‘Nothing of secularism, democracy and dignity of people as yet’

The nation must remove contradictory features from the constitution. There are secularism and Islam as the state religion. How does it work for other religious groups? Another contradiction is the discrimination between men and women. In the public sphere, women enjoy equal rights, but in the private sphere, women do not enjoy equal rights, Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, tells Shahin Akhter in interview with New Age

spe4New Age: The ‘proclamation’ of Bangladesh’s independence, made on April 10, 1971, promised citizens ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’. Now, 44 years into the country’s independence, where does Bangladesh stand in terms of ‘equality’ — political, economic and cultural — of the citizens?
Ayesha Khanam: When a country becomes independent, the declaration of independence always cover high visionary targets, programmes, dreams, hopes, demands, needs and aspirations of people. In terms of that, promises of equality, human dignity and social justice were very justified. I think constitutionally we are still upholding these promises. But the point is that it has a long way to go, legally, economically and politically, to materialise these promises.
The current phase of Bangladesh’s development is forward-looking but there are still a lot of critical and alarming aspects. The equality of people does not mean the equality of the rich, ruling parties, muscle power and influential quarters.
The materialisation of equality is very difficult. Many demands are yet to be met in cases of equality between men and women, the rich and the poor, the excluded population and ethnic and religious minority people.
If we focus on gender discrimination, we can see that the constitution as it was in adoption in 1972 declares that there will be no discrimination based on sex. But we know that in private life, in cases of marriage, divorce, children’s guardianship and inheritance of property, there is huge discrimination between men and women. Women have no equal rights in cases of marriage, divorce, children’s guardianship and right to property. In the case of public life, women can have equal rights to payment and promotion, politics and elections. When it is about private life, related laws are legally discriminatory. It should be addressed.
In the case of religious minorities, still there are issues of vested property. It is a politically incorrect, very communal and dangerous notion which creates obstacles to ensuring equal rights for religious minorities. There are also many incidents of attacks on these people.
A possibility is being created for Bangladesh to become a middle-income country while we have to remember that crores of people are still poor. We know that the working class is still deprived of equal payment, health, security, economic self-sufficiency and other rights.
We have many achievements, on the national and the international front, in female education and women empowerment in spite of our huge population, economic backwardness and the legacy of the past. There are still many issues to be accomplished for the sustenance of these achievements.
So after 44 years of independence, Bangladesh has both the sides of the coin — one very promising, positive and encouraging while the other dark and critical. We have to think seriously about this situation. We have achieved nothing when we talk about the spirit of the liberation war such as secularism, democracy and dignity of people.
New Age: Do you think that ‘human dignity’ of citizens, particularly of the poor millions, has been established in Bangladesh? If not, why?
Ayesha Khanam: It is yet to be established. There are some critical issues behind this — the assassination of the architect of our liberation war Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, roles of political parties, the state power being occupied by anti-democratic forces, the absence of civil government for a long time and an unstable political situation.
I am sorry to say that the poor have no dignity. The government should be very serious and sincere and have a strong political commitment to establishing human dignity. We have to believe in the dignity of ordinary people.
New Age: What is the state of ‘social justice’ in Bangladesh?
Ayesha Khanam: If we do not inherit resources equally, it is difficult to establish justice. If the judiciary and the legal system are not able to play their roles properly, it becomes very difficult to attain social justice. Quoting economist Amartya Sen, I would like to say that development is freedom. Without development, we cannot establish social justice. Justice should be established for all. We need justice. There is a cry for justice. But we have a long way to go.
New Age: What are your recommendations for materialising the ‘proclamation of independence’ at all levels?
Ayesha Khanam: We first must remove contradictory features from our constitution. There are secularism and also Islam as the state religion. How does it work for other religious groups? Another contradiction is the discrimination between men and women, which is not widely discussed. In the public sphere, women enjoy equal rights. But in the private sphere, women do not enjoy equal rights. There is a legal discrimination. As a woman activist for the past 44 years, I feel that there is a legal discrimination regarding gender in the constitution.
How can we address all these issues? How we can we establish equality between men and women? The history of our constitution has many ups and downs. It has been changed from time to time. The constitution’s principles that followed the spirit of the liberation war were dropped by certain governments. But again people are trying to include all these issues in the constitution. I think that we cannot achieve them all separately. We have to take a holistic approach.
In 44 years of our independence, there are the proclamation of independence, the constitution, moral values and many dreams. But only the proclamation cannot fulfil all our dreams. It is a long journey and a struggle. People are wonderful, spirited, hard working and their demands for fundamental needs are minimum.
I believe that the government needs a concrete and elaborate action plan to achieve these visions. The action plan should say who the stakeholders are. In a state, there are institutions, the judiciary, the parliament, people and civil society organisations. It is not only possible for the government and political forces to do everything. The nation as a whole has a role to play the way we liberated our country to make progress.

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