Bangladesh: “Religion in Our Hearts and Secularism on Our Sleeves
Image Credit: Flickr (Rajiv Ashrafi)

Bangladesh: “Religion in Our Hearts and Secularism on Our Sleeves"


“Remember Bangladesh is a young country and it is fighting hard to retain the spirit of secularism despite a looming threat from radical elements within the society and outside. So when you are reporting from there you should be sensitive.” This was the first thing a senior Bangladeshi official said when I went to submit my passport for a visa in the Bangladeshi high commission in New Delhi last week.

During the ten minutes of one-sided conversation the senior staff went on to tell me about the Islamic Republic’s struggle to maintain the spirit of freedom since it was born in 1971. He further emphasized how important it is for the country to remain on the path of secularism and Bengali nationalism.

Coming to Dhaka is a journey into a land that features only infrequently in India’s history books and newspapers. Although the country shares more than 4,000 kilometers of border with India there is little emotional or intellectual understanding of the country among India’s masses. The popular image of Bangladesh among Indians is of a country steeped in poverty, whose citizens infiltrate northeastern Indian states like Assam where they are changing the demographic profile.

The arrogance that often comes with being a citizen of the biggest country in South Asia overwhelms the majority of Indians’ objectivity and dampens their curiosity about a neighbor that is setting a precedent for other Islamic countries around the world. Indians mostly know Bangladesh as a country that New Delhi helped liberate from Pakistan in 1971. Yet, they are unaware of Bangladesh's historical evolution and the reason it separated from Pakistan.

For Bangladeshis, however, even after 42 years the war for liberation is not over. They believe that the task that began in 1971 remains unfinished until the war criminals who committed atrocities in Bangladesh are brought to justice. Posters can be seen around Dhaka welcoming the ban on radical Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, which prohibits them from contesting elections.

“Jamaat has played a dubious role in the country’s freedom struggle. It sided with Pakistan and was actively involved in killing its own people in collaboration with the Pakistani army,” Masud Raza, a postgraduate student at the University of Dhaka, told The Diplomat. “Even after independence the organization has been playing a negative role in society. It wants to radicalize this secular nation. Such a party does not have a place in this land.”

One of the oldest campuses in South Asia, the University of Dhaka has been a hub of the nation’s struggle for freedom and has been at the forefront of the recent call to punish the war criminals who have been facing trial under the International Crimes tribunal. The university shows many signs of the struggle.

A poster just outside the main canteen reads: “Punish the war criminals and secularism is our religion.” Inside the dining hall there is a huge portrait of Madhusudan Dey, the original owner of the canteen who was killed in early 1971 by the Razakars, an anti-liberation front of mostly Jamaat leaders.

A group of young students in their early 20s are animatedly discussing the recent Shahbag Square demonstrations, where thousands protested for weeks, demanding the death penalty for twelve on trial at the International Crimes Tribunal.

“If we fail to take a stand on the issue of justice and secularism now history will condemn us. Bengali nationalism and secularism are two principles we separated from Pakistan and we cannot afford to debunk them,” says a student named Shakina Afroz.

Not far away from campus, a large crowd of young people have gathered near a popular lake, Rabindro Sarovar, to listen to a concert being organized by a local band to celebrate the completion of Eid. Young boys and girls holding hands are enjoying the fast numbers and hip hop songs.

The performance stops for a while when the nearby mosque calls for an evening prayer. Once the muezzin's adhan is finished the open air stage again starts reverberating with music.

When asked why the band stopped during the evening call to prayer, a 22-year-old university student named Shimanto Choudhary says, “In Bangladesh we keep religion in our heart and secularism on our sleeve and in our spirit.”

This balance between religion and secularism is something very unique in this part of South Asia.

Other Islamic countries in the region such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are still struggling to strike a balance between the secular urge of the people and the demands of religion.

Mohammed Ismail
April 12, 2014 at 08:21

According to Transparency International Bangladesh was the NUMBER ONE MOST CORRUPT country in the world from the year 200-2005, and manage to be among the top most corrupt to this day.

Bangladesh in not a democracy it is a dynastic autocracy.
So stop being so idiotic and wasting your time thinking you are a democracy.

It is so funny how people in Bangladesh boast they love in so much and die to go to western countries to make their life because their own country cannot offer them any job opportunity.

Bengalis need to get out of the illusion that they are the only nation who have struggled for independence. I mean look at Palestine.

What happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was long time ago Bengal is need to move on look to the future and get out of the illusion that have infested their thinkings.

Mohammed Ismail
April 12, 2014 at 08:08

Bangladesh will never be successful as a so called secular state. The problem with many idiots in Bangladesh is that they have no clue with the definition of secularism. They try to imitate the western style of democracy, secularism and so on. But what works for the west does not work for Bangladesh. The west under Christian rule was suppressed and subjugated, whereas the greatest achievement made by Bengalis and Muslims in general was in a time when people were deeply religious and God fearing.

Lets just pretend to be grown up for few minutes and look at the facts.
It is time to question the point of the whole endevear of independence. What did we gain from independence apart from a map a flag and a worthless corrupt dynastic political class? Nothing.

Joy Jagannath Debnath
December 17, 2013 at 20:52

Sanjay dada, why don’t you write any new article about the current issue of Bangladesh.
Joy Jagannath Debnath

Shahid Abdullah
August 25, 2013 at 15:28

Dear MBI Munshi

First of all, I did not say that I was inspired by Awami League or any other party for that matter. Please revisit and listen to all the songs that were played in Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. These were songs of Bengali spirit that I am talking about. Listen to Baul artists like Shiraj Shai and Lalon Fakeer and others throughout the ages and you will see the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness.

The national poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam also wrote and sang the songs of tolerance. Soon after the surrender of Pakistani invaders, the brodcastings in bangladesh Betar and TV would start with recitation from Qur'an followed by recitation from Baghwat Geeta/Bible or Tripitaka. The consitution of Bangladesh came about as a reflection of the spirit of Bengalis, and not as a result of the leadership of one party or the other telling people what to think or do.

You say that no one in Awami League spoke about Secularism during the leberation war or even long after the country finally came out of the shackle of occupation. Whilst I have never belived or supported any particular party, I am not going to have anyone brainwash me into clear distortion. Please listen to the speech of Sheikh Mujib, given at Delhi Airport in 1972 following his release from Pakistan and en route to Dhaka.

With regard to the concept of Secularism in South Asia, it does not mean we all become people without faith. It simply means that we respect and live in harmony with people of all faiths (and of no faith). The state does not faviour people of one particular faith over others.

Whether you take my comments with a pinch of salt or not is up to you, but please do not automatically assume paint anyone instantly in to the boundary of any political or other groupings.

For your information, as a 12 year old, I was (along with many othrrs) were also very much inspired by the announcement of Late Ziaur Rahman on 27th March 1971. Awami League may wish to brush the event out of history (just as BNP's attempt to potray Zia's role above all others), but the fact remains without Mujib, there would not have been any liberation struggle and also Zia's announcement of independence on behalf of the Supreme leader, Shekh Mujibur Rahman, lifted people up, following the start of pure act of terror by the Pakistani junta.


Shahid Abdullah
August 25, 2013 at 00:06

I did not speak and do not speak on behalf of any particular party. I have simply stated what inspired me. Many freedom fighters were not members of any party. I am speaking of what inspired people
What makes you think that I speak for Awami League?

MBI Munshi
August 24, 2013 at 08:50

Interesting that no one in the entire Awmi League leadership at the time shared your concern for secularism that they failed to mention it once prior to the war starting or even a year after it had ended …. You won't mind then if I take your comments with a pinch of salt.

David Lewis
August 23, 2013 at 22:40

I really enjoyed reading this article – it is thoughtful and informative, thank you for writing it.

August 23, 2013 at 08:51

[When asked why the band stopped during the evening call to prayer, a 22-year-old university student named Shimanto Choudhary says, “In Bangladesh we keep religion in our heart and secularism on our sleeve and in our spirit.”]

The definition of a pure hypocrit. A true secular would keep the music going while the call of prayer is goin on, while the truely reglious wouldn't go these muscial place hand-in-hand with their sexually active girlfriends/boyfriends.  And what kind of 'secular' country has a state religion in their constituion. These bangladesies are neither religious nor secular,they are hypocrits.

Inept Analyst
August 23, 2013 at 06:11

Bangladesh is not an 'Islamic Republic'. It's full name is The People's Republic of Bangladesh.

The impression that Bangladesh is fighting for Western-style secularism is not accurate either – but a minority point of view. In fact a recent PEW Survey indicated 82% of Bangladeshis want Sharia Law.

This doesn't mean the country isn't secular. It has been secular (i.e. provided freedom of religion and promoted interfaith harmony) for centuries. The people, in my opinion, just don't see the need for Religion-State separation – because mosques, unlike churches, aren't a monolithic shadow-government commanding huge funds, resources and central command. Bangladesh has long been secular in an Eastern kind of way.

August 23, 2013 at 03:45

Look these war criminals never gave the people a chance,whom they killed.IT IS THAT SIMPLE. These criminals were given a fair chance to prove,that they are not guilty. They failed to prove that.In Bangladesh everyone knows who the war criminals are. So just please hang the bastards and wash this nations biggest sin. Allah help us all.

Muhammad Chowdhury
August 23, 2013 at 00:57

I think the most legitimate way to win an argument is through argument and not through violence. But that only works if one has a sound argument in the first place. For that to happen between two or more parties there needs to be a level playing field. The militant secularists and anti Islamist forces is Bangladesh have failed, in my view, to articulate a cohesive and respectable perspective that is open to objective scrutiny. Take the case of the international crimes tribunal as an example.

In a country where we don’t really do patriotism like they do in US or Bangladesh, the militant secularist and anti Islamist forces need to raise their standards and use a language that we are familiar with.

Most British Muslims along with most members of the general British public are not particularly fascinated by the Bangladeshi ruling party’s roots in communist and socialist ideology. To be honest I struggle to relate to their brand of liberalism or secularism and, given their actions, I quite frankly struggle to distinguish them from fascist movements.

As we have seen in recent days it seems rather fashionable for militant secularists and anti Islamists to conveniently play the ‘terrorist’ card against their opponents. The question is can their bogus assertions stand up to objective scrutiny?

On a personal level, i’d argue that those who believe in God believe that they will ultimately be accounted for their actions and so they see their political participation as duty to bring about justice and fairness within the framework of their religious ideals. That make it a matter of life, death and more importantly, their eternal existence beyond. Those who don’t hold such beliefs have relatively less at stake.

The problem is that those who subscribe to Islam and by extension presumably submit to the will of God have a dilemma in reconciling their religious beliefs with their commitment to ideologies relatively alien to their religious beliefs, many of which – those ideologies- were developed in post enlightenment Europe as a reaction to the overbearing power of the official clergy which endorsed the brutality of the rulers.

We can see the resemblance to such clergymen at work in the ‘official’ political fatwas of the Saudi and Egyptian ‘mullas’.

For British Bangladeshis, who on the whole happen to be Muslims, we need to move beyond the shallow rhetoric of the rather polarised political factions in Bangladesh and be prepared to take an objective position of our own.

We have the benefit of an education and an upbringing in a liberal democracy. We know what its like to live in a country that is a world leader in respecting the rule of law (despite our occasional shortcomings).

Finally, the truth is an abstract noun (which also happens to be a quality of God) we need to keep it free from material influences!

Silent Observer
August 22, 2013 at 19:03

''Sanjay Kumar, you should have done your homework properly, before writing this article!''
It lacks in-depth analysis is very amateurish…

Shahid Abdullah
August 22, 2013 at 18:38

Dear MBI Munshi

I was quite young (12 years old) at tthe time of liberation, but I distictly remember being enthraled, enchanted and most definitely attracted to the liberation struggle, based on 4 fundamental principles, namely

1) Nationalism

2) Socialism

3) Secularism (Dharma Niropekkhota)

4) Democracy

I completely disagree with your attempt to potray that liberation struggle had nothing to do with secularism. I am afraid you are (and those of your ilks) are simply trying to distort the facts. Bengalis have never been fundamentalists and exclusionists. Throughout history people of various faiths (and those with no faiths) have lived in harmony and no matter what people like you try to do, ultimately, you will fail to destroy Bengali spirit of tolerance and harmony


MBI Munshi
August 22, 2013 at 10:07

 Firstly secularism had no part to play in the 1971 independence war and was never mentioned by any of the leaders during the 9 month struggle or even during the years preceding the conflict. Secularism only made an appearance during the drafting of the constitution more than a year after the war had ended. As for the war crimes trials while they have proven popular there is widespread concern that the accused have not received a fair hearing and that the tribunals have been far from impartial. Indeed HRW and The Economist magazine have repeatedly raised questions over the trials process. Similarly the Shahbag protests which called for the execution of all the accused in these trials and for a return to secularist ideals have proven extremely unpopular with the government having to disown the groups involved. Most of what has appeared in the article by Sanjay Kumar is typical Indian misunderstanding on Bangladesh and an urge to impose a particular set of ideals on the country to make it more compliant and subservient to Indian interests.    

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