February issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

On the third day of the New Year, the Bangladesh Supreme Court upheld a 2005 verdict by the Dhaka High Court that had banned the use of religion in politics. This looks like Bangladesh’s return to the path of secularism without affecting the majority community’s belief, as Islam continues to enjoy the status of the state’s religion.

A strong commitment to Islam and a secular base for their politics were the dominant features of the Bengali Muslims’ approach to matters temporal. They were more regular in observing their religious rituals than their counterparts in Northern India in pre-Partition days and yet their political parties, except for the Muslim League and Islamic groups, were multi-communal outfits. Many of their Muslim League leaders, too, upheld communal politics as tactics and rarely as a matter of ideology.

A representative example of this trend is provided by H.S. Suhrawardy. When, in 1928, the Quaid-e-Azam made a conditional offer to give up separate electorates in favour of a joint electorate, Suhrawardy strongly protested against a premature abandonment of the electorate weapon. In December 1947, when the decision to divide the All-India Muslim League into Pakistani and Indian national entities was taken in Karachi, the same Suhrawardy called for an end to communal politics and pleaded for throwing the League open to non-Muslim members as well. Later on when he was one of the main organisers of the Awami League in East Pakistan, the new party took shape, like Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Seramik Party, as a multi-communal party.

When serious political activity began in Pakistan, the Muslim League regime in East Pakistan was challenged largely from a secular platform. The Jagtu Front that routed the ruling Muslim League in the 1954 election had several non-Muslims in key positions and as candidates for assembly seats. The 1956 constitution had left the question of electoral lists to be decided by provincial assemblies. The East Pakistan Assembly soon afterwards voted in favour of a joint electorate, while the West Pakistan Assembly continued supporting the system of separate electorates.

Thus nobody was surprised when the Bangladesh constitution mentioned nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as the four pillars of the state. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and the overthrow of his government in a military coup, Bangladesh suffered the ignominy of military rule for 15 years. Under the Ziaur Rahman regime reference to secularism was dropped from the constitution, the Quranic line Bismillah ar-Rehman-ur-Rahim was added at the beginning of the basic law, and the regime started propagating nationalism based on the people’s Bangladeshi identity in place of their historical Bengali identity. His successor, General Irshad, amended the constitution to prescribe Islam as Bangladesh’s state religion.

During the struggle against military dictators, the main emphasis was on the revival of democracy but the cause of secularism was not totally forgotten. Eventually, in 2005, the Dhaka High Court struck down the amendment whereby secularism had been dropped as one of the state’s ideals. In this judgment, which offers much food for thought to all Muslim societies, the court observed that secularism meant religious freedom and tolerance of (other) religions both. What was material was that the state should not favour any particular religion, nor will it be proper for the state to discriminate against any belief or non-believers.

The party led by former prime minister and General Ziaur Rahman’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, appealed to the Supreme Court and secured an injunction against the High Court order. Now the Supreme Court has vacated that stay order. As a result, the provision in the 1972 constitution which barred the use of religion in politics has been revived.

Many people, particularly in Pakistan, are likely to wonder about the effect of the constitutional provision that declares Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh in the light of the new Supreme Court ruling. Two points in regard to this question need to be noted. First, declaration of a state’s religion alone can have no effect on a polity unless religion is also declared the supreme law and the sovereignty of the people is in any way circumscribed, as has been done in Pakistan. Secondly, the Bangladesh thesis of blending Islam with nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism echoes the Muslim radical thought of a few decades ago. Before India was partitioned, a sizeable section of the Muslim opinion saw no contradiction between their faith, socialism and democracy. Elsewhere this view was reflected in the constitution of the United Arab Republic drafted during the Nasser era; in it the socialist republic mentioned Islam as the state religion.

The fact that the new court judgment is in accord with the ruling Awami League’s political creed is quite well known. That also means that apart from a large part of the intelligentsia, which always upheld secular values, the revival of the pre-1975 order enjoys the support of the mass of voters who gave the Awami League a landslide victory in last year’s general elections or at least a majority of them.

This view is likely to be borne out of any study directed at identifying the factors that might have contributed to the Bangladeshi people’s withdrawal from the theocratic path. Apart from the tradition of multi-communal politics referred to earlier, the Bengali Muslims had syncretised their belief and cultural attributes. The military regimes that followed Sheikh Mujib’s overthrow needed a large ideological figleaf to persuade the volatile, freedom-loving Bengali people to accept dictatorial rule. In fact their decision to employ religion as a political tool is merely one more example of the nexus between theocracy and dictatorship. This is not to suggest that a secular regime cannot be undemocratic, but such instances will be exceptions to the general rule whereas a theocracy will be undemocratic as a rule.

The authoritarian rulers of Bangladesh overplayed the religious card. They put religion on display in the streets, in the form of Quranic verses and other Arabic texts on the external walls of buildings, something one had never seen before in 1970 or 1975. The result of this policy was that the country’s social fabric came under strain and several aspects of the people’s culture became controversial. The conservative clerics discovered a new vocation — persecution of Ahmedis. Violence against members of the Hindu community also increased and the brutalising effects of religious intolerance became visible all around. One will be surprised if anybody claims that the people of Bangladesh have not learnt from their own experience the need to separate religion from politics.

However, the Bangladesh National Party that earned dividends by developing the fiction of Bangladeshi (Muslim) identity as a counterpoise to the historically evolved Bengali (secular) identity is unlikely to accept defeat. Nor will the several so-called Islamic groups. Political aberrations that are fancied by intellectually poor dictators in all parts of the Muslim world do create a vested interest in their favour (and nobody knows this better than Pakistanis) and the Bangladesh secularists will be unrealistic if they ignored the opposition to their new victory. It will not be impossible to beat off the challenge of the obscurantists and exploiters of religion for political ends provided the secular parties keep the masses reasonably satisfied with the substance and style of their governance. If they expend all their energies to securing the good of the people, especially the weak and the marginalised among them, the Muslims of Bangladesh may develop, under a secular dispensation, into better practitioners of their faith than the hordes of hypocrites multiplying in lands ruled by clerics of different hues.

P.S. Is it necessary to answer the question whether Pakistan can follow the Bangladesh example? As things stand, Pakistan seems determined to cause its people much more suffering than they have already undergone before this state discovers that it can survive only as a secular democracy. So long as this fundamental reality is not realised, the people of Pakistan will remain trapped in a cycle of violence and suppression of their genius carried out in the name of belief.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.