Sheikh Hasina’s hate statues can only weaken democracy in Bangladesh
Earlier this week, the Bangladesh government made a curious announcement. The minister for liberation war affairs told parliament that the government would build a ‘hate statue’. This statue would “express hatred towards Razakars, Al-Badrs, Al-Shams and other collaborators of the Pakistan army [during the Liberation War of 1971].” This would certainly be a first in the commemoration of mass atrocities anywhere in the world. And it is indicative of the political corner in which the government finds itself.
A few weeks ago, the Sheikh Hasina government was caught in a controversy over another statue. Hefazat-i-Islam, a fundamentalist network of madrasas, had protested the installation in the Supreme Court of a statue of a blindfolded lady holding a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. Hefazat claimed that this was tantamount to idolatry and sought the removal of the statue. When the government caved in, a large group of students quickly mobilised in protest. Although it cracked down on the protestors, the government also ordered the reinstallation of the statue in the Supreme Court’s premises — now tucked in a discrete corner.
The government’s original decision to remove the statue was aimed at currying favour with conservative Muslims ahead of the next general elections. Hasina called the statue “ridiculous” — whether on aesthetic or political grounds was left unsaid. The reinstallation of the statue was an attempt to burnish its credentials with the liberals. The proposed ‘hate statue’ seems yet another attempt to assuage the concerns of the Awami League’s core constituency about the government’s commitment to the country’s founding vision of nationalism.
Hasina has resorted to such balancing acts earlier — most notably on the question of secularism in Bangladesh’s constitution. The original constitution of Bangladesh, which came into existence in 1972, was a remarkable document for its time. It proclaimed four guiding principles for the new state: Democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism.
The notion that the State should be secular met with the approval of various sections of the polity. The tiny Islamist minority that believed otherwise had been discredited by its role in opposing the country’s independence. So their views carried no weight in the making of the constitution.
Things began to change with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 and the following period of military rule. The 5th Amendment was moved in 1979, during the reign of General Zia-ur Rahman. It sought to impart constitutional legitimacy to the military dictatorships that followed Mujib’s assassination. Among other things, Zia expunged secularism from the principles of state policy enumerated in the constitution, and deleted Article 12 which proscribed religious parties. The removal of this article paved the way for the entry of the Jamaat-i-Islami into the political arena. It is not surprising that Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party — now led by his wife — embraced the Jamaat in 2001.
In August 2005, the Bangladesh high court ruled that the 5th Amendment was unconstitutional. The BNP and the Jamaat challenged this verdict. On July 28, 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh dismissed their petitions and upheld the high court’s ruling. What is more, it explicitly criticised the omission of secularism under the 5th Amendment as a step that “destroyed one of the basis of our struggle for freedom and also changed the basic character of the Republic”.
The government took years to give effect to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Eventually, the 15th Amendment passed in 2015 made Bangladesh a secular country with Islam as the state religion. This muddled compromise was Sheikh Hasina’s way of striking a balance between the religious sentiments of Bangladesh’s Muslim majority and the historic mantle of the liberation war claimed by the Awami League.
But there have been escalating demands from the conservative Islamist critics of the government. The Hefazat wanted the government to prove its Muslim credentials by removing poems from school textbooks that were pronounced as ‘atheist’. The Hasina government quietly complied. It has also declared that degrees issued by the madrasas will be deemed equivalent to a master’s degree from a state university.
More worrying is the government’s reluctance to uphold the rule of law, especially over freedom of expression. This has certainly emboldened Islamist outfits — an ironic outcome given Hasina’s desire to crush the Jamaat. Still more problematic is the government’s attempt to silence the political Opposition by using every trick in the book. In so doing it has struck a blow to democracy. Building ‘hate’ statues to stoke chauvinism will deepen the damage already done.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal