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Monday, June 20, 2011

Bangladesh: Volte Face?

IN A dramatic volte face, the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, on June 7, 2011, declared that she wished to keep Islam as the 'State Religion', thus preserving the illegal changes made to the Constitution in 2007 by the Provisional Government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. The announcement was in complete contrast to the ruling Awami League's (AL) declared pro-secular approach. Hasina, who also leads the AL, appears to be targeting the support of some radical Muslim formations in a replay of her last tenure, 1996-2001. The present posture suggests that the Hasina Government may increasingly incline to the use of Islam for political maneuver. Meanwhile, the Dhaka High Court, on June 8, asked the Government to explain the legality of its standpoint on the status of Islam as the 'State Religion'.

The instrumentalisation of Islam to secure political legitimacy began in Bangladesh after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. The successor President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Zia-ur-Rahman, passed a Presidential decree in 1977, removing the principle of secularism from the Preamble of the Constitution and, instead, inserted the infamous Fifth Amendment declaring "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah". Further, in 1988, Islam was given the status of 'State Religion' through the Eighth Amendment by the even more zealous military regime of H. M. Ershad - Rahman's successor.

The ongoing controversy regarding the status of Islam and its legality as the 'State Religion' came to the forefront after the General Elections that restored Hasina to power in January 2009. Her Government immediately focused attention on the challenge of tackling religious extremism and terrorism. At that time, the AL Government had made it clear that it would re-introduce the original 'Four State Principles' - democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism.

Meanwhile, on January 3, 2010, Bangladesh's Supreme Court lifted a four year stay against a ban on 'the abuse of religion for political purposes'. By lifting the stay, the Supreme Court approved the August 29, 2005, judgment of a three judge Bench, led by Justice A. B. M. Khairul Haque, which declared the Fifth Amendment illegal. The Bench also defined the meaning of secularism as religious tolerance and religious freedom. Subsequently, on February 20, 2010, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed stated, "Now we don't have any bar to return to the four state principles of democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism, as had been heralded in the 1972 statute of the State".

Finally, the 184-page judgment of the Supreme Court was issued on July 28, 2010. The apex Court got rid of the bulk of the Fifth Amendment, including provisions that had allowed religious political parties to prosper, or that legitimized military dictatorship. The verdict further dubbed such parties as extra-constitutional adventurers and suggested "suitable punishment" for those who installed military regimes and imposed martial laws. The simultaneous trial of 1971 War Crimes and the arrest of prominent leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) on such charges further heated up the debate on the role of Islamic parties in the political arena.

At that juncture, it appeared that the Hasina Government was determined to take on the radical Islamic groups - both militant outfits and political parties. On March 16, 2009, Home Secretary Abdus Sobhan Sikder placed a report that identified 12 'militant' outfits - the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Ulama Anjuman al Bainat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islami Democratic Party, Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamir-ud-Deen (Hizb-e-Abu Omar) and Allahr Dal. The Government has so far banned four Islamist militant groups - the JMB, HuJI-B, JMJB and Shahadat-e-al-Hikma. The main targets of the law enforcers, however, were the party activists and cadres of five main groups - Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS, youth wing of the JeI)), JMB, HuJI-B, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hizb-ut-Tawhid.

The Institute for Conflict Management database indicates quick follow-up action to arrest leaders and cadres of these militant formations. The numbers do not, however, include mass arrests that are common during political rallies, protest marches and violent mass activities. For instance, on April 12, 2010, the Chittagong Police filed a case accusing 1,500 to 2,000 leaders and cadres of JeI and ICS for attacks on the Police at the city's Anderkilla Intersection. The arrests in this incident are not included in the data.

Among the arrested are important leaders, such as the founder of HuJI-B, Sheikh Abdus Salam; its current chief, Mufti Abdul Hannan Sabbir; the chief of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Mahiuddin Ahmad; the regional leader of Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Mohammed Moinuddin; among others. Recoveries from the site of arrest have included arms and ammunition, with typical variety of cocktail and hand made bombs, bomb-making manuals, Jihadi literature, anti-Government leaflets, etc.

Contradictions were, however, sharpening within the country, with three visible and polarizing trends consolidating: the ongoing 1971 War Crimes trials; the anti-women Islamist demonstrations protesting the formulation of the National Women's Development Policy (2011); and the re-emergence of mass and violent street politics, after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party called a 36-hour national protest on June 13, 2011. The Islamist Parties clearly have huge stakes in all three issues, with JeI as the principal target of War Crimes trials, and Islamist allies of the BNP as key components in the anti-women and street demonstrations and protests. Bangladesh has, moreover, a long and infamous tradition of protracted and violent street protests and bandhs (general shutdowns) that have paralysed the country for weeks and months at end.

It is under these cumulative pressures that the AL's stand on Islam began to shift. When Sheikh Hasina appeared before a Parliamentary Committee (PC) which was reviewing the Constitution in the light of the Supreme Court verdict in April 2010, she had already modified her position to concede that her party was "not against having Islam as state religion". This constituted a complete reversal of the policy laid down by her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Hasina also stated that her party was against banning religion-based political parties, though it wanted 'some restrictions' on them.

Internal conflicts within the ruling alliance make Hasina's situation more complex. The Jatiya Party, headed by H.M. Ershad and commanding 29 MPs, is against any ban on religion-based political parties. On the other hand, Left-leaning parties - including the Workers Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party - are strongly opposed to the Jatiya Party's proposal. The Left-parties are lightweight, with three MPs in the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, two in the Workers Party, and none in Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party. The AL, with a more than three fourths majority in Parliament (270 MPs in a House of 345), is, in any event, under no threat, but values the alliances for the stability and inclusive mandate they provide. The management of the alliance, consequently, will remain a matter of concern as polarizing issues come to dominate the agenda.

Against this backdrop, Hasina's June 7 statement can only worsen the political muddle in the country, as it dilutes its projected Constitutional identity, in the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, as "a secular, not moderate Muslim, country", and embarks on the slippery slope of an Islam pasand (committed to Islam) country. AL's progressive 'secular disillusionment' can only intensify the percolation of radical thought through Bangladeshi politics and society, even as voices against Islamist extremist dogma are gradually stifled by the original initiator of secular politics in the country.

First published in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, Weekly Assessments and Briefings, Volume 9, No. 50, India June 20, 2011
Sanchita Bhattacharya, Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management, India

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