The unending tragedy of Bangladesh


By Garga Chatterjee

Bengal is a tragic country. Its west (whose present political form is the state of West Bengal, as a part of the Indian Union) has a Hindu Bengali majority and a secular constitution that has done bare little to better the extremely precarious socio-negligible assets and nearly zero social security – something that is true for most of the non-savarna Hindu Bengalis too. Its east (whose present political form is the sovereign nation-state called the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) has a Muslim Bengali majority and has successfully driven out millions of Hindu Bengalis (decreasing their population percentage from 22% in 1951 to 8.5% in 2011) in the 70 years since its formation through partition – across periods of Pakistani occupation, secular constitution and since 1988 a non-secular constitution with Islam as state religion.

The People`s Republic of Bangladesh did not always have a state religion. In fact, its 1972 constitution had secularism as one of the basic principles of the state and banned all religion-based politics. Such clauses have to be looked upon in the context of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle, where West Pakistan occupiers and their East Bengali agents touted the freedom struggle as a Hindu conspiracy, with the liberation warriors doing India`s bidding. It is also true that during 1971, Hindus of East Bengal were targeted in hugely disproportionate numbers. Also, the liberation struggle against a brutal occupation force that claimed to espouse Islam as its ideology created, in the context of the Cold War, the opposition yearning space for a cross community secular-populist resistance that later got incorporated into the 1972 constitution. This is the much invoked, celebrated, cursed, used and abused concept of Ekattorer Chetona (spirit of 1971). However, that idea that secularism truly represented the spirit of 1971 and by extension, that 1971 was a refutation of the Two-Nation theory, has also been questioned at various times. This view maintains that Muslim Bengali participation in the Pakistan movement was to secure the rights and dominance of Muslim Bengalis in the context of Bengal. Even after the elimination of Hindu contest after the 1947 Partition, this Muslim Bengali aspiration was not realized due to the quasi-colonial relationship between West Pakistan and East Bengal. Thus 1971 also represented the stage two of the Muslim Bengali struggle for rights and dominance, in order to fulfill the promise of 1947 and is no negation of the Two-Nation theory, as such. While the `spirit of 1971` camp contends that the Liberation struggle was not waged to create a smaller Islamic Eastern Pakistan but a sovereign, secular Bangladesh, premised on non-communal ethno-linguistic nationalism. Both positions have significant support. After the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibir Rahman, the subsequent unelected or fraudulently elected governments tried to play the Islam card to make up for their illegitimacy in an area where there is a long history of the usage of Islam as a potent rallying point. Thus, secularism was eliminated from the constitution and in 1988, besieged by an increasingly united opposition to army rule, the President H.M.Ershad incorporated Islam as the state religion in the constitution. Almost immediately, on behalf of the Committee for Resistance against Autocracy and Communalism, 15 eminent citizens cutting across religious lines (including figures like ex-Chief Justice Kamaluddin Hussain (deceased), Poet Sufia Kamal (deceased), Professor Anisuzzaman, Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury) mounted a legal challenge to Islam as state religion. That legal challenge of 1988, in the form of a writ petition, was finally listed for hearing on 28th March, 2016! The petition was dismissed in 2 minutes, without any hearing. Islam remains the state religion of Bangladesh. In short, nothing changes.

When Islam was incorporated as state religion in 1988, all major opposition parties, including Sheikh Hasina Wajed-led Awami League(AL) and Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had denounced this move and had promised to scrap this state religion clause once in power. When in power, neither the AL nor the BNP walked their original talk, even though in certain times (including the present) they have held the necessary 2/3rd majority in parliament to unilaterally amend the constitution. What had changed is the political climate. It is undeniable that Islam plays a much bigger role in Bangladesh politics now than it did during the 1971 Liberation war or the heady days of the anti-dictator, pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. This shift is real and political parties have responded by variously pandering to majoritarianism, rather than providing ideological leadership to the people. The AL in 1988 called for a strike and protest in response to General Ershad`s annoucement of making Islam as state religion. The AL itself got its present name in 1953 by dropping the word `Muslim` from its original name Awami Muslim League (the other such example being Kashmir`s National Conference that changed its name from Muslim Conference in 1939), trying to become a uniter of the people of whom 1 in 5 were Hindus at that point. If one imagines the 1953 name change issue in today`s Bangladesh, the communalization of politics and the numerical marginalization of religious minorities would have made such a move impossible and unnecessary. Times have changed.

