In a couple of weeks, Bangladesh will celebrate the golden jubilee of its victory in the liberation war against Pakistan. Fifty years have passed since it became independent, and secular nationalist forces gained the upper hand over religious ones in the war. However, Bangladesh has not been able to secure its secularism.
Debates about the country’s secular national identity, a founding principle of the state, persist to date. Some argue that secularism was imposed on the country from above. According to this argument, political pressure, especially from India due to its support for Bangladesh during the liberation war, played an important role in determining Bangladesh’s secular identity. But also, as several scholars have argued, secularism became the country’s founding principle due to the secular-linguistic Bengali nationalistic movement in the 1947-71 period.
Unlike the Western conception of secularism, where the state is separate or distances itself from the church/religion, Bangladeshi secularism translates into Dharmanirapekkhata (religious neutrality). The Bangladeshi state does not disassociate itself from religion; rather it accepts the role of religion in public spheres. And in the eyes of the state all religions are equal.
That is why ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation and independent Bangladesh’s first president, allowed the broadcasting of verses from the holy texts of the country’s four main religions over national television and radio.
Has Bangladesh translated its idea of secularism as religious neutrality into practice? Have successive regimes maintained religious neutrality or Dharmanirapekkhata? The answer is no.
The very idea of religious neutrality has been destroyed by the majoritarian opportunistic political culture in Bangladesh. Post-1975 military regimes have exploited religious sentiment by installing Islam as a guiding principle to garner popular support and to overcome the crisis of legitimacy.
Even democratic regimes have resorted to such ploys; the use of Islamic phrases in the Constitution continues.
Bangladesh’s two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have played the Islamic card to come to power. In addition to aligning with Islamist organizations and parties, they have conceded to them the role of king-maker. Islamists have even been made cabinet ministers.
In the 2008 general election, the Awami League came to the power with an absolute majority. It contested the election on the promise that it would bring back secularism as it was in Bangladesh’s original constitution. In the original constitution, secularism was a founding principle. Subsequently this was done away with and phrases like ‘Absolute Faith and Trust in Almighty Allah’ made their way into the constitution.
In keeping with its election promise, the Awami League government restored secularism but kept Islam as the state religion in 2011.
The Awami League’s ambiguity about secularism and Islam signals the polarized nature of Bangladesh society. This became evident during the Gonojagaran Mancho (People’s Awakening Stage) or the Shahbag movement, which called for the death sentence to be imposed on war criminals.
As the movement gathered momentum in 2013, there was a counter-mobilization led by the Hefazat-e-Islam. The Hefazat emerged out of an Islamist backlash to the Shahbag movement and labelled its supporters as atheists and anti-Islamists. Hefazat also targeted secular free-thinking writers and bloggers for making disparaging comments about Islam and the Prophet, and pressured the Awami League government to prosecute those hurting religious sentiment.
The Hefazat was able to mobilize large numbers of supporters to participate in its marches and sit-ins in Dhaka. Its street power, which paralyzed life in Dhaka, rattled the Awami League government. Although it did deploy force to disperse the Islamist activists, the Awami League also appeased the Hefazat and gave in to some of its demands.
For instance, the government accorded recognition to the Qawmi Dawrah degree as equivalent to a Master’s degree. It has diluted the secular content of school textbooks and enacted blasphemy laws. It also moved a statue of Lady Justice from the front of the Supreme Court as the Hefazat deemed the statue un-Islamic.
Not only is the Awami League government appeasing the Islamists but, it is also doing little to protect the rights of minorities. Since 2013, there have been over 3,600 attacks on Bangladesh’s Hindu minority. More recently, in October 2021, there were attacks on Hindus, their businesses, and temples across Bangladesh.
Human rights activists have said that in some cases, the government loses the lawsuits filed after attacks on minorities.
Ironically, it was the Awami League, then under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which led Bangladesh to independence 50 years ago. Sadly, a half-century on, the Awami League appears to be falling short in defending Bangladesh’s secularism.