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The Cautious Handling of Secularism in Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 19, 2010

    Secularism was one of the four pillars on which the independent Bangladesh was founded after its liberation from Pakistan in 1971. But this pillar crumbled after the murder of the founder president of Bangladesh, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975.

    When Zia-ur-Rahman became president, he introduced the Fifth Amendment in the constitution of Bangladesh. This amendment legitimised all governments that had been in power following the coup of August 15, 1975, until April 9, 1979, including the late President Zia-ur-Rehman’s ascension to the presidency. It also legitimised “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim” in the preamble of the country’s Constitution, and ratified over a hundred military proclamations and orders. Subsequently, when General Ershad became president he brought in Eighth Amendment to the constitution and declared Islam as state religion.

    The result of these amendments was change in the nature of polity of Bangladesh. It led to formation of parties in the name of Islam. It helped top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami who were seen as war criminals in Bangladesh to return from Pakistan. All this led to massive rise in extremism in Bangladesh.

    The growing Islamisation of polity in Bangladesh made Awami League suffer greatly during the rule of four-party alliance. There were several attempts on the life of party Chief Shaikh Hasina. In fact, in one such attack on 21 August 2004, Shaikh Hasina barely survived, but lost her 23 party members including Ivy Rahman. Another top party leader Shah AMS Kibria was also murdered by the Islamist forces in a grenade attack at a rally in Habiganj on January 27, 2005. The attacks on Awami League leaders continued during the whole tenure of four-party alliance.

    This sinister development in Bangladesh made very difficult for other political forces to survive. It also forced Awami League to chart a different course, and on eve of December 2008 election, party clearly decided to shun Islamist forces.

    The landslide victory of Awami League in Bangladesh elections created hope of revival of the 1972 constitution. But before the government could do anything the mutiny in para-military Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) happened. Once the government got control over the situation it started acting on promises it made during the electioneering.

    During the electioneering Awami League had promised that it would act against the war criminals. It also promised to stop misuse of religion in politics. The party has now an opportunity to fulfill this promise after the Bangladesh Supreme Court on January 3, 2010 lifted a four-year stay on the “abuse of religion for political purposes.” The apex court of Bangladesh has also endorsed the August 29, 2005 judgment of a three-judge Bench led by Justice ABM Khairul Haque which declared the Fifth Amendment to the country’s Constitution as “void ab initio and illegal”. This is a significant development in a country where Islamists have been threatening to establish their sway.

    At the same time, however, it is also important to note that the government has decided to keep the words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” in the preamble to the constitution and declaration of Islam as state religion. According to the Bangladesh prime minister Shaikh Hasina these things have been kept as they reflect the beliefs of the people. She also told her alliance leaders that they must accept the reality. Shaikh Hasina however was of the view that the spirit of the constitution would be restored with the High Courts verdict.

    This cautious return towards secularism in Bangladesh shows the political realism of the Awami League. The party now knows that in the last several decades Islamist tendencies has grown in a section of people in Bangladesh which is not going to go away overnight. Though the party sometime back had announced certain measures to deradicalise the population, this strategy has still not been implemented. The arch rivals of Awami League always allege that Islam would be in danger if Awami League comes to power. Though there is no threat to Islam per-se in Bangladesh as ninety percent of its population is Muslim, still Awami League knows that turning the clock back is not going to be easy. Hence it has made cautious move to restore secularism while leaving Islam as state religion of Bangladesh.