Here is some disconcerting news for all disciples of neocon gurus, who had discovered Islam as the enemy of democracy and the successor to the “evil empire” of the cold war era. An Islamic country of 160 million people, under an elected government, is witnessing important but ill-noticed moves to abolish religion-based politics.
On February 2, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh struck down a nearly 11-year-old constitutional amendment that had allowed religion-based political parities to function and flourish in the country. The ruling had the effect of restoring the statutory secularism, which Bangladesh adopted in 1972 after liberation from Pakistan and lost five years later following a series of military coups.
It may also have the effect of inspiring at least a debate on the issues in Pakistan, the other Islamic country of South Asia. It may also have a ripple effect, helping to raise the issues subsequently in sections of the rest of the Islamic world.
This only carries forward an old battle. The logic of Bangladesh’s liberation war itself led the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to place its linguistic identity above the religious. The reverse of the same logic drove religion-based groups in the the pre-liberation East Pakistan to side with Islamabad in the war.
The first constitution of Bangladesh, under Article 38, placed a bar on religion-based parties and politics. Mujib, as he was popularly known, and most of his family were assassinated in a coup on August 25, 1975. A series of coups since then culminated in the country’s takeover by Maj.-Gen. Ziaur Rahman in 1977. In April 1979, the Zia regime enacted the infamous Fifth Amendment to the constitution, paving the way for the return of religion-based parties and politics.
Article 38 of the original constitution proclaimed: “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of morality or public order.” But it clearly added: “Provided that 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.”
As revised under the Fifth Amendment, the Article said: “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health.” The amendment scrapped the original Article 12, which enshrined “secularism” and “freedom of religion” in the supreme law of the land.
Earlier, by a proclamation, the martial law regime made other major changes in the constitution as well. The Preamble to the constitution was preceded by the religious invocation, “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim” (in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful). In the text of the Preamble, the words “a historic struggle for national liberation” were replaced with “a historic war for national independence.” The phrase mentioning “nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism” as the “high ideals” in the second paragraph was replaced with “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice.”
Article 8 of the original constitution – laying down nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as the four fundamental principles of state policy – was amended to omit “secularism” and replace it with “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah.” In repeated pronouncements, Zia also substituted “Bangladeshi nationalism” for the “Bengali nationalism” of the Mujib days that stressed a non-religious identity.
Lt.-Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who staged yet another coup and ruled Bangladesh during 1982-86, carried Zia’s initiative forward by making Islam the “state religion” through the Eighth Amendment.
The battle between the secular and anti-secular camps continued through all this, and became more open after the country’s return to democracy in 1991. The Awami League (AL), headed by Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has always fought for abrogation of the Fifth Amendment. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by Zia and now led by his widow Begum Khaleda Zia, and its allies pursuing religion-based politics have remained uncompromising supporters of the amendment.
The AL and its allies scored a legal victory in August 2005, when the country’s High Court held the amendment unconstitutional. The court said: “These changes (made by the Fifth Amendment) were fundamental in nature and changed the very basis of our war for liberation and also defaced the constitution altogether.” It added that the amendment transformed secular Bangladesh into a “theocratic state” and “betrayed one of the dominant causes for the war of liberation.”
The government in Dhaka, then a coalition of the BNP and the religion-based Jamaat-i-Islami (JeI), moved a petition in the Supreme Court against the ruling. The order was stayed and the issue of the amendment was put on the back burner, where it stayed for four years.
Then came a major political change. A year ago, on January 6, 2009, Hasina returned as prime minister after a landslide electoral victory. In early May 2009, the AL government withdrew the old, official petition for staying the 2005 court ruling. The BNP-JeI alliance was quick to react. BNP Secretary General Khondker Delwar Hossain and three lawyers from the JeI rushed to the Supreme Court with petitions seeking to protect the amendment. Their petitions have been thrown out.
The JeI and other religion-based groups did not endear themselves to the country, as the results of the last general election showed, with their violent activities. The serial bombing they carried out across Bangladesh in 2005, taking a heavy toll of human lives, did not help the BNP return to power through the ballot box. The period 2001-06, when the BNP-led alliance wielded power, witnessed “unprecedented” atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities, according to Bangladeshi rights activist Shahriar Kabir. The victims included Hindus, Ahmediyas and other communities and the atrocities ranged from killings and rapes to destruction and desecration of places of worship.
After the Supreme Court’s verdict, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has said that all religion-based parties should “drop the name of Islam from their name and stop using religion during campaigning.” He has also announced that religion-based parties are going to be “banned.” The government, however, has disavowed any intention to remove the Islamic invocation from the Preamble of the constitution.
All this has already drawn attention in Pakistan, which has continued to suffer from religion-based politics despite its popular rejection in successive elections. Veteran Pakistani columnist Babar Ayaz, in an article captioned “Amendments for a secular constitution” in the Lahore-based Daily Times, talks of the clauses in Pakistan’s constitution, introduced by former dictator Zia ul-Haq “who considered himself a kind of religious guardian of the country.”
Noting the moves in Bangladesh, Ayaz adds: “Pakistan may not be able to ban religion-based political parties in the near future, but it should move towards expunging the ridiculous constitutional clauses mentioned above … It would be a long and hard struggle, but it is doable.”
Bangladesh is in for a long and hard struggle, too. The BNP has threatened an agitation against the changes. It is likely to combine this with a campaign against India (under whose pressure Hasina is alleged to be acting), and New Delhi can be counted upon to keep providing grist to Khaleda’s political mill with Big Brother-like actions widely resented in Bangladesh.
There are also limits to which a constitution alone can counter religion-based politics. The far right’s activities in India, proud of its staunchly secular constitution, furnishes just one example.
The significance of what is happening in Bangladesh, however, cannot be belittled either. It demonstrates the far greater role popular will can play in combating religion-based politics than cluster bombs and drones.