Dwindling fight for secularism

by Saifur Rahman Tapan

03The constitution adopted in the parliament in 1972 incorporated secularism as one of its four basic principles avowedly to respect the spirit of the independence war in 1971. However, the fifth amendment to the constitution during the governemnt led by president Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the arch political rival of the Awami League, in 1979 replaced it with ‘Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ on the grounds that secularism should not be a pillar of the constitution of a country overwhelmingly dominated by the Muslims.
To add to the woes, former military dictator Ershad, during his nine-year rule, amended the constitution for the eighth time, among others, to declare Islam as the state religion, of course, amid protests by different political parties, especially the left, that, along with conscious citizens, launched a vigorous mass movement against his autocratic rule to overthrow him in 1990. Ironically, the Awami League that promised the restoration of the 1972 constitution, once voted to power, over decades, kept intact the provision of the state religion at the time of the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011.
As a result, although the amendment reincorporated secularism as one of the four basic tenets of the constitution, there are few who claim that the country has got back its original constitution after the amendment that raised controversies for other reasons as well. In short, experts are in unison to say that with the 15th amendment, the government made a hotchpotch of Islam and secularism, which has nothing to do with expectations of secularists in particular, expectations that seek to have the state and all its institutions separated from religion, not to mention equal status covering all aspects of life for all citizens regardless of their faith.
It is worth noting that despite a few limitations such as its failure to recognise the distinct identity and culture of the national minorities, something that, as some people think, betrayed its bias towards the Bengali chauvinism regardless of the extent, the 1972 constitution was regarded by almost all quarters as a secular constitution. Hence, many, especially those claiming to be adherent to progressive thinking, were indeed waiting to get back at least the secular character of the constitution through the 15th amendment. As a constitution sets the general guidelines for activities conducted by the organs of a state, the adoption of the 1972 constitution was largely believed to be a step forward towards secularising the state and even society.
It is also worth noting that like the 1972 constitution, the Awami League also adopted secularism as one of its four guiding principles. Moreover, its high-ups always have so far hardly missed any opportunity to claim to champion not only the spirit of the war of independence but also the interest of secular-democratic section of the people, including the minorities, ethnic and religious. Intriguingly, meanwhile, apparently to calm down the people disappointed at over the non-existence of the 1972 constitution, the general secretary of the party, also the LGRD and cooperatives minister, pledged to finish, as he termed it, the half-done job of restoring the 1972 constitution soon after the amendment, a pledge that has so far been far from being a reality.
Frankly speaking, there is hardly any hope of having the government make a difference in this regard even in the distant future. One can blame, as different quarters particularly the left usually do, the situation on the political parties that have an iota of possibility to assume office in the period and a minimum commitment to democracy, but increasingly distance themselves from the spirit of the independence war. To understand the situation properly, one needs to dig deep.
In the first place, secularism appears to have faced a host of challenges even in different western countries that once, not only pursued secularism when it came to conducting state affairs, but also exported the ideology to different corners of the world in recent years. One can refer here to various discriminatory steps reportedly taken by successive governments in the United States and different European countries against religious minorities in general and the Muslims in particular there, especially since the gruesome 9/11attacks. Besides, because of backward religious thinking among the majority of the people that can at least partly be attributed to the state falling victim to rampant underdevelopment, coupled with the adverse impact of the post-9/11 situation mentioned earlier on ordinary Muslims here, as in all other Muslim-dominated states, liberal thinking is increasingly at stake in the country.
One need not be an expert to say that such a situation is anything but friendly to secularism. On the other hand, political and cultural forces that struggled for establishing socialism for long have been on the wane for the past few decades, particularly since the debacle of socialist economies and administrations in eastern European countries in the early 1990s. Regardless of the reasons, the weakening of the left camp in the country contributed a lot to the recent rise of anti-secularist forces.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that although the concept of secularism became vibrant in modern, industrialised countries following the Renaissance in Europe, it was socialist thinkers there who gave a solid foundation to the idea and greatly helped the idea spread across the world. During the 1960s, like many other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Bangladesh saw a vibrant socialist movement that attracted a huge number of people belonging to the middle-income groups in particular. To be precise, to pursue left politics became fashion of a kind among students and professional groups such as teachers, journalists, etc. And riding on the movement in particular, secular ideals gained a footing among the educated sections in particular.
It may be pertinent to mention that the situation provided the context in which secularism entered the constitution of the new-born nation that got freedom in exchange for enormous sacrifice in terms of life and property, a war that was no less influenced by left ideals. One can recall in this connection that the Awami League, the leaders of which led the independence war, rose to the position by outcompeting mainly the left that engaged in infighting in the latter half of the 1960s in particular, on the one hand, and failed to respond to the call of the hour on several occasions, on the other. More importantly, during its movement directed against the Pakistani neo-colonial rule, the Awami League had to prove that it was at least not opposed to lofty ideals, including secularism, popular with the left masses. At the same time, people of this land saw Pakistani rulers use Islam as a shield, whenever the latter faced public protests throughout the 24 years of united Pakistan. It may have also provided a passive support to the incorporation of secularism into the constitution.
However, one needs to bear in mind that the Muslims of this land predominantly lent support to the establishment of Pakistan as an Islamic republic in 1947. That apart, reacting to torture in the name of a religion is one thing while fighting for secularism is another. The less said about the absence of any conscious cultural struggle on part of either the then government or any other forces favouring secularism against religious bigotry, perhaps, the better, a situation that largely provided a fertile land for negative campaign against secular ideals in the post-independence period. It can also be recalled that a huge number of people, including those tied to the Awami League, still subscribe to the flawed idea that secularism is all about atheism.
Studying the history of Europe, one can find the huge sacrifice that people have had to make during the mediaeval ages and even the 19th century for the establishment of state apparatus, which promoted inventions and discoveries in different fields of knowledge, on the one hand, and treated citizens not based on their faiths, on the other. All this is to suggest that Bangladesh needs to walk many more miles to create such circumstances.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.

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