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Friday, August 06, 2010

Is Muslim Majority Bangladesh Poised To Convert Into A Secular Nation?

For millions of people in impoverished Bangladesh, it seems to have ushered a political blessing. The nation which fought a bloody war of independence in 1971 against Islamic Pakistan to establish secularism and democracy was obliterated by military juntas and autocratic governments.
Bangladesh's first constitution included secularism, democracy, socialism and nationalism as the key political philosophy which reflects the spirit of the independence war when the eastern province severed from Pakistan in 1971.
After the assassination of the “founding father” Shiekh Mujibur Rahman in a military putsch in 1975, the military-backed government of General Ziaur Rahman doctored the constitution's guiding principle and scribbled "Bismillah’ir Rahman’ir Rahim (Faith in Allah)" in 1979.
The Bangladesh Supreme Court in its landmark verdict forbids political parties which advocate Islamic philosophy. The apex court also asked to reinstate the four key principles in the constitution which existed 38 years ago.
In the 184-page judgement released recently, the court discarded most of the Fifth Amendment of 1979, including provisions that allowed religious based politics, which was legitimised by tyrannical rules of military generals during the period of August 15, 1975 to April 9, 1979.
Law Minister Shafique Ahmed claimed that there is no hindrance to reinstate “secularism in the constitution” as advised in the Supreme Court's ruling. "The amendments that were enforced by military orders during the four years of misrule have been declared illegal and repealed by the Supreme Court."
Another military junta leader General Husain Muhammad Ershad, a key ally of the ruling party dared to rewrite the constitution which determines “Islam as state religion” of once secular Bangladesh. Ahmed explained that the amendment made by third military ruler will not be affected by the court verdict.
Excited Shahriar Kabir, a secularist writer and staunch advocate for the trial of the war criminals is extremely busy in appearing on prime-time talk-shows in vibrant electronic media on the landmark judgement. He said the people’s mandate in the last general election for restoration of secularism and trial of perpetrators responsible for crime against humanity in 1971.
In an election strategy Mujib’s daughter Shiekh Hasina led Awami League swept to power in 2008. Her party’s electoral promises were restoration of secularism and trial of war criminals.
“Religious based politics was banned after brutal birth of Bangladesh. We have seen youths belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami were engaged as henchmen of marauding Pakistan’s occupational forces. They raised Al-Badr, a death squad to kidnap and murder hundreds of intellectuals who could not escape for their safety and security,” he explained.
The journalist and film-maker Kabir said General Zia, after the assassination of President Mujibur Rahman in a bid to gain political support for his legitimacy of usurping power to the surprise of all, withdrew the ban on religious politics and allowed Islamic parties to regain grounds.
Most of his hand-picked cabinet ministers were drawn from Muslim League, Maoist and other rogue Islamic groups. Kabir said, incidentally most were blamed for their alleged involvement in crime against humanity.
General Zia despite being a Mukti Bahini (guerrilla force) commanding officer and took military assistance from India to liberate the country from the repressive rule of Pakistan, he did not hesitate to restore two-nation theory of independent Islamic states in Indian sub-continent. He also got rid of secularism and inserted Bismillah’ir Rahman’ir Rahim (Faith in Allah) in the constitution.
The court recommends "suitable punishment" to “extra-constitutional adventurers”, the predators of democracy who ushered military regimes and sanctioned martial laws. Well the military leaders are either assassinated, hanged or are fugitives, except for the third military leader General Ershad, who founded Jatiya Party.
The Bangladesh Nationalists Party founded by assassinated President General Zia, led by his widow, Begum Khaleda Zia appealed the apex court's first ruling on the Fifth Amendment in last January and apparently lost her legal battle in a crucial political path of her party, which was in power three times.
Author of Bangladesh constitution Dr. Kamal Hossain, an international jurist said the court verdict could be translated into reality by government order for changes in fundamental principles.
The judgement which did not come as a surprise, is a major threat to Islamic parties. The Islamic parties which propagates strict Sharia law for 158 million secular and moderate Muslim majority nation. The Islamic radicals also advocate Qur’an and Sunnah to over-ride the people’s constitution. Secularist, however argue that Sharia targets women to subjugate them and force them to wear purdah (veil).
Tormented by Fatwa’s (Islamic edicts) and confrontation with Mullahs, the rural women entrepreneurs engaged in micro-credit with support of Grameen Bank, micro-finance institutions and NGOs, the women population in the rejected the Islamic parties. The empowered rural women topped the list in national elections held anywhere in the world, according to Carter Institute. The women and 20 million new registered voters played a crucial factor in the last general election which caused landslide victory for Awami League and its allies.
According to independent Bangladesh Election Commission there are eleven registered Islamic parties. Reacting to comments by ruling party politicians regarding the unprecedented judgement, Chief Election Commissioner Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda made it clear that the Election Commission is not authorised to ban any political party and that the authority lies with the government only.
“The Commission will not impose any ban on any party. It is the responsibility of the government. If the government bans any registered political party, the Commission would cancel the registration as per ‘The Representation of the People Order (RPO) Act’,” he said, as journalists asked if the EC would go for outlawing religion-based political parties.
Recently five senior leaders of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami were arrested and are waiting to stand trials for the crime against humanity at the International War Crimes Tribunal. The special court has been set up, as an election pledge by the present government.
In the wake of judgement, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami accused the government of a conspiracy to push the country into anarchy by reverting to the 1972 constitution.
“People want to move the country forward. The government stands against the people is an impediment to the country’s progress and development,” Acting Amir (chief) Makbul Ahmad of Islamist party.
The party leader called upon all Islamic, patriotic parties and the Muslims to stand against what it described the government’s anti-Islam mindset.
Whether the Islamic parties will be banned or restricted is still not clear. At the Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina remarks frustrated many political observers and her party’s secular advocates.
She said that Islamic parties will not be banned, while “Bismillah’ir Rahman’ir Rahim” and state religion Islam will remain in the constitution. Possibly her government does not wish to jeopardise Awami League and allies for another term in the election scheduled in three years.
Earlier Hasina in a rare gesture asked her ministers to keep quite on the constitutional issue and religious based political parties as crucial changes in the fundamental principles of state policy are now under a close scrutiny. Her prolific party leaders were busy in deliberation in half-a-dozen TV talk-shows every late night.
She mentioned that a constitutional amendment is a sensitive issue and formed a 15 member bi-partisan special committee for recommendation to the parliament.
Social justice activist Kabir is upset. He said the prime minister’s statement in parliament has confused the nation and it somewhat contradicts the verdict of the superior court. It seems that the war criminals and their defenders have nothing to fear anymore. The Islamic parties would continue to function and overtly campaign against the war crimes trial, which began in United States and Britain.

First published in the 6 August 2010

Saleem Samad is a writer and journalist, an Ashoka Fellow for journalism. He has recently returned from exile in Canada. He fled from Bangladesh after security agencies during the Islamic-nationalist government (2001-2006) intimidated him to leave the country. He could be reached at

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