To be or not to be secular – the diplomat
Hundreds of Hindus protesting against attacks on temples and the killing of two Hindu worshipers shout slogans in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Monday, October 18, 2021.
Credit: AP Photo / Mahmud Hossain Opu
In a few weeks, Bangladesh will celebrate the golden jubilee of its victory in the war of liberation against Pakistan. Fifty years have passed since its independence, and secular nationalist forces have taken over the nuns during the war. However, Bangladesh has failed to ensure its secularism.
Debates over the country’s secular national identity, the founding principle of the state, persist to this day. Some argue that secularism was imposed on the country from above. According to this argument, political pressure, especially from India due to its support for Bangladesh during the liberation war, played an important role in determining Bangladesh’s secular identity. But also, as several academics have argued, secularism has become the founding principle of the country due to the Bengali secular-linguistic nationalist movement in the period 1947-71.
Unlike the Western conception of secularism, where the state is separate or estranged from the church / religion, Bangladeshi secularism translates to Dharmanirapekkhata (religious neutrality). The Bangladeshi state does not dissociate itself from religion; rather, he accepts the role of religion in public spheres. And in the eyes of the state, all religions are equal.
This is why “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation and the first independent president of Bangladesh, authorized the broadcast of verses from the sacred texts of the four major religions of the country on national television and radio.
Has Bangladesh put into practice its idea of ââsecularism as religious neutrality? Have successive regimes maintained religious neutrality or Dharmanirapekkhata? The answer is no.
The very idea of ââreligious neutrality has been destroyed by the majority opportunist political culture in Bangladesh. Post-1975 military regimes exploited religious sentiment by establishing Islam as a guiding principle to garner popular support and overcome the crisis of legitimacy.
Even democratic regimes have resorted to such stratagems; the use of Islamic phrases in the Constitution continues.
Bangladesh’s two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have played the Islamic card to gain power. In addition to aligning themselves with Islamist organizations and parties, they have conceded them the role of kingmaker. The Islamists have even been appointed ministers.
In the 2008 general election, the Awami League came to power with an absolute majority. He contested the election on the promise that he would bring secularism back as it was in Bangladesh’s original constitution. In the original constitution, secularism was a founding principle. Subsequently, this was abolished, and phrases like “Absolute faith and trust in Allah Almighty” made their way into the constitution.
In keeping with its election promise, the Awami League government restored secularism but kept Islam as the state religion in 2011.
The Awami League’s ambiguity over secularism and Islam signals the polarized nature of Bangladeshi society. This became evident during the Gonojagaran Mancho (People’s Awakening Stage) or the Shahbag movement, which called for the death sentences of war criminals.
As the movement gathered momentum in 2013, there was a counter-mobilization led by Hefazat-e-Islam. The Hefazat was born out of an Islamist reaction against the Shahbag movement and has called its supporters atheists and anti-Islamists. Hefazat also targeted free-spirited secular writers and bloggers for making derogatory comments about Islam and the Prophet, and pressured the Awami League government to prosecute those who undermine religious sentiment. .
The Hefazat was able mobilize a large number of supporters participate in its marches and sit-ins in Dhaka. His street power, which crippled life in Dhaka, rocked the Awami League government. Although it deployed force to disperse Islamist militants, the Awami League also appeased the Hefazat and bowed to some of its demands.
For example, the government recognized the Qawmi Dawrah diploma as the equivalent of a master’s degree. He diluted the secular content of textbooks and enacted blasphemy laws. He also moved a statue of Lady Justice from the front of the Supreme Court, as the Hefazat ruled the statue un-Islamic.
Not only is the Awami League government appeasing Islamists, it is also doing little to protect the rights of minorities. Since 2013, there have been over 3,600 attacks against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. More recently, in October 2021, there were attacks on Hindus, their businesses and temples across Bangladesh.
Human rights activists said that in some cases the government loses lawsuits after attacks on minorities.
Ironically, it was the Awami League, then led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that led Bangladesh to independence 50 years ago. Sadly, half a century later, the Awami League appears to be failing in defending secularism in Bangladesh.