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50 Years: The Mood Of The Moment

On March 25, 2022, Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of its Liberation War and Independence, as the South Asian nation had declared Independence from Pakistan in the late hours of March 25, 1971. At the same time, half a century has passed since the Constitution of Bangladesh was approved by the Constituent Assembly. Perhaps, it is the time to look back at the ideology that had been chosen five decades ago to lead a new country forward.

The founders of Bangladesh had stressed on Secularism. Dr Kamal Hossain, the first Law Minister of Bangladesh, told Dr Neeti Nair, the Professor of History at the University of Virginia, in 2018 that they had realised the importance of this principle during the 1971 War of Liberation. Tajuddin Ahmad, the then Prime Minister-in-exile, preached the Doctrine of Secularism during the Pakistani invasion of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). In an 18-point missive announced in May 1971, Ahmad advised his countrymen to be united as Bengalis, and not divide on lines of religion, party, or class. Under his instructions, the Bangladesh Radio routinely broadcast recitations from the Quran, Gita, Tripitaka and Bible, an echo of Mahatma Gandhi’s practice of multi-faith prayer meetings.

The guides: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (L) with Tajuddin Ahmad

Ahmad urged the Arab World to support the cause of Bangladesh, in order to counter Pakistani propaganda that the war was being fought to keep an Islamic nation united. He reportedly said: “Yahya Khan’s soldiers are fighting for Islam’s rights… this idea is an unfortunate distraction, a lie. He is using Islam to go against the wishes of the public and to stop people’s exercise of Human Rights.” Bangladeshi leader Maulana Bhashani had made a similar appeal to the Global Community. In a series of letters to world leaders, including Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Abdel Khalek Hassouna of the Arab League, he had written: “… all these unspeakable acts have been perpetrated by a Muslim Army on an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

During the Constituent Assembly debates that preceded the adoption of the first Constitution of Pakistan in 1956, Bangabandhu (or the Friend of Bengal) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had spent time in Pakistani prisons, argued that the principle of detention without trial was un-Islamic. He reminded the Assembly of the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah, saying: “Nobody can be punished without trial. Even Allah will not punish anybody without trial. If I commit a sin, I will be sent to hell after proper trial. If I have done good, I shall be sent to heaven after trial. Let us see what this ‘Islamic Constitution’ provides: anybody can be detained without trial ‘in the interest of public order and Pakistan.” Sheikh Mujib also ridiculed the forms that were being supplied by Karachi University to students in order to pledge that they would not indulge in activities “subversive to Pakistan or prejudicial to the University of Karachi”. Bangabandhu raised an important question: What right had the State to assume that the students were opposed to the State? He and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy strongly protested Islamic provisions, such as naming the nation the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and reserving the post of Head of State, to a Muslim.

Despite all these, Chief Martial Law Administrator General Yahya Khan of Pakistan announced (in 1970) that one of the five Fundamental Principles of the Legal Framework Order (LFO) under which elections were to be held would be adherence to Islamic ideology, the basis for the creation of Pakistan. Interestingly, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League party accepted the principle. However, war-time atrocities in the name of Islam helped the people of Bangladesh realise the importance of Secularism.

After the War of Liberation, Ahmad met a Buddhist delegation in Dhaka. The Bangladesh Observer had reported that the Prime Minister announced that Bangladesh would be a “completely Secular State which would ensure absolute freedom to every religion“. He said that the State would never interfere in any religion, but at the same time, he stressed that it would not allow anybody to “exploit the people in the name of religion”. For Ahmad, secularism means the “absence of communalism in all its forms; the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes; any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion”. The doctrine was incorporated in Article 8 of the Constitution of Bangladesh that marked contrast to the 1956 (and 1973) Constitutions of Pakistan. It is to be noted that the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh did not reserve the post of Head of State to a Muslim.

Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujib, made it clear that he was against weaponising religion. Delivering his final speech before the Constitution Bill was passed on November 4, 1972, the Bangabandhu stressed that secularism did not mean being opposed to the practice of religion. He was worried only about the misuse of religion as a political weapon as had happened over the last 25 years. He told the Constituent Assembly: “Our secularism is not against religion. Muslims can practice their religion, the State has no power to stop them. Hindus can practice their religion, no one has the power to stop them. Buddhists can practice their religion, no one has the power to stop them. Christians will practice their religion, no one can stop that. Our only reservation is about using religion as a political weapon.” He further said: “We have seen in 25 years, we have seen theft in the name of religion, misrule in the name of religion, betrayal in the name of religion, torture under the name of religion, murder in religion’s name and injustice under the name of religion – all has taken place in Bangladesh’s soil. Religion is a holy thing. Using religion as a political weapon will happen no more.

Meanwhile, Dr Hossain recalled his meeting with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, saying that Riyadh had rightly realised the situation of Bangladesh, in spite of Pakistan’s propaganda. The Saudi Monarch admitted that Pakistan had brought Islam into disrepute by trying to destroy Bangladesh. He also admitted that the Muslims of Bangladesh were no less devout than those of Pakistan, and the hypocrisy and intolerance of Pakistan resulted in the abuse of religion for political purposes, which ultimately gave birth to Bangladesh.

Later in 1973, Sheikh Mujib portrayed the same image of Bangladesh during his meeting with former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Algiers. The Bangabandhu assured Colonel Gaddafi that Bangladesh would be committed to all its people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, stating: “Our secularism is not against religion. Our secularism stands for harmony among members of all religions. Indeed, in the opening of the Quran, Allah is described as Rabbul Alameen, the Lord of all creation and not of Rabbul-Muslimin, the Lord only of Muslims. This is the spirit which underlines our secularism.

However, the scenario has changed in Bangladesh in the last five decades. Although the Government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed (the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib), is secular in its character, the rise of hardline Islamist outfits, like Jamaat-e-Islami, has started posing a serious threat to the basic foundation of the country. Intolerance against the minority communities is also on the rise, as Pakistan reportedly backs these hardliners in order to create troubles for Bangladesh. Now, it has become a challenge for Prime Minister Hasina to uphold the secular character of her country, and protect the minority communities.

PM Sheikh Hasina

On the Golden Jubilee of the Liberation War, one can hope that she would successfully overcome this challenge in the coming years.

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