BANGLADESH: Nothing Secular about it

Published: December 14, 2012 - 14:50

Successive regimes in Bangladesh, including the Awami League, have betrayed secular promises to usher in a hardline Islamic State which has given a handle to fanatics to persecute and brutalise the religious minorities

Nurul Kabir Dhaka 

September 30, 2012. The people across Bangladesh came to know from media reports in the morning that a Muslim mob resorted to heinous attacks on Bengali Buddhist pagodas at Ramu and Hindu temples in Ukhia, both the areas under Cox’s Bazar district, with the pious Buddhists and Hindus of the localities haplessly witnessing the barbaric scenes at midnight. Media reports showed that certain members, belonging to all the major political parties of the ruling bourgeoisie—the ruling Awami League and its coalition partner the Jatiya Party, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its partner in the opposition alliance, the Jamaat-e-Islami—were united in vandalising the pagodas and temples of the religious minority communities.

In a few hours, leaders of the Awami League and BNP blamed each other for the communal attacks. But, as media reports revealed, victims knew fully well that the political leaders and activists of both the political parties, one claiming to be the champion of ‘secular democratic’ Bengali nationalism and the other representing ‘Muslim nationalist’ Bangladeshi nationalism, were unanimously in the forefront of the inhuman attacks. The victims also knew, as did the print and electronic media, that the civil administration, including law enforcement agencies, did not contain, let alone prevent, the sectarian violence against the religious minority communities.

That the BNP is not a secular democratic force is well known. That the Awami League is a pseudo secular political force has been proved once again. However, in the face of genuine secular democratic protests by the media and marginalised Left forces, the government arrested more than 100 persons allegedly involved in the attacks launched at midnight on September 29; but none of the leading figures of the local Awami League, whose pictures in action have been printed in the newspapers the next day, have been arrested as yet.

This is not the first time that minority religious communities have come under attack by chauvinist sections of Muslims in Bangladesh. It was just past midnight on November 19, 2003, at Sadhanpur, a small village in Banshkhali upazila, about 25 km south of the port city of Chittagong. An armed band of about 25 men stormed into the two-storey earthen house of Tejendra Lal Shil.

Twelve members of the landed family, who had retired to different rooms on the upper floor a few hours earlier, woke up with a start. They locked the doors from inside as the intruders tried to break in. Denied entry, the criminals locked the doors from outside, doused the ground floor with a petroleum product and set the house on fire. All but one of the residents, including seven women and a newborn, were burnt alive. As the screams of the dying shattered the silence and the flames dispelled the darkness and people came out of the adjacent houses, the criminals fired several gunshots and left the place. 

Only Bimal Shil, son of Tejendra, survived the carnage. He jumped out through a window and broke a leg in the process. The victims of the horrific incident belonged to the minority Hindu community, and the alleged perpetrators were fanatic sections of the majority Muslim community. “The mortal remains of the charred bodies of an entire family reminded many of the vicious killer episodes of Mississippi Burning, the celebrated Hollywood film on the Ku Klux Klan carnage,” wrote the New Age, the Dhaka-based English-language daily ,the next day. Notably, the heinous incident took place when the BNP was in power.

Predictably, the erstwhile BNP government did not bring the criminals to justice. Those involved in the massacre were reported to have been known supporters of the BNP. Similarly, the criminals belonging to the Awami League involved in the Ramu and Ukhia destruction have not been arrested as yet.

Despite political rhetoric pronounced by the ruling class political parties, the Awami League and BNP, on the safety and security of religious minority communities, empirical studies show that they are equally responsible for the plight of the minority communities in general and the Hindus in particular. The findings of a methodical ‘inquiry into causes and consequences of deprivation of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act’, published in 2000, point to the repression of religious minority communities by all the major political parties, especially when in power.

The study, conducted by a group of professional researchers led by Professor Abul Barakat of Dhaka University, has shown that 925,050 or 40 per cent of the total Hindu households of the country have been affected by the unjust ‘enemy property’ law of the Pakistan era, which continues to exist in independent Bangladesh under a different nomenclature—‘vested property law’. Out of the 925,050, 748,850 were dispossessed of agricultural land, 251,085 of homesteads, 48,455 of garden land, 79,290 of ponds, 4,405 of commercial land and 114,530 of other categories of land. The total amount of the dispossessed land was estimated at 1.64 million acres, which is 53 per cent of the total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 per cent of the total land area in Bangladesh.

As of 1997, according to the study, 44.2 per cent of the individual occupiers of the dispossessed Hindu property belonged to the Awami League, 31.7 per cent to the BNP, 5.8 per cent to the Jatiya Party, 4.8 per cent to the Jamaat and 1 per cent to other political parties, while the political identity of the remaining 10.6 per cent is ‘difficult to ascertain’.

The scenario, as regards the political identity of the occupiers, was quite different in 1995—11.5 per cent belonged to the Awami League, 71.6 per cent to the BNP, 4.9 per cent to the Jatiya Party, 3.7 per cent to the Jamaat and 1.2 per cent to other political parties. Again, the political identity of the remaining 6.2 per cent could not be ascertained.

925,050 or 40 per cent of the total Hindu households have been affected by the unjust ‘enemy property’ law of the Pakistan era, which continues to exist in Bangladesh under a different nomenclature — ‘vested property law’ 

When one takes note of the fact that the two different situations in two different times, 1995 and 1997, were marked by the subsequent rules of the two major political parties, the BNP and Awami League, one cannot fail to see a pattern: exponents of the ruling party possessed the greater share of the land dispossessed by the Hindus under the vested property law. When managing the affairs of the state, the Awami League, the BNP, the Jatiya Party or the Jamaat have understandably found the perpetuation of communal disparity convenient for their translation into material dividends for leaders
and activists.

However, when observed dispassionately, it becomes clear that the number of Muslims who grabbed the landed property of the minority communities, sometimes legally, courtesy of an unjust law such as the Vested Property Act, are not very high, given the size of the Muslim population in the country, which is more than 100 million out of a total of over 116 million.

Evidently, the majority of the Muslim population, which is neither communal nor beneficiaries of religious  communalism, is insensitive to the sustained exploitation of the minority communities. Why? That is a crucial question.

More so, it was the entire populace that rose in the 1950s and 1960s against the communal state of Pakistan and made enormous sacrifices to make Bangladesh emerge on a secular democratic political platform in 1971. Is it that the same people are becoming communal as well? If so, why? What is the role of the ruling elite? What is the role of the State machinery, which the elite uses to perpetuate its rule, in the regressive changes in the national psyche?


After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the popular aspiration for a secular democracy apparently found adequate expression in the Constitution of the new State. It rightly proclaimed “secularism” as a “fundamental principle” of the State, and avowed “elimination” of “communalism in all its forms… granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion… …abuse of religion for political purposes…”, and “any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practising a particular religion”. 

Besides, while promising “every citizen” the democratic right “to form associations or unions”, the Constitution had prohibited formation of any group with an objective of advancing politics based on any religion. “…No person shall have the right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other association or union which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues, a political purpose…” said the Constitution.

‘The remains of the charred bodies of an entire family reminded many of the vicious killer episodes of Mississippi Burning, the Hollywood film on the Ku Klux Klan carnage’

There could not be a better beginning of the secular democratic aspirations of a politically organised people wresting out national independence. For a newly emerged State to retain its secular aspirations in society, propagate it further and sustain the ideals, it essentially needs a certain ideological apparatus, such as compatible public education and mass media, to ensure secular democratic hegemony over any non-secular cultural trends. To do so, the State requires certain legal instruments. The couple of constitutional provisions in question had provided the government of the day with adequate legal instruments to begin its secular journey.

However, it soon proved to be a false dawn. The government of founding president Sheikh Mujib  quickly introduced, rather, a multi-theocracy in the name of secularism, both at the political and ideological levels, in running the affairs of state.

Immediately after the independence of Bangladesh, on December 16, 1971, some secular intellectuals from the University of Dhaka took the lead by seeking to discontinue the practice during the ‘Pakistan era’ of opening programmes on the State-run radio and television with recitations from the holy Quran; instead, they substituted a programme, ‘Speaking the Truth’, based on
secular ethics.

After the return of Sheikh Mujib from a Pakistan prison on January 10, 1972, his Awami League government adopted ‘the policy of equal opportunity for all religions and ordered citations from the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity at the start of the broadcasts’ by the State-run electronic media. The policy is absolutely inconsistent with the principles of secular democracy which considers ‘faith’ as a matter of personal ‘belief’ of individual citizens, and subsequently disapproves endorsement of, or aid to, any religious doctrine by the State or the government of a State.

All successive governments, including that of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, vigorously carried forward the non-secular programmes of Sheikh Mujib, giving a fillip to the ‘backward movement’ of
Bangladeshi society.

To begin with, the military government headed by Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, took away from the Constitution, by a martial law proclamation in May 1976, the provision that prohibited use of religion for political purposes. Then came another proclamation in 1977, which struck out Article 12 of the Constitution that proclaimed ‘secularism’ as a fundamental principle of the State and inserted into the book new provisions professing “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” and pledging that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all activities” of the State. The same proclamation inserted Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar Rahim “in the beginning” and “above the preamble” of
the Constitution.

Later, all these ‘political misdeeds’ —from the point of view of secular, democratic values—were ratified by Parliament in 1979, with Lt Gen Ziaur Rahman heading the undemocratic State machinery as its president.

Then Lt Gen HM Ershad appeared in the political scene in 1982, and drove the last nail in the coffin of secular ideals. His regime had the Constitution amended in June 1998 to declare that “the state religion of the Republic is Islam”. While the separation of ‘divine’ religion/s from the earthly affairs of the State remains one of the major components of classical democracy, the Ershad regime meshed the two. The immediate political implication was, however,
the relegation of members of the minority religious communities to second-class citizenry.

After the fall of the Ershad regime in 1990, following eight years of a movement for democracy, the BNP, headed by Begum Khaleda Zia, came to power through a general election in 1991. Notably, one of the central focuses of the BNP’s entire electoral campaign was Islam—the ‘need of defending Islam’ from the ‘un-Islamic’ political forces. The propaganda also infected the electoral campaign of other political parties.

Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League, which occasionally claims to be a secular party, presided over her party’s entire electoral campaign wearing a hijab (head scarf) and carrying a rosary.


Before the last general election in 2001, most political parties had shed even the last strings of secular ideals. The BNP’s election manifesto proclaimed that the party, if voted to power, “will not enact any law in contrary to Islam”.

The Jatiya Party, headed by Ershad, went a step further. “Shariah laws will be followed, the existing laws will be brought in line with the principles of the Quran and Sunnah, special laws will be made for punishing those making derogatory remarks against Allah, the prophet and Shariah, while religious education will be made compulsory at all levels,” announced Ershad’s
Jatiya Party.

Besides, the Jamaat announced in unambiguous terms that the party, if voted to power, “will convert the People’s Republic of Bangladesh into an Islamic Republic”.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League decided not to lag behind the BNP. “If returned to power,” it announced in its election manifesto, “no law will be enacted, which will be inconsistent with the dictates of the Quran and Hadith”.

Out of 925,050, 748,850 were dispossessed of agricultural land, 251,085 of homesteads, 48,455 of garden land, 79,290 of ponds, 4,405 of commercial land and 114,530 of other categories of land

The Jatiya Party submitted a ‘private member Bill’ in 2001, seeking compulsory State intervention in making sure that all Muslim citizens of the country pray to Allah five times a day, and providing a maximum financial punishment of Tk 10,000  for any Muslim citizen violating the provisions of the proposed law. Fortunately, the Bill has not been passed as yet.

This, unfortunately, is not the end of the story. The Awami League, which claims to be a champion of secularism before the religious minority communities, entered into an ‘anti-secular’ five-point agreement with an Islamist party called Khelafat Majlish on December 23, 2006. In the written agreement that was published in all the major Dhaka-based national dailies the next day, the Awami League promised that the party, if voted to power with the support of the five-point electoral agreement with the Majlish, would enact a blasphemy law and give rights to the Islamic scholars to issue a fatwa.

However, in the changed political perspective in December 2008, the Awami League did not need the support of political groups like the Khelafat Majlish to return to power with more than two-thirds majority in Parliament. But, on its return to power, the Awami League did not use its parliamentary strength to return to the ‘secular’ Constitution, with which Bangladesh began its journey in 1972. The party, instead, endorsed, through the 15th amendment to the Constitution, adopted in the House on June 30, 2001, the previous anti-secular changes introduced in the Constitution by Ziaur Rahman’s BNP and Ershad’s Jatiya Party.

Moreover, the prime minister and Awami League supremo, Sheikh Hasina, threatened the Jamaat-e-Islami, on November 17, 2012, to take action against the party in keeping with the Shariah provision—an anti-secular idea which has not even been pronounced by BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia as yet. The Shariah is a declared agenda of the Islamist parties, including the Jamaat.

The brief almanac of the non-secular— rather, anti-secular — legal, political, ideological and economic schemes implemented so far by the elite, active under various political platforms of the day, provides adequate clues as to why the once secular Muslim masses of Bangladesh are gradually becoming insensitive towards multiple forms of exploitation of religious minority communities by politically backed vested interests.

The collective political consciousness of a society influences the formulation of the Constitution of a State, and, again, the constitutional provisions influence the political psyche of a society. More than two decades of political struggle against the Islamic State of Pakistan influenced the people of Bangladesh to force the erstwhile ruling class to adopt a secular democratic Constitution after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. But, the de-secularisation of the Constitution has gradually influenced the Muslim majority population of Bangladesh to become ideologically de-secularised over the past four decades.

The result is obvious. The majority Muslim population of Bangladesh has become politically insensitive towards the interests of the minority religious communities. The communal constitutional provisions, after all, provide the communal sections with political impunity vis-a-vis crimes against the minority communities.

Under these circumstances, the genuine protection of the minorities eventually lies in the revival of organised secular democratic politics, and victory over the religion-based and pseudo-secular politics of the ruling elite spread over different political camps led by the Awami League and BNP. Indeed, it is hoped that the civil society movements committed to secular democratic polity will work to give some hope and relief to the minority religious communities of Bangladesh in the days to come.  

The writer is Editor, New Age, Dhaka.

Successive regimes in Bangladesh, including the Awami League, have betrayed secular promises to usher in a hardline Islamic State which has given a handle to fanatics to persecute and brutalise the religious minorities
Nurul Kabir Dhaka 

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