A return to secularism, almost

The birth of Bangladesh was exceptional for one reason: it divided Pakistan, a country that for many was born out of the communal divisions of British India. Bangladesh emerged in 1971 as an independent country and, although overwhelmingly Muslim-dominated, it managed to cultivate and uphold a secular spirit, what they call 'Bengali nationalism'. Indeed, it was the spirit of Bengali nationalism that influenced its people, irrespective of religion, to take part in the nine-month war against the religio-military exploitation by the then-Pakistani military rulers. Within a year after its independence, for which an estimated three million people died, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic leader who led the new country to freedom, gave Bangladesh a progressive Constitution on 16 December 1972. This not only endorsed nationalism, socialism and democracy but also secularism, a true reflection of the national spirit. Within three and a half years of independence, however, Sheikh Mujib was gunned down, military rule was imposed and the secular character of the Constitution began to be destroyed.

General Ziaur Rahman, who proclaimed himself president in 1977, began the process of Islamisation by removing the secular provisions from the Constitution, specifically by introducing the Fifth Amendment, which legitimised the proclamation made during the period of martial law, between 1975 and 1979, and omitted secularism as a state principle. This change was so fundamental that it not only erased the basic founding principles of the nation state, but also revived politics based on religion, which was thought to have been defeated through the devastating war against Pakistan. This suited the military ruler's project to float a political platform that later came to be known as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It also extended political rights to 'anti-Liberation War forces' who had perpetrated crimes against humanity during the War of Liberation as henchmen for the Pakistan Army. General H M Ershad, who came to power in 1982 after Gen Zia was killed in an abortive military rebellion, ruled Bangladesh for nearly nine years. In June 1988, he introduced the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally made Islam the state religion.

Together, these amendments led to the abandoning of secular Bengali nationalism, on the basis of which the 1971 war was waged, to be replaced with 'Bangladeshi nationalism', with a new emphasis on religion. These alterations to the Constitution's basic principles not only brought about changes to the country's politics but also to its cultural patterns. Islamist politics increased significantly following the late 1980s. Even though many religion-based political parties had been banned under the original Constitution for having taken part in war crimes during the 1971 war, these groups now resurfaced with a vengeance.

The need for constitutional change or restoration of the previous state principles became an increasingly popular demand by the pro-secular political parties and civil society. When the current ruling alliance, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, came to power in January 2009 with a thumping three-fourths majority – more than enough to amend the Constitution – it formed a Special Parliamentary Committee to recommend suitable amendments. In August 2010, meanwhile, the apex court struck down the Seventh Amendment (which had legitimised the 1982 coup), thus invalidating Gen Ershad's decrees under martial law. It is important to highlight here that the High Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Court have played significant roles in facilitating the change in the Constitution, declaring the two periods of military rule to be illegal and void. Many subsequently felt that the momentum was high for truly progressive secular legislation.

Better than nothing?

In a landmark move on 30 June, the Parliament passed the Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Bill. Recommended earlier by the Special Parliamentary Committee, the bill was subsequently endorsed by the cabinet and the parliamentary standing committee before its passage in the Parliament. The Constitution Bill restored the four state principles of secularism, democracy, Bengali nationalism and socialism of the original Constitution. Surprisingly, however, the new bill retained Islam's status as the state religion, as well as the phrase 'Bismillahi-ar rahman- ar-rahim' (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful) both in English and Bangla, above the preamble to the Constitution, while the political rights of religious parties were left intact – all despite the bill's purported intention to secularise Bangladesh. Indeed, the main opposition BNP and its pro-Islamist groups, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, silently endorsed these developments, which favoured them politically.

These contradictions have worried the civil-society exponents, freedom fighters, left parties and progressive social groups, who were hoping that a government would not compromise on principle at a time when it commanded such a strong presence in the House. The government retained these 'non-secular provisions' despite significant pressure not only from civil-society groups but also from within the cabinet and alliance partners, who feared that Prime Minister Hasina had 'unethically compromised' on an issue about which she had been preaching for three decades. However, senior policymakers within the government were worried that the opposition, backed by Islamist groups, would have been able to capitalise on any action by the government to remove 'bismillah' from the Constitution or to alter Islam's status as the state religion, as these had had been part of the Constitution for three decades.

Supporters of Prime Minister Hasina maintain that although some 'compromises' have been made due to 'ground realities', the constitutional changes are indeed largely progressive. Secular liberals, on the other hand, argue that given the government's restoration of secularism as a fundamental state principle, it was pointless to retain the other non-secular articles. There was even opposition along these lines from within the cabinet, including from Planning Minister A K Khandker, who was deputy chief of staff of the liberation army in 1971, and Finance Minister A M A Muhith.

In fact, Prime Minister Hasina had echoed these exact concerns over the importance of secularism. During her decades as a key public figure following the 1975 bloody change of state power, she has been categorical in stating that there was no ground for inclusion of a state religion or Islamic prayers in the Constitution – and that those who supported these aspects were not being pious, but were simply seeking political gain through populism. In the eyes of many, her final decision to compromise was a clear attempt to please the pro-Islamic electorate. According to the prime minister's close confidantes, Sheikh Hasina only reluctantly decided to retain the non-secular provisions.

Whatever the explanation, there is now wide apprehension that failure to remove the non-secular provisions from the Constitution will significantly embolden religious fanatics. Others worry that such compromise could also alienate the religious minorities, and the large numbers of younger voters who overwhelmingly supported the Awami League in the last general election on the promise that it would hold trials for alleged war criminals and uphold the secular spirit of the 1971 Liberation War.

The issue could prove to be a political headache even sooner than the prime minister expected, too. Two partners of the ruling coalition – Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal President Hasanul Haq Inu, who are also members of the Special Parliamentary Committee – have voted for the bill but gave notes of dissent against these provisions. Several pro-secular groups, including allies of the government, have been holding demonstrations across the country against what they say is an inadequate constitutional amendment. The apex body of Bangladesh's religious minorities, the Bangladesh Hindu Boudhha Christian Oikya Parishad (BHBCOP), which had been alleging that the Eighth Amendment had made its members into 'second-class citizens', has found new support from civil society and various 'freedom fighters' organisations. All left-leaning groups, which are actually the natural allies of the ruling coalition, have become critical of the government in the aftermath of the amendment bill.

Finally, despite its silent acquiescence regarding the new amendment, the BNP has jumped at the opportunity to join in the tide against the Awami League-led coalition. The Khaleda Zia-led alliance, including Jamaat-e-Islami and nearly a dozen Islamist parties, recently enforced a nonstop hartal across the country, alleging that the government, which they term 'anti-Islamic', removed the words 'Absolute trust in Allah, the Almighty' while passing the 15th Amendment. Another major issue for these groups is that the amendment saw the removal of the much-debated 'caretaker' government system, on which basis three national elections been have held since 1996 (see Briefs in this issue). The government explains this decision in view of a Supreme Court's verdict that declared the system undemocratic, unconstitutional and illegal. While declaring the system illegal, however, the court did allow the two next elections to take place under the system for 'greater national interests'.

Thus, despite the progressive elements of the 15th Amendment Bill, for many its passage marks a sad episode in the country's political history. On 2 July, the Awami League's own general-secretary, Syed Ashraful Islam, said that his party was not 'fully satisfied' with the bill, noting, 'Our aim is absolute return to the 1972 charter.' But the fact is that there has never been a more suitable time than now.

Haroon Habib is a senior journalist who took part in the Bangladesh Liberation War as a guerrilla commander.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian