In 1988, when HM Ershad, a dodgy army general leading Bangladesh at that time, amended the constitution, he cleverly substituted the word “secular” in the State policy with “Islamic”. The civil society, which had supported Bangladesh’s secular constitution, was aghast at Islam being made the State religion. Fifteen of them filed a writ before the apex court, the core argument of which was that “a religion like Islam cannot be controlled by the State, and a sovereign nation-state cannot be dictated by the canons of Islam.”
After being in the freezer for 23 years, the matter is out again. The court has now asked the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina why it has not yet been annulled. Hasina is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, founder of the nation and architect of the secular constitution. However, a committee of lawmakers dominated by the Awami League has given its verdict. It does not want Islam to cease to be the country’s State religion. Interestingly, Ershad was not only the League’s ally in the last elections in 2008 but the architect of the ‘grand alliance’ (mahajot), instrumental in the previous incumbent Khaleda Zia’s electoral debacle. Mujibur Rahman’s idea of separation between Islam and the State has been scuppered by not only his political opponents but by his own kin.
The French-style ‘active neutrality’ of the State towards religion that Mujib had introduced got diluted after his assassination in 1975. Ziaur Rahman, the military ruler who took over soon after Mujib’s assassination, introduced the words Bismillah’ir Rahman’ir Rahim on top of the constitution’s preamble. And he wanted India to be put at a distance. The State radio, for example, stopped saying ‘Joy Bangla’ under him and chanted ‘Bangladesh Zindabad’ instead; the former was considered too close to ‘Jai Hind’ while the idea was to make it sound like ‘Pakistan Zindabad’.
It was clear that once the West Pakistani hegemony was obliterated, the Muslim identity of Bengalis was manifest again. Even then, all that it led Bangladesh to was a liberal form of Islam. But Ershad went several notches further. He sought realignment with Pakistan, a desire that also remained a strategic aim of the Bangladesh National Party under Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s widow.
However, India need not read too much meaning into Hasina’s decision to let the Islamic state stay as it can well be a ploy to deflate Khaleda’s relentless campaign against her for being, among other things, an ‘Indian agent’. Besides, an overdose of secularism has not succeeded in the Islamic world — be it in Soviet-supported Afghanistan, in Iran under the Shah or Turkey under the pro-military secularists whose banning of headscarf became a moving metaphor of human liberty and its infringement in Nobel winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. In Turkey, liberal Muslim AK Party’s third consecutive electoral victory this week carries its own message to overzealous secularists.
However, not all Muslim-majority states are Islamic either. Indonesia is an example. Despite al-Qaeda attacks on its soil, it has limited its assertion of faith to “belief in one supreme God” and has given official status to as many as six religions, including Islam and Hinduism. However, the fact that Bangladesh has chosen a different kind of relation between the mosque and the State is a product of its own historical and cultural development.
The writ by Bangladesh’s citizens as early as 1988 shows a paradox that cannot be resolved by politicians. Justice Kamaluddin Ahmed, who took a leading part in drafting the petition, questioned how a sovereign State could have Islam as its “State religion”? Religion recognises no border. If it becomes the State, it cannot be subordinate to the sovereignty of a State. It is a dilemma that the Bangladesh secularists identified with uncanny prescience. Pakistan is paying a huge price for living with this contradiction. Bangladesh under Hasina has now welcomed it.
( Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based political commentator )
The views expressed by the author are personal