bangladesh gave a lot of sacrifice for democracy and social justice, they do not deserve ‘internal colonization' ‘bad governance' ‘corruption' and above all absence of ‘rule of law.' #

First published in Southasia magazine, Karachi, Pakistan, July 2010


Dr. Moonis Ahmad is professor of International Relations, Karachi University and specializes on Bangladesh. He has authored several books including Paradigms of Conflict Resolution in South Asia, 2003

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Articles Of Faith, Restored

Photo AFP: Ruling party activists rejoice decision to revert to secularism


Democracy and secularism get a new life in Bangladesh, courtesy a Supreme Court ruling


SALEEM SAMAD

LARGE SECTIONS of Bangladeshis have often rued the loss of the “spirit and letter” of the Liberation War that had helped them emerge as a new country from East Pakistan 39 years ago. A series of military rulers from the mid-1970s till 1990 had inserted or deleted provisions in their constitution to legitimise their regimes, or those they supported, resulting in the dilution of the basic tenets the country was founded on.

But a Supreme Court ruling late last month, hailed by thousands as a “landmark judgement”, has now handed Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government an opportunity for a major course correction. If it brings the required amendments to the constitution, it can not only stop military rulers from coming to power in future but also restore the secular character of the nation.

The original constitution of Bangladesh, which came into being within a year of the country’s birth in 1971, had chosen democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism as the four basic guiding principles of the nation. But after the assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in an army putsch in 1975, a series of military officers took turns running Bangladesh. And it was in 1979, in the second year of Zia-ur-Rahman’s presidency, that the 5th amendment was incorporated in the constitution to legitimise his rule. In subsequent years, however, it provided other generals the perfect legal cover to run the nation.

On July 28, a six-member bench of the appellate division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled the controversial 5th amendment to the country’s constitution to be illegal and nullified it. “We are putting on record our total disapproval of martial law and suspension of the constitution or any part thereof in any form,” the SC said in its ruling.

The court also restored Article 12 of the constitution which prohibits religion-based politics and communalism in all forms, and which Zia had deleted. The SC in its ruling said that by “omitting secularism”, one of the basic principles the country was founded on, the military rulers had “destroyed” not only one of the bases of “our struggle” but also changed the “basic character” of the republic.

The ruling Awami League, predictably, has been elated by the SC’s ruling. “The amendments that were enforced by military rulers during their misrule have been declared illegal and repealed by the Supreme Court,” law minister Shafique Ahmed told Outlook. He said there was no hindrance now to reinstating secularism in the country’s constitution.

Following the apex court’s ruling, the Sheikh Hasina government has set up a 15-member committee comprising members from different parties to look into the amendments.

The Awami League and its grand alliance enjoy a clear majority in the parliament with 263 out of the 300 seats. The League itself has 230 seats in the ruling alliance. The Bangladesh National Party, which was founded by Zia and is now run by his widow Begum Khaleda Zia, has only 30 seats, while its alliance partners from the Islamist parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, have just three seats. Independent members make up the remaining four seats.

If Sheikh Hasina wants, she could easily amend the constitution and restore the original tenets on which it was based in parliament, since her grand alliance enjoys an overwhelming majority in the House. But questions are being raised in various quarters in Bangladesh on how far she is willing to go.

The declaration of the 5th amendment as illegal by the SC definitely helps her prevent future military rulers from grabbing power. But the apex court has also created a scenario in which she could even ban religion-based political parties from contesting elections in the country. If she does that, it surely would break the alliance of the main opposition party, Khaleda Zia’s BNP, and also jeopardise its chance of putting up a meaningful fight against the League in the coming years.

The League government has already launched a drive against those involved in war crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation struggle. As part of this, four senior leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami have been arrested and now await trial for their crimes “against humanity”.

The Jamaat has already criticised her move to revert to the 1972 constitution. “People want to move the country forward. But the government is trying to create impediments for its progress and development,” says the acting emir of the Islamist party, Makbul Ahmad.

There are clear indications, however, that the Jamaat is losing ground in Bangladesh. The party’s standing in parliament has come down from 15 to two seats as a large number of voters in the 2008 elections, particularly women in rural areas, fed up with its push for strict adherence to Shariat law, had turned against the Islamist outfit.

However, the BNP, which had lost heavily in the last elections, has decided to remain silent and watch carefully the evolving scenario in Bangladesh.

BUT SHEIKH Hasina also has a former military ruler and an Islamist as a coalition partner. Husain Mohammed Ershad, a former general who replaced Zia in 1979 and ruled Bangladesh for close to a decade, is now an ally of the government with his Jatiyo Party having 27 MPs. It was Ershad who during his rule had rewritten the constitution and made Islam “the state religion” of the country.

Despite its landmark ruling, the SC has not dealt with this portion of the constitution that Ershad had incorporated. Sheikh Hasina has made it clear in parliament that she was not willing to change Islam as the state religion nor is she in a mood to ban religion-based parties. This has obviously led to dissatisfaction in the secularist camp.

Shahriar Kabir, who has been actively campaigning for trying those responsible for war crimes and restoring the secular credentials of the country, is one of those who is less than elated with the government’s ambiguity. “The prime minister’s statement has confused the nation and it seriously contradicts the verdict of the Supreme Court. It seems the war criminals have nothing to fear any more,” says an agitated Kabir.

Many in the Awami League perhaps share his views, but if Sheikh Hasina has decided to move with caution, so will they. Because few doubt that Bangladesh is now in the cusp of history. #

First published in OUTLOOK magazine, India, August 16, 2010


Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow, a journalist based in Dhaka. He specializes in security, intelligence and conflict issues on Bangladesh and neighbouring states of India. Recently he has returned from Canada after living in exile for six years

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

View from Pakistan: Lessons from Bangladesh

YASSER LATIF HAMDANI


The poison of General Zia’s bigotry has spread like a cancer in Pakistan’s body politic. Had he not emerged on the scene, it is possible that Pakistan would have taken the regular course of a confessional state to a modern, inclusive and democratic state

BRAVO! BANGLADESH has done it. It has successfully reversed the cynical Islamisation of its local General Zia. Not only is one fortified by their action that a Muslim majority nation state is capable of rolling back the Islamist project but as a Pakistani I am glad that at least some part of the former original Pakistan is now firmly allied with the principles that Jinnah laid down in his famous August 11, 1947 speech.
Bengalis have never been any less proud as Muslims than Pakistanis. Say what they may, champions of the so-called ideology of Pakistan cannot deny that had it not been for peasant nationalism in Bengal, the Pakistan movement would have fallen flat on its face. While opportunistic landowners jumped onto the Pakistan bandwagon in what became West Pakistan, it was the common man in the then East Pakistan who waged the struggle for a new nation. It may also be remembered that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the founder of the Awami League, was also one of the founding fathers of Pakistan and that the Awami League was, at one point in its history, the Jinnah Awami Muslim League.

In 1965, when the Quaid-e-Azam’s sister rose to take on a dictator, it was again East Pakistan that rallied to her cause. And how did we pay them back? I do not wish to go into the atrocities of 1971.

One of the many steps taken by this new confident and independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh is the banning of Maulana Maududi’s hate-filled literature. Maulana Maududi is widely disliked in Bangladesh for his role against the Bengalis. There are some who object to this decision on grounds of ‘freedom of speech’. Well sirs, mind telling us where is the freedom of speech for non-Muslim minorities? It is quite like how some years ago many of our proud Pakistani Muslims defended Yousaf Youhanna’s conversion to Islam on the grounds of freedom of religion. And then someone asked, “What if he converts back to Christianity?” Silence.
What is sad, however, is that Maududi’s abuse against Pakistan and its founding father far outweighs his abuse against Bangladesh and yet Pakistan continues to tolerate Maududi’s legacy. Much of his horrendous abuse against the Quaid-e-Azam has been documented in detail. What is more, Maududi and his party openly supported usurper General Zia’s illegal military dictatorship.

The truth is that under the 1973 Constitution, a complete separation of church and the state may not be immediately possible, but if Pakistan can undo General Zia’s legacy, it will become a much better place to live in. For us, it is an urgent undertaking. We have now learnt that the dead body of Prem Chand, who died in the Margalla plane crash, was marked ‘Kafir’. Is there no end to such bigotry? Some might argue that this is because we asked for a Muslim majority state and a partitioned India. Be that as it may, it bears repeating that Jinnah tried very hard to keep Hindus safe and secure in Pakistan and his efforts paid off partially in Karachi. He also spoke of non-Muslim Pakistanis as being equal Pakistanis and having the closest association with the rest of Pakistan. Today, the minorities are marked separately as if they are less human, let alone less Pakistani.

To drive the message of equality and inclusiveness of Pakistani identity home, Jinnah appointed as his law minister Mr Jogindranath Mandal, a Bengali scheduled caste Hindu, and got Jagganath Azad, a Hindu Urdu poet, to write Pakistan’s first national anthem. Mr Azad had to escape for his life soon afterwards when things became unbearable for the Hindus in Lahore and soon after Jinnah’s death Mr Mandal was driven out. A transcript of Mandal’s signed statement is readily available on the internet. It is nothing less than heartbreaking for a Pakistani who wants to see this flag flying high.

Perhaps the founding fathers should have been more militant in their secularism given that they had gotten the state by mobilising a religious identity, like Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu did in Turkey. Their Turkish nationalism grew out of the group identity of Muslims of Anatolia and Thrace and they deployed Islam to mobilise the Turks, Kurds, Macedonians and even the Arabs living in Anatolia during the war of independence in a much more blatant fashion than the founding fathers of Pakistan. Yet, after the emergence of the modern Turkish Republic, Ataturk and Inonu began to redefine Turkish nationalism in completely secular terms. Consequently, even Turkish Jews are Turks before they are Jews.

In stark contrast to Turkey, especially after Jinnah, Pakistani secularism has met with one defeat after another. We are now at a point in our history that the highfalutin articles of the constitution protecting religious freedom in Pakistan have been defeated in the courts of law. Pakistan may have ratified the International Convention on Political and Civil Rights, but in reality the application of this is impossible unless of course Pakistan’s leaders realise the urgency of the matter.

The poison of General Zia’s bigotry has spread like a cancer in Pakistan’s body politic. Had he not emerged on the scene, it is possible that Pakistan would have taken the regular course of a confessional state to a modern, inclusive and democratic state. While Islamisation was always a going concern in Pakistan since the Objectives Resolution, it was General Zia who ensured that it would always be negative and exclusionary, catering to the Maududian ideology. Pakistan must decisively roll back General Zia, taking a cue from Bangladesh, and declare all the changes inflicted on the legal and constitutional system of Pakistan from Zia’s coup to that grand explosion in the sky, null and void. This would give Pakistan a fighting chance to slowly dig itself out of the hole it has dug itself into.
Remember the war against the Taliban is a generational undertaking. It will be fought in our schools, colleges and courts for the next 50 years. Let us prepare for the battle by learning from Bangladesh. #

First published in The Daily Times, Labore, Pakistan, August 02, 2010


Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer. He also blogs at http://pakteahouse.wordpress.com and can be reached at yasser.hamdani@gmail.com

Restoring Bangladesh's core values

Photo: Islamist at capital Dhaka in front of the national mosque protests Bangladesh bid to delete Koranic verses from state constitution


HAROON HABIB


The Bangladesh Supreme Court's judgment nullifying the 5thAmendment to the Constitution enacted in 1977, is seen as a milestone in restoring the constitutional course of the nation's history.

BANGLADESH HAS been waiting for a return to its core values, affirmed through its Liberation War. The nation has suffered for nearly three decades the consequences of unconstitutional and undemocratic practices and processes set in motion to seize state power and then nourish the illegality.

Now democracy stands restored thanks to a massive and united movement against autocracy, and many good things have emerged from the change. The latest is the nullification of the controversial 5 {+t} {+h} Amendment to the Constitution by the appellate division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. The Amendment, made in 1977, helped some elements to usurp the country's constitutional processes through martial law decrees. The landmark judgment delivered on July 28, therefore, will be seen as a milestone in restoring the constitutional course of Bangladesh's history.

The ruling by the six-member full bench headed by former Chief Justice Mohammad Tafazzul Islam, has laid the foundation for a process of reviving the secular spirit of the Liberation War. This spirit was at the core of the original Constitution framed by the Constituent Assembly in 1972, a year after the Liberation War.

The 5th Amendment, incorporated in the Constitution during General Ziaur Rahman's tenure, was meant to provide constitutional legitimacy to governments in power — be they military-led or others — following the 1975 assassination of the nation's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Upholding a previous historic verdict of the High Court that in 2005 had declared the 5th Amendment to be illegal, the Supreme Court said it is now up to Parliament to enact laws to prevent the recurrence of martial law administrations. But it observed: “We are putting on record our total disapproval of martial law and suspension of the Constitution or any part thereof in any form.” It added: “[The] Preamble and the relevant provisions of the Constitution in respect of secularism, nationalism and socialism, as existed on August 15, 1975, will revive.”

Justice A.B.M. Khairul Haq of the High Court in August 2005 gave the first ruling that declared the 5th Amendment illegal, in a petition challenging the legality of a martial law regulation. In that landmark ruling, the first such by a court of law in Bangladesh, the judiciary declared illegal three regimes that were in power between August 15, 1975 and February 1979. These were headed by Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed, Abu Sa'dat Mohammad Sayem and General Ziaur Rahman respectively. But the ruling exempted certain measures that the regimes had initiated for the public welfare.

There were immediate judicial challenges against the High Court ruling, which had shaken the then ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. But, rejecting their petitions, the Supreme Court has observed: “The perpetrators of such illegalities should also be suitably punished and condemned so that in future no adventurist, no usurper, would dare to defy the people, their Constitution, their government, established by them with their consent.”

This strong condemnation of military rule by the Supreme Court should serve as a deterrent against any future adventurism by the Generals who might want to rely on the supremacy of the gun. But whether the Generals will really respect such a judicial caution is still an open question. Yet, the ruling has given a solid legal and moral footing against any such eventuality.

The verdict has come as a clear denunciation of military takeovers of state power and a message against extra-constitutionalism. The judiciary has, in unmistakable terms, upheld the core values of the original Constitution — and thereby restored its own image as well.

The 1972 Constitution has four basic state principles — democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism. The latest judgment has restored those principles. The verdict observed that by “omitting secularism, one of the [principles of] state policy, from the Constitution,” the martial law proclamations had “destroyed one of the basis of our struggle for freedom and also changed the basic character of the Republic as enshrined in the preamble as well as Article 8(1) of the Constitution.”

General Ziaur Rahman, who founded the BNP while he was in power, had deleted Article 12 of the Constitution that prohibited religion-based politics and communalism in all forms. The Supreme Court has now restored that Article. Of course, this has caused consternation among those religion-based political parties that had grown in their dozens over the years, and their patrons at home and abroad.

The judiciary in Bangladesh has clearly laid the foundation for reviving the spirit of the Liberation War which was at the core of the Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court has upheld the return to unfettered democracy. The judiciary has also given the nation an opportunity to restore the secular spirit of the Constitution.

Secularism has never represented a negation of religion; it has been a principle meant to ensure equal rights for those belonging to all faiths. But that understanding was given a negative colour by sections of the religious leadership and those politicians who seek to use religion to make political capital. The omission of the particular Article of the Constitution by a military ruler not only facilitated the resurgence of religion-based politics but also paved the way for Islamist militancy.

Now that the judiciary has expressed itself strongly in favour of restoring the core values, the legislature has taken a bold step to go for a major amendment to the Constitution. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has constituted a 15-member parliamentary committee to draft a vital amendment in view of the Supreme Court's ruling.

Nonetheless, there are some crucial lessons to be learnt from the judgment. One is that it is the fundamental duty of all citizens to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution against any onslaughts as and when they are made. The Supreme Court has ensured a progressive democratic future for Bangladesh, no matter what the future may hold.

The Awami League-led ruling mahajote government has more than the required two-thirds majority to change the Constitution. It could have brought about necessary changes even in the absence of the court's judgment, had it decided to do so. The Supreme Court's ruling makes such a step easier. It has also put a special responsibility on the Sheikh Hasina government — for what are needed are fundamental amendments that would require consideration at the highest political level.

There are some fundamental observations that the Supreme Court has made on certain crucial national issues over which political parties have fought for decades. One of them is the identity of the citizens of Bangladesh. The court has ruled that this identity would be as ‘Bangladeshis'; and as a nation the people are ‘Bengali'.

Despite the favourable circumstances it enjoys, the government needs to give serious thought to certain issues. Probably considering the political consequences of those issues, Prime Minister and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina announced that her party was not going to delete Bismillah, a term inserted in the Constitution by means of the now illegal 5th Amendment. However, the judgment does not cover the incorporation of Islam as the state religion in the Constitution by another military dictator, General H.M. Ershad, by means of the 8th Amendment. There is also another concern. What is going to be the fate of the religion-based parties, which will stand automatically banned if the Supreme Court judgment is to be honoured in letter and spirit?

The parliamentary committee that has been assigned the task of suggesting amendments to the Constitution will need to ponder seriously over many issues before formulating its report. The major Opposition parties, the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, have not nominated their members to the ‘all-party' parliamentary committee despite repeated appeals made by the Prime Minister. While reserving comment on the Supreme Court ruling, they have launched a scathing attack on the government over its plan to amend the Constitution. The religion-based parties, which are the natural allies of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, are mulling over their future course of action.

There are other realities to be considered, too. The Awami League, which led the Liberation War, has ruled the country for only 10 out of the 39 years of Bangladesh's existence. For the rest of the period, those who were the promoters or direct beneficiaries of the 5th Amendment were in power. The constitutional reforms may be set in motion at a time when the Sheikh Hasina government has taken up yet another major task — to hold the trial of the war criminals of the Liberation War. #

First published in The Hindu, a premier independent English daily from Chennai, India, August 2, 2010

Haroon Habib is Bangladesh correspondent for The Hindu. He is also a liberation war veteran and has authored dozens of books on bloody war of independence

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