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Harun bhai pix finalA notion about Bangladesh has been created over the years that the nation is condemned to watch a monotonous one-act drama –– the power struggle between the Awami League and the BNP. This colours the current debate on the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the focus is hence on the dispute regarding the nature of an election-time caretaker government.

What impact the Fifteenth Amendment may have in moulding the polity?

Let us begin at the beginning. In the post-colonial period, Bangladesh is the first in the world to emerge as a nation-state defying the arrangements and boundaries of the former colonies as determined by the former colonial masters. Secondly, the British relinquished their colony in India through negotiated deals with their subjects and created the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Bangladesh, on the other hand, fought and won a war of independence against Pakistan to gain freedom. Thirdly, while the sub-continent’s freedom struggle against the British colonial rule turned communal, the Bangladesh struggle for freedom built on the ideal of secularism.

The long freedom struggle and the 1971 War of Independence created a national consensus on the polity. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, adopted in 1972, enunciated four fundamental principles of state policy, namely, nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism.

Bangladesh was a revolution, unfurling the twin banners of secularism and socialism. (India followed the example of Bangladesh and made secularism and socialism parts of its constitution in 1976.)

The Bangladesh revolution was short-lived. A counter-revolution overthrew the legal government on 15 August 1975. The then president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom the Constitution now calls Father of the Nation, was murdered along with most of his family members to teach the people a lesson who followed his leadership in establishing secular-socialist Bangladesh. The principles of secularism and socialism were dropped. The ghost of the ‘two-nation theory’ of the pre-Partition days was resurrected and the so-called Bangladeshi nationalism, which is a euphemism for communal Bengali Muslim nationalism, replaced secular Bengali nationalism. The genie of unbridled capitalism was given a free hand to loot and plunder the country.

Though reduced to a mere martial law-doctored document, the Constitution was nevertheless allowed to survive. It was a ruse to give constitutional respectability to the Islam-pasand polity that General Ziaur Rahman improvised with martial law proclamations. The Islam-pasand polity got a sort of constitutional sanctity through the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Islamisation of the polity was ensured by beginning the preamble of the Constitution with ‘Bismillah-ar-Rhaman-ar-Rahim’ and making ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ a fundamental principle of state policy. The process was further reinforced by General HM Ershad who made Islam ‘state religion’ through the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

The retrogