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In Dhaka, Islamists Are a Rising Force

By Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

07 April 2016

Even the secular Awami League regime is shying away from the secular cause, as a recent High Court verdict upholding Islam as the state religion, indicates

Bangladesh’s High Court has poured cold water on its dream of a secular country. Its verdict shows the slow transformation that Bangladeshi society has undergone since 1971. It also underlines the growing influence of religious radical elements, so much so that even parties like the  Awami League, which champion secularism, have been overshadowed. The Bangladesh liberation war was fought to establish a democratic secular country where all citizens could live freely without fear. Inspired by the spirit of the liberation war, the country included secularism as one of the four core principles of the state in its 1971 Constitution.

On March 27, the High Court in Dhaka rejected a writ petition filed by eminent members of civil society, under the banner of Sairachar O Samprodaikota Protirodh Committee (Dictatorship and Communalism Resistance Committee), questioning the legality of the constitutional provision that made Islam the state religion. The case was filed in 1988, after military dictator General HM Ershad, who took charge after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, declared Islam as the state religion, violating the 1972 Constitution. The case did not see much movement then, as the expectation was that the democratically-elected Governments that came to power after the ouster of Gen Ershad would repeal the provision. Strangely, that did not happen.

The Awami League regime made some significant changes to the Constitution during its previous term (2009-2014). Many of these changes were triggered by the activism of the judiciary, for instance, the abolition of the caretaker Government system and the illegitimisation of military rule.

The most important change made by the Awami League Government was the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which restored secularism. However, in spite of the constitutional amendment, the Awami League Government retained Islam as the state religion.  The case was revived in 2011 with the belief that action from the judiciary would make it easier for the Government to fully being back secularism.

The disappointing verdict from the judiciary now may give the impression of judicial independence but in reality that’s necessarily the case. There is scepticism about the Awami League's commitment to the secular cause as the party over time seems to have become hesitant about upsetting the radicals.

Notably, before the court verdict, Hefazat-e-Islami, the radical umbrella organisation, had threatened chaos in the country if Islam was removed as the state religion. The Government has previously been accused of being weak-kneed before this group. For example, the Government had arrested secular bloggers who had been accused by this group of insulting Islam.

Viewed in this context, the verdict may have helped the Government avoid a major controversy for the moment but in the long run, it is exactly such steps that embolden the radicals. Islamic militancy is rising in Bangladesh and the present Government is increasingly seen as helpless in controlling radical groups.

A recent survey by a US think-tank claims that many in Bangladesh support Shari’ah law in the country. This suggests that religion will play a major role in Bangladesh, and no political party can sidestep the issue. This is possibly why the Awami League is reluctant to take any firm position on this issue.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s liberals, who comprise a significant portion of the population, are disturbed by these developments. Considering these social changes, Bangladesh is trying out a unique definition of secularism wherein the people are free to practice any religion while Islam remains the state religion.

The other issue here is of the religious minorities who have been victimised, no matter the party in power. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina tried to improve their lot by appointing a member of the minority community as the Supreme Court Chief Justice, but this was symbolic. Hindus, Buddhists and Christian are regularly attacked, even under the Awami League’s watch, and their future is under threat, irrespective of the constitutional position of secularism in Bangladesh.

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi