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Bangladesh: restoring secular Constitution

Haroon Habib

Two Supreme Court verdicts declaring the controversial fifth and eighths amendments void have brightened the scope for a meaningful constitutional change.

For the first time after 1975, Bangladesh has got the opportunity to correct calculated distortions to its original Constitution framed in 1972, following independence of former East Pakistan. The ruling grand alliance, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, holds a three-fourths majority in Parliament, more than the two-thirds required for bringing changes to the Constitution.

Understandably, the huge majority of the pro-liberation ruling coalition has become an irritant to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami and their fundamentalist allies, which think that they may be weakened if the distortions are corrected and secular principles restored.

The two recent landmark verdicts delivered by the Supreme Court declaring the controversial fifth and eighth amendments — brought in by military rulers General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad — unconstitutional and void have brightened the scope for a meaningful change. Declaring military rule unconstitutional, the court restored the four basic principles — democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism — which were the pillars of the state.

The Awami League-led alliance, bound by its promise to restore the lost state principles, formed a special parliamentary committee for recommending suitable amendments. The committee, after a year-long exercise, placed its recommendations before Parliament. These recommendations will be included in the upcoming Constitution bill, to be endorsed by Parliament.

Resistance to the changes in all conceivable ways, to deflect the ruling alliance from its avowed path, was expected from the political beneficiaries of the fifth and eighth amendments — the fundamentalists and pro-Islamists. Interestingly, the Sheik Hasina-led coalition has started facing opposition from among its own supporters who fear that the government, due to its “misconceived political readings,” may fall into a trap.

These sections, the vanguard of the nation's secular ethos — freedom fighters, cultural and women activists, leading professional groups in the greater civil society spectrum — allege that while the government proposes to restore ‘secularism,' it also intends retaining some provisions which are in sharp contradiction to secularism and the spirit of the Liberation War.

Indiscriminate amendments were made to the Constitution by the first military regime led by Gen Ziaur Rahman, founder of the BNP, following the assassination of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 . The amendments not only changed the fundamental principles of the state but also destroyed its secular character, allowed politics based on religion, and provided political rights to the anti-Liberation War forces, even the war criminals. Besides, the secular ‘Bengali nationalism,' on the basis of which the Bangladesh war was fought, was replaced with ‘Bangladeshi nationalism'.

Grabbing state power in 1982, General Ershad made Islam the state religion. This gross deviation from the original Constitution radically altered the political landscape, helping in the rise of religion-based political parties, which had been banned on charges of war crimes.

“These changes were fundamental in nature and changed the very basis of our war for liberation and also defaced the Constitution altogether,” the Supreme Court observed, adding they transformed a secular Bangladesh into a “theocratic state” and “betrayed one of the dominant causes for the war of liberation of Bangladesh.”

The criticism from within the government's proven support groups became louder as the parliamentary committee recommended retention of Islam as the state religion, saying at the same time that the state would be neutral on the question of religion. On June 20, the Cabinet, chaired by Sheikh Hasina, approved a Constitution bill seeking the retention of “Islam as the state religion” and the phrase ‘Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim.' Two Ministers opposed the provisions as they sharply contradict the principle of secularism. However, the Prime Minister told her colleagues that she favoured the retention of the two provisions, taking into account the “ground reality.”

The sympathisers-turned critics of the ruling coalition see this as an obvious contradiction. They blame the policymakers for striking an “unethical compromise” with religion-based politics, in the vain hope of pleasing the pro-Islamic electorate.

However, they have welcomed some fundamental changes the ruling alliance proposes to make to the Constitution. For the first time, Bangladesh is set to give constitutional recognition to Mujibur Rahman, and incorporate the historical facts of the “Declaration of Independence” on March 26, 1971 by Mujib, his March 7, 1971 public speech that led to the armed struggle, and the “Proclamation of Independence” by the elected representatives who formed the provisional government to lead the war in April 1971.

The pro-Islamists must be happy with the government's decision to retain the non-secular provisions. But whether they will vote for the party which, in their words, ‘dismantled Pakistan,' remains uncertain.

The argument in favour of retaining the controversial principles is that the BNP and the Jamaat, backed by splinter Islamist groups, may mislead the electorate.

Nonetheless, there are apprehensions among the liberals that if the non-secular provisions, including the right to religion-based politics, are not removed, fanatics would become more desperate to turn Bangladesh into a state similar to Pakistan. This compromise may alienate a vast majority of young generation voters who, under a new ethical awakening, voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League in the crucial 2008 elections.

The Supreme Court has paved the way for preventing a military takeover in future and restored the secular spirit of the original Constitution. Islam, however, shall remain state religion as it was not covered by the judgment. The court vehemently denounced military rule and the suspension of the Constitution by a martial law proclamation.

The original Constitution, adopted on December, 16, 1972, endorsed nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as basic state principles. Gen Rahman proclaimed himself President in 1977 and began the process of Islamisation by removing all secular principles. Apart from the 11th and 12th amendments, all amendments were made unilaterally. Those unilateral amendments produced bitterness, animosity and hostility.

‘Bismillah,' an Arabic word, is not the issue; the issue is its political use. The military ruler of Bangladesh adopted the campaign rhetoric of Hitler, who stoked racial and ethnic sentiments in the 1930s Germany, and of the Catholic Church of Austria, which used religious sentiments to persecute the Jews. There is also a lesson to be learnt: religion, when politically manipulated, can bring about massive human destruction. The Bangladesh genocide and mass rape in 1971 by ‘Islamist' Pakistan army and its collaborators are a gleaming example.

There are a few important amendments suggested by the special committee, which includes a new Article. It says any unconstitutional seizure of state power should be considered treason and persons involved tried on the charge of sedition. The committee has also recommended a new Article to ensure preservation of the heritage of the ethnic minorities and their development.

Two partners of the ruling coalition and members of the special committee gave a note of dissent on the recommendations for retaining the non-secular provisions. They, however, did not oppose the recommendation on the caretaker government, already declared unconstitutional by the court, as they thought an alternative could be found through talks, if the BNP came to the negotiating table. Despite repeated invitations, however, Khaleda Zia did not send her representatives to the committee.

According to the recommendations, war criminals, now undergoing trial, cannot contest the national election. Besides, the committee recommended women's empowerment, and protection of bio-diversity and environment.

While the pro-Islamists have remained mum on the government's declaration of retaining the ‘pro-religious' Articles, pro-secular organisations have started expressing grave concern. They have demanded the constitutional recognition of all races and ethnic communities.

The secularists have also pointed out that the independence of Bangladesh means independence from the dreadful practices of categorisation by the professed faiths. They hope that Parliament will do its part to preserve the Constitution that represents the nation's heroic struggle for independence from a false statehood on the basis of religion.

(The writer is a senior Bangladesh journalist, political analyst and author. Email: hh1971@gmail.com.)

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