General Ershad knew the potency of his move. His change has stood the test of time. Even when given the chance be a 2011 legal order to return to the original 1972 secular constitution, the AL government passed the 15th constitutional amendment, retaining Islam as the state religion and adding back secularism as a basic state principle simultaneously. Defending this decision, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed said in 2011 that `people are `emotional` about matters of religion`, thus making clear which community`s `emotions` matter and which community`s don`t, when it comes to matters of religion. This apparent anachronism is more reflective of the political currents that AL has to navigate, with Ulema all over Bangladesh presenting secularism as an anti-Islam ideology. Indian Union`s secular constitution has clauses regarding cow-protection and now government has ever sought to delete that. In the present times, it is extremely hard to put the genies of majority religion back in the bottle after they have been released, without attracting the anti-majority-religion or minority-appeaser tag. Bangladesh has a contentious record of changing names of important buildings with changes in regime. In an astute move that would lend permanence to change, the present AL government renamed Dhaka`s international airport after Shah Jalal ( a widely revered Sufi saint of the Sylhet region and a religious warrior against `infidels`), replacing the previous name Zia ( BNP founder General Zia-ur-Rahman) International Airport. It is only in Nepal in recent years that a constitutionally `Hindu kingdom` became a secular republic with no state religion – the result of a wide ranging progressive unity among the democratic political forces that united to topple the authoritarian monarchy. In short, it take`s a people`s uprising like Bangladesh 1971 or Nepal 2006

The face of state religion may be preferable to the mask of secularism – it would save the Hindus and other minorities of Bangladesh from hopes of equal citizenship being periodically raised and dashed and each time these discussions arise, it is opportunity for renewed mobilization of Islamist groups whose final brunt is borne by the Hindus, thus pushing them further into a security hostage relationship with the ruling powers. Even in 1988, almost on cue with the original promulgation, temple desecrations happened in Satkhira and non-Muslims (including tribals) were threatened with eviction. This time, as the state-religion `debate` resurfaced, Junaid Babunagari, the secretary general of Hefazat-e-Islam ( Defenders of Islam – a large Qaumi madrassa network based group with many militant volunteers) threatened Jihad, the ex-communist education minister stressed that Islam would be the ethical basis of education and social media spaces saw the wide proliferation of anti-Hindu attitudes including threats to destruction of temples and kicking Hindus out of Bangladesh. This makes the situation of the Hindus even more precarious – with each polarization, the solidarity around the pole of secularism grows thinner, rabidly communal statements get more normalized.

While the existence of a particular state religion openly gives preferential status to one group of citizens, thus creating various classes of citizens, the treatment of religious minorities under the no-state-religion period (1971-1988) and Islam-as-state-religion period (1988-present) does not have major differences in terms of the issues that specifically affect the minorities. This include land and property grabbing largely by politically-powerful Muslims in a massive scale, attacks on places of Hindu-Buddhist places of worship, political under-representation and the constant fall in the population proportion of non-Muslims, decade after decade. Since the 1950s, no Hindu-Muslim `riots` have happened in Bangladesh. – they have only been one-sided assaults. While the Muslim Bengali dominance has been very well entrenched after 1971, this has not prevented regular anti-minority attacks, through the years of secularism or Islam as state religion, just like secularism has not prevented the religious minorities from being represented disproportionately highly among the victims of most riots in the Indian Union since 1947.

A specific state religion represents the symptom of a political crisis – namely, an attempt at hiding questions of injustice that affect all by promoting an ideology that unites a significant portion of the population. Thus, not the presence or absence of islam as state religion but questions of justice that are crucial to the concerns of the remaining minorities of Bangladesh. These include, return of forcibly/fraudulently captured property using local influence or the various variants of the inhuman Enemy property act by individuals or the state, stemming the decrease of minority population percentage by ensuring security of women and religious places (the economics driven emigration apply to all communities), full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts accord, among others. One of the most famous slogans espousing the spirit of 1971 Liberation war was “Dhormo jar jar, Rashtro shobar” (religion is personal, state is everyone’s ). In a speech on 6th February 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman talked about the ideals of West Pakistan`s leaders that were “incompatible with the civilized world”. Two of those were, `Islam is in danger` and `Hindus are our enemy`. Bangladesh cannot afford to become what it fought against. State religion Islam or not, Islam is not in danger in Bangladesh and her Hindus are not the enemy.



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