In Search of National Identity

Published on Monday, November 18, 2013

Bangladesh, now just one month short of 42, has come a long way from the heady days of 1971 in trials and tribulations of nationhood. By any standards, this is a considerable period of time - long enough to establish its national identity, to position itself in the comity of nations and chart out its future course of action. But yet for some inexplicable reasons Bangladesh seems to be falling apart on each of these accounts.

Bangladesh came into being from the brutal repression of the then East Pakistan by the Pakistani military junta in 1971. There were demands, a vociferous one for that matter, by East Pakistan to accord Bengali the status of a national language, demands were also made to establish Bengali culture as an integral part of the new nation; but on all of these issues there were strong opposition from the powerful Pakistani establishment. However, these oppositions were not deemed strong enough to warrant secession by the aggrieved party from the country. But what broke the camel's back is the sheer antagonism of the Pakistani establishment towards the province and their brutal repression of the people, including killing of scores of intellectuals in order to 'break the backbone' of the province so that no such demands are to be made in future. At that point, faced with the option of either total slavish surrender or total breakup, the East Pakistanis opted for the latter and thus a new nation was born. The crucial point here is that Bangladeshi people did not have enough time to develop a separate and independent Bengali nationalism. Nation came into being almost before Bengali nationalism found its expression among the people.

The same conjoined outcome is discernable in the case of Pakistan. Within a span of eight short years, the two-nation theory had been conceived (or revived from Allama Iqbal's discarded theory), mobilised across the sub-continent and then the outcome materialised in the form of a separate statehood. The East Bengali Muslims had even shorter period of time to grasp the situation and almost blindly opted for a separate nationhood based mainly on religious association. The economic imperative for the landless 'crop-sharers' was to get away from the Hindu landlords. Again there was little time to prepare mentally for such a monumental step. The result was that the Bengali Muslims found themselves in the midst of this new state before developing feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

In both of these situations Bengali Muslims achieved nationhood even before comprehending the situation. In the case of Bangladesh, a country was born even before the root of nationalism had time to take roots. When emotional attachment to nationalism is absent, patriotism becomes non-existent. In India, the Congress party cultivated nationalistic feeling among the people for decades; Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had fought bloody wars for decades, Algeria fought a very brutal war against the colonial power. All of these wars of independence over extended period of time prepared people to appreciate the preciousness of nationhood. In Bangladesh such deep rooted feeling and reverence for nationhood did not grow. In the absence of strong sense of nationalism and identity, Bangladesh had been swaying back and forth between the Bengali culture and nationalism on the one hand, and the Islamic culture on the other. The country is just searching for its firm root and national identity.

It is true Bangladeshis fought the liberation war and within a short period of time, just only nine months, the country got rid of Pakistani occupation forces. This was achieved with the help of India who, for its own reasons, gave a tremendously big helping hand. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned within ten months of his arrest by the Pakistani aggressors as arch-secessionist and became the 'father of the nation', he failed to comprehend the enormity and the significance of the situation. The country as well as the constitution was handed out to him by India for services he rendered to liberate his country. Neither he nor his protégé had time to imbibe a sense of nationalism and national identity.

The constitution he received within a few months of country's independence was a brilliant one. Obviously India had a major hand in drafting the constitution and that was invaluable. It had all the accumulated knowledge and experience which India had gone through and overcome since its independence some 25 years earlier. It enshrined four fundamental principles – nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism – that would form the basis for running the country. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took over the stewardship of the country on the basis of pre-independent election results and started to run the country as a medieval sheikh (sorry for the pun). The constitution remained totally ignored. Secularism was effectively an optional extra in the constitution, and socialism and democracy were there to give the state the respectability and legitimacy. The reality on the ground was that there were rampant corruption, cronyism, lawlessness and the inevitable famine. He himself violated the constitution by imposing the one-party system (BAKSAL), suspending constitution and uplifting himself to the President of the country. His assassination on 15th August marked the end of 1st phase of lack of national identity.

When Lt. General Ziaur Rahman took over the power of the country following a military coup in Nov 1976, he took the country towards Islamic identity by removing the words 'secularism' from the preamble of the constitution and inserting 'to place full faith in Almighty Allah'. He also introduced 'Islamic solidarity' which allowed Islamic parties, who were banned previously, to get into the mainstream politics. This process of Islamisation of the constitution and the country continued even after Ziaur Rahman's assassination on 30th May 1981 and the takeover of power by another military coup leader, Lt. General Hussain Muhammed Ershad in 1982. He took the country even further down the Islamic route and made Islam the state religion and thereby abrogating secularism completely. All types of Islamic parties started getting peddling in the national politics making the 'political Islam' a common vocabulary in Bangladeshi politics. Money from Middle Eastern countries started flowing in through overt and covert means to make Bangladesh an Islamic state. The combined effect of these successive changes in the constitution was to imprint undeniably an Islamic identity on the state.

Although the restoration of democratic system started in 1991, after the resignation of General Ershad in Dec 1990, there were practical impediments to changing the constitution by the civilian governments. On the contrary, the political parties founded by the two military leaders as well as the newly established Islamic parties started consolidating Islamisation process even further. The end result was that there are now nearly 19,000 madrassas in the country with 10 million attendees. There are mosques in almost every street of every city and town, in every port and village. The Islamic identity is now firmly implanted.

In Feb 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled that the parliament does not have any authority to suspend the constitution and legimitise actions of the martial law regimes. In other words, all the amendments – 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th amendments - brought about under the tutelage of the martial law authorities were illegal and thus null and void. But the problem is that everything that resulted out of those actions cannot be reverted to original states – 19,000 madrassas cannot be made to disappear, millions of madrassa students cannot be denied. So those actions following those amendments are irreversible and the identity those actions conferred on the nation is also difficult to reverse.

Theb15th amendment of 3rd July 2011 is an attempt to revert the constitution back to the original state as far as possible. But the constitution once changed and effects arising thereof cannot be changed completely. It is like virginity – virginity once lost cannot be regained. The word 'secularism' has been restored in the preamble of the constitution, but the 'Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim' cannot be removed as it may be politically too sensitive to do so. Islam is stated to be the state religion, but all religions have equal rights! So, at the moment the constitution is a mish-mash of everything – religious bent as well as secularity!

But the major problem is that although 15th amendment tries to restore secularity and give the nation a non-religious identity, but this very amendment is cloaked in so many other controversial political dogmas that it has already become a hated amendment. For one thing, this amendment has annulled the provision of care taker government and replaced it with interim government. The fact is that the replacement of interim government by the care taker government was the main demand of the incumbent PM when she was in opposition and that demand was met by the then PM (now the leader of opposition). Now in power, she had removed what she demanded to put the opposition party in disadvantageous position and that was done under this amendment. So, this attempt to bring back secular identity is now overshadowed by heinous political double standard.

Bangladesh has moved from secular to Islamic identity and then through a tortuous journey from Islamic to pseudo-secular identity. Whether the secular identity can be restored or not depends on the political power and political will of the incoming government. But the point is that Bangladeshi governments have undeniable tendencies to fiddle with the constitution to suit their needs. As constitution is the framework of fundamental set of principles under which the state is to be governed, what Bangladeshi politicians are doing is changing these principles willy-nilly to suit their needs. This shows clearly that the politicians have not inculcated the sense of nationhood and the respect for the enshrined principles of the constitution. This takes me back to the point that the nation came into being so quickly that the people and their elected representatives could not develop the respect the state deserves. As a result national identity is used by the leaders of the country as nothing more than a political commodity.

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