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Why Islam as State Religion May Be Preferable To the Mask of Secularism in Bangladesh

By Garga Chatterjee

Apr 11, 2016  

It saves minorities from hopes of equal citizenship being raised and dashed. Calls for secularism give Islamist groups an opportunity for renewed mobilisation.

Bengal is a tragic country. Its west, whose present political form is the state of West Bengal, as part of Indian Union, has a Hindu Bengali majority and a secular Constitution that has done little to better the extremely precarious socio-economic condition of the vast majority of Muslim Bengalis, most of whom have negligible assets or social security (true for most non-savarna Hindu Bengalis too). Its east, whose present political form is the sovereign nation-state, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, has a Muslim Bengali majority. In the 70-odd years since its creation – through Partition, through Pakistani occupation, a secular Constitution and a non-secular Constitution with Islam as state religion since 1988 – it has successfully driven out millions of Hindu Bengalis, who formed 22% of the population in 1951 but comprised only 8.5% of the population in 2011.

Bangladesh’s 1972 Constitution had secularism as a basic state principle, and no state religion. During the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle, West Pakistani occupiers and their East Bengali agents painted the freedom struggle as an India-backed Hindu conspiracy. During 1971, Hindus of East Bengal were targeted in hugely disproportionate numbers. The liberation struggle against a brutal occupation force that espoused Islam as its ideology, in the context of the Cold War, created space for a secular-populist resistance that later got incorporated into the 1972 Constitution. This is the Ekattorer Chetona or spirit of 1971.

However, whether secularism represented all the spirit of 1971 and, by extension, whether 1971 was a refutation of the Two-Nation theory, has often been questioned. One view maintains that Muslim Bengali participation in the Pakistan movement was to secure the rights and dominance of Muslim Bengalis in the context of Bengal. Supporters of this view believe that after the elimination of Hindu competition after 1947, this Muslim Bengali aspiration wasn’t realised due to the quasi-colonial relationship between West Pakistan and East Bengal. Thus 1971 represented stage two of the Muslim Bengali struggle for rights and dominance to fulfill the promise of 1947, and is no negation of the Two-Nation theory. However, the spirit of 1971 camp contends that the liberation struggle wasn’t waged to create a smaller Islamic Eastern Pakistan but a sovereign, secular Bangladesh, premised on non-communal ethno-linguistic nationalism.

Both positions have significant support. After Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, the subsequent unelected or fraudulently elected governments played the Islam card to gain legitimacy in an area where there’s a long history of Islam as a potent rallying point. In 1988, besieged by an increasingly united Opposition, President HM Ershad made Islam the state religion. Almost immediately, 15 eminent citizens mounted a legal challenge in the form of a writ petition that was finally listed for hearing 28 years later, on March 28, 2016. The petition was dismissed in two minutes, without any hearing. Islam remains the state religion of Bangladesh. Nothing changes.

When Islam was incorporated as the state religion in 1988, all major Opposition parties, including the Sheikh Hasina Wajed-led Awami League and Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had denounced the move in no uncertain words. But Islam plays a much bigger role in Bangladesh politics now than it did during the 1971 Liberation war or the heady days of the anti-dictator, pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. Political parties have responded by variously pandering to majoritarianism. The ruling Awami League itself got its present name in 1953 by dropping the word Muslim from its original name, trying to become a uniter of people of whom one in five were Hindus at the time. Now, greater communalisation of politics and the numerical marginalisation of religious minorities has made a 1953-style name change impossible and unnecessary. Times have changed.

The Minorities Question

General Ershad’s move has stood the test of time. Even when given the chance by a 2011 legal order to return to the original 1972 secular Constitution, the Awami League government passed the 15th constitutional amendment, retaining Islam as the state religion and restoring secularism as state principle simultaneously. This apparent anachronism is more reflective of the political currents that the Awami League has to navigate, with Ulema all over Bangladesh presenting secularism as an anti-Islam ideology.

The Indian Union’s secular Constitution has clauses regarding cow-protection and no government has ever sought to delete that. In the present times, it is extremely hard to put the genies of majority religion back in the bottle after they have been released, without attracting the anti-majority-religion or minority-appeaser tag. In another astute move that would lend permanence to change, the present Awami League government renamed Dhaka’s international airport after Shah Jalal, a widely revered Sufi saint of the Sylhet region and a religious warrior against so-called infidels, replacing the previous one that was named after Bangladesh Nationalist Party founder General Zia-ur-Rahman.

The face of state religion may be preferable to the mask of secularism as it saves Hindus and other minorities of Bangladesh from hopes of equal citizenship being periodically raised and dashed. Also, each time these discussions arise, it gives Islamist groups an opportunity for renewed mobilisation, and Hindus bear the brunt of this, pushing them further into a hostage relationship with the ruling powers. Even in 1988, almost on cue with the original promulgation making Islam the state religion, temple desecrations happened in Satkhira district and non-Muslims, including tribals, were threatened with eviction.

This time, when the state-religion debate resurfaced, Junaid Babunagari, the secretary general of Hefazat-e-Islam or the Defenders of Islam – a large Qaumi madrasa network-based group with many militant volunteers – threatened Jihad, the ex-Communist education minister stressed that Islam would be the ethical basis of education, and social media spaces saw the wide proliferation of anti-Hindu attitudes including threats to destroy temples and kick Hindus out of Bangladesh. This puts Hindus in an even more precarious situation. With each polarisation, the solidarity around the pole of secularism grows thinner, and rabidly communal statements get more normalised.

While the existence of a particular state religion openly gives preferential status to one group of citizens, thus creating various classes of citizens, the treatment of religious minorities under the no-state-religion period (1971-1988) and Islam-as-state-religion period (1988-present) doesn’t have major differences in terms of the issues that specifically affect minorities in Bangladesh. These include land and property grabbing largely by politically-powerful Muslims in a massive scale, attacks on places of Hindu-Buddhist places of worship, political under-representation and the constant fall in the population proportion of non-Muslims decade after decade. Since the 1950s, no Hindu-Muslim riots have happened in Bangladesh – they have only been one-sided assaults. While 1971 has ensured Muslim Bengali dominance in Bangladesh, it hasn’t prevented regular anti-minority attacks through its years of secularism or from the time Islam was made the State religion, just as secularism has not prevented a disproportionately high number of religious minorities from being riot victims in India since Independence.

A specific state religion represents the symptom of a political crisis – namely, an attempt at hiding questions of injustice that affect all by promoting an ideology that unites a significant portion of the population. Thus, it is not the presence or absence of Islam as state religion but questions of justice that are crucial to the concerns of the remaining minorities of Bangladesh. These include the return of forcibly- or fraudulently-captured property using local influence or the various variants of the inhuman Enemy Property Act by individuals or the State, stemming the decrease in the population of minorities, ensuring the security of women and religious places, and full implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts accord.

In a speech on February 6, 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, talked about the ideals of West Pakistan's leaders that were “incompatible with the civilised world”. Two of those were: Islam in danger and Hindus as the enemy. Bangladesh cannot afford to become what it fought against. State religion Islam or not, Islam is not in danger in Bangladesh and its Hindus are not the enemy.