Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Can Bangladesh remain secular?

For generations Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other religious followers as well as, dare I say, agnostics and atheists had been living together in India in relative harmony and without major conflicts, until the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (and thence Bangladesh in 1971). The very essence of Pakistan, within the realm of Two Nation Theory (TNT), sowed the seed of communal disharmony which was nurtured and encouraged, since then, by vested interests. These antagonistic feelings later grew into full-blown animosity between Hindus and Muslims. Once communalism took roots, various other sectarian and partisan feelings and dissensions manifested themselves in various forms – Punjabis were pitted against Bengalis and vice versa, Bengalis against non-Bengalis, Sunnis opposed Shias, mullahs against rationalists etc. Fragmentation of the newly created State, which came into being on the back of communalism, became almost an inevitability.

Bangladesh came into being primarily on the basis of language movement, which started back in February 1952, when the Dhaka university students and students from associated colleges demonstrating to demand Bengali to be a national language were fired upon by the police on 21st February. (That day, Ekushe February, eventually became the International Mothers’ Day when the United Nations recognised it as such). However, Bengali language was perceived by Islamic mindset of Pakistan as very much complicit with Hindu culture and heritage and hence must be dispensed with in Pakistan; whereas for the then Bengali speaking East Pakistanis, Bengali was their identity, the very essence of their existence, culture and tradition. These two disparate and conflicting views could not be reconciled and that eventually led to the breakdown of Pakistan and the creation of an independent Bangladesh for Bengali speaking people.

Within the Bengali speaking people, there are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and many other religious followers. But they are all united within the bond of a common language, Bengali. This required a State structure where Bengali would be the State language and all religions would be treated equally. Thus, logically secularism was needed to create and sustain a multi-cultural, multi-religious society fit for all citizens of the country. The first Constitution of Bangladesh, enacted in 1972, had four fundamental principles and these are nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism. It must be stressed that the adoption of secularism in Bangladesh Constitution was a pragmatic solution, not a high minded altruistic undertaking.

Secularity in simple terms is a state of affairs where all religions are to be treated equally by the State. No single religion will have prevalence over other religions. There will be no State religion, as the State needs to be neutral to and equidistant from all religions and belief systems. At the same time, the religions and belief systems will not interfere in the affairs of the State. It is, however, easier to state this strict separation of the State from religious institutions and ensure equality of different religions and beliefs before the law, but far more difficult to implement in the practical world. Bangladesh had been struggling with this dichotomy ever since its liberation.

The principle of secularism is clearly stated in article 12 of the Bangladesh Constitution, which requires elimination of communalism in all its forms and elimination of abuse of religion for political purposes. Freedom of religion or belief is established also in article 39 (Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech) and article 41 (Freedom of religion) of the Constitution, where every individual has equal religious rights, regardless of creed, culture, race or religion. This freedom is also enshrined in International Human Rights Conventions to which Bangladesh had subscribed.

Disregarding these Constitutional rights and international undertakings by the State, Islamic religious fundamentalists, led by Jamaat-e-Islam, started propagating vigorously egregious concepts that secularism is anti-Islamic and synonymous to atheism! The simple-minded illiterate majority of Bangladeshi population fell victim to such propaganda, particularly when the governments of Ziaur Rahman and Ershad (from 1975 till about 2007) turned blind eyes to such activities due to their political benefits.

General Ziaur Rahman amended article 38 (Freedom of association), which previously prohibited religion-based politics and banned religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and other parties and allowed religion and politics to intermix. He removed the word ‘secularism’ from the constitution and incorporated ‘to place full faith in Almighty Allah’. He also inserted a new clause, Article 25(2) under the heading ‘Islamic Solidarity’ which allowed fraternity with Muslim countries. All these amendments opened the floodgate for religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat ul Mujahidean of Bangladesh (JMB) and so forth to get into the mainstream national politics. Those people who opposed the national liberation and participated actively with Pakistanis in the massacre of Bangladeshis only a few years back then became mainstream politicians. He then utilised these newly emergent religious-political parties to consolidate and expand his political base and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. This is the beginning of political Islam, which abrogated secularism of the original constitution.

After the brutal assassination of General Zia in 1981 by his political opponents, there was a short lull in the Islamisation process. But when General Ershad took over the realm of the country in a bloodless coup d’état in 1983, he carried forward Islamisation process with renewed enthusiasm. He made ‘Islam as the state religion’ by the eighth amendment of the Constitution in June 1988 and thereby abrogating ‘secularism’ completely from the Constitution.

‘Islamic Solidarity’ provision allowed Muslim countries, particularly rich Muslim countries from the Middle East, to legally establish religious base within the country. Money started flooding in from the Muslim countries for mosques, madrassas, Islamic Foundations, Islamic hospitals (Ibn-Sina hospitals), Islamic banks (Ibn-Sina banks) and so forth. At the moment there are more than 275,000 mosques and 19,000 madrassas in the country and they are increasing all the time. Profits from religious-commercial activities are ploughed back into politico-religious purposes and even for violent subversive activities. Part of the profit also went to setting up new madrassas – alia madrassa and quomi madrassa – within the whole country.

Islamisation of the State is an avowed goal of the Jamaat-e-Islam party. Evicting and purging of non-Muslims from the country is part of that strategy. This eviction is also actively supported by politicians of all parties, village leaders as well as mullahs, as they stand to benefit from illegal possession of Hindu properties. At the time of independence of Pakistan, more than 35% of the East Pakistani population were Hindus. Then at the time of liberation of Bangladesh, there were only 23% Hindus. After Bangladesh was liberated and adopted the secular Constitution, the Hindus and other religious minorities were subjected to even more religious persecution. At the moment, the religious demography stands like this: Muslims 90%, Hindus 8%, Buddhists 0.7%, Christians 0.3% and others (Baháis, agnostics, atheists etc) 1%.

All these activities pushed the country to an outright Islamic State. At the moment the Constitution starts off with a Quranic phrase, “Bismillah-AR Rahman-AR Rahim” (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful)”, but in the main body of the Constitution secularism is proclaimed. Although secularism was re-introduced by Hasina during her last term of office, the discrepancy and inconsistency in the Constitution remain. On the one hand, the country’s Constitution states that “Islam is the State religion”, on the other hand, secularism is stated to be a fundamental principle! How strange!

It must be realised that secularism cannot be achieved by just proclaiming it broadly in the Constitution and hoping that everything will then be steamrolled by it. It requires recalibrating the mindset of the people, where they will respect and tolerate each other’s religions. People must realise that religion is a theological undertaking, not a political edifice. The government, on its part, must encourage and help inculcate that mindset among the people, develop an education system where all religions get equal treatment, ensure the freedom of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers and establish a secular democracy where all citizens are equal before the law and parliament.


– A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.

2 thoughts on “Can Bangladesh remain secular?”

  1. I doubt if Bangladesh can ever be a secular country. The bus has been missed. If you look at the steady decline in the proportion of non-Muslim population even after formation of Bangladesh, you will understand the reality. As I understand, Islam is antithesis of secularism and plurality. And BD never had any Kemal Ataturk.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s