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.

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Himal Southasian