Bangladesh is not a country that is at peace with itself. It is by no means alone in that respect in the region — Nepal and India are, for instance, experiencing a lot of churning currently around issues of identity. Bangladesh’s fiercely partisan political culture lends a particular urgency to the nation’s culture wars.
The two major political parties, the ruling Awami League and the BNP, have been at loggerheads for decades and have starkly different readings on various issues including history and social policy. One issue of concern for policymakers has been rising religious extremism which has manifested itself in the many attacks on minorities, including Hindus and Buddhists. There have also been high-profile murders of atheist bloggers.
Dysfunctional politics is unlikely to usher in change — and hence it is particularly heartening that the Bangladesh Supreme Court has decided to hear a petition that challenges Islam’s status as the country’s official religion. The court’s decision is crucial as it can arrest the majoritarian dynamic in Bangladeshi society.
A court ruling striking down the 1988 constitutional amendment that made Islam the state religion would be the impetus to enforce equal treatment of all religious communities, in a diverse nation where 85-90% are Muslims and about eight per cent are Hindus, in addition to other minorities. Right now, the country is reconciling contradictory language in the Constitution: Article 12 says the “principle of secularism shall be realised” by eliminating the granting of political status in favour of any religion while Article 2A declares the state religion to be Islam (even as it asserts that “the State shall ensure equal status and equal right” in the practice of other faiths).
A state religion marginalises other communities and deprives society of the chance to deliberate its future collectively. Defining personal identity purely in relation to religion also restricts the freedom of individuals to adhere to no faith.
The experience of Bangladesh and Pakistan shows that introducing majoritarianism through legislative and policy instruments ultimately undermines social cohesion. It is a lesson that India should not forget.