Bangladesh's existential threat

Published on Monday, March 28, 2016

It is a matter of supreme irony that almost to the day 45 years ago when Pakistan unleashed the most barbaric and vicious attack on unarmed civilians of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh would have to endure a body blow to its existence from its own judiciary system. Islamisation of Bangladesh has become so deep rooted that even the present progressive government of Bangladesh and the judicial system are scared to antagonise the rampant mullahs of the country. That the government had caved in to appease the mullahs even at the expense of country's constitution indicates a serious existential threat to the country.

Bangladesh came into being after a bitter struggle against Pakistan trying to subjugate Bangladeshi people culturally, linguistically as well as in religiosity. After the liberation in 1971, Bangladesh became the 'People's Republic of Bangladesh' and adopted a constitution with four fundamental principles – nationalism, democracy, secularity and socialism. These were basically the aspirations of the people and the 'father of the nation' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman captured people's aspirations very succinctly.

However, General Ziaur Rahman who took over the power of the country after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 decided to amend Article 38 of the constitution, (which previously prohibited religion based politics and banned religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and other parties), to gain political advantage. He removed the word 'secularism' from the constitution and incorporated 'to place full faith in Almighty Allah'. He also inserted a new clause in Article 25(2) under the heading 'Islamic Solidarity' which allowed fraternity with Muslim countries. All of these amendments opened the floodgate for religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat ul Mujahidean of Bangladesh (JMB), Hefazat-e-Islam and so forth to gain foothold in the country and established as the mainstream political parties. General Zia utilised these newly emergent religious-political parties to consolidate and expand his political base and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. These actions allowed those people who actively opposed the national liberation and collaborated with Pakistanis in the massacre of Bangladeshis only a few years back became mainstream politicians in Bangladesh.

After the assassination of General Zia in 1981 when General Ershad took over the realm of the country in another coup in 1982, he carried out Islamisation even further with enthusiasm. He inserted Article 2A in the constitution in June 1988 in its eighth amendment which made 'Islam as the state religion' and thereby completing the total abrogation of 'secularism' from the constitution.

Such amendments of the constitution by military rulers, who came to power by undemocratic means, were considered illegitimate by the people of the civil society. Fifteen eminent people comprising lawyers, writers, professors of economics and politics and so forth challenged the eighth amendments of the constitution in 1988 as illegal. Bur in a military dictatorial regime, they made no headway. Although the present regime who came into power in 2009 introduced the fifteenth amendment in 2010 where the legitimacy of the military dictators to repeal the constitution was removed and inserted 'secularism', but the full effect of the eighth amendment was not reversed. The end-result of all these amendments at different times is that the constitution had become a cocktail of incompatible ingredients having both 'secularism' and 'Islam as the state religion' co-existing side by side! This is obviously a ridiculous situation.

Now, after 28 years, a group of people filed a petition in the High Court to restart the 1988 challenge and establish some sort of coherence in the constitution by removing the term 'Islam as the state religion'. Hefazat which came into being as a result of the fifth amendment opposed it vehemently. Their demand is that 'Islam as the state religion' must be retained and, if High Court gives a verdict rescinding it in response to an appeal, then Hefazat will take a "tough programme" against the state. This is a direct threat to the independence of the judiciary and the sovereignty of the state.

Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan's religious hegemony so that people of all races, religions, ethnicity and cultures can live freely and harmoniously and can practise their own cultures and religions without any state patronising or state interference. The principle of secularism was incorporated in the constitution precisely to achieve that aim. Now the incorporation of 'Islam as the state religion' immediately relegates all other religions to subordinate status, which in turn violates the principle of secularism. This was the core of the present petition to the High Court.

The government lawyers opposed the removal of this contradictory pronouncement in the constitution for fear of Islamist backlash spearheaded by the Hefazat. Needless to say the HC took note of the government's position and rejected the appeal. Political exigency became more important to the government than the constitutional coherence. It is indeed a sad day for Bangladesh.

It is sad not only because the constitution has been left in a messed-up state, but more so that the state is viewed as too weak to cave in to the threat of barbarism by a religious-political organisation whose very existence is illegal. If such impositions by religious-political organisation continue, the time when Bangladesh will fall prey to Wahhabism will not be too far off. The present state of Pakistan should warn those rational who think that religion should be brought in to run the state.


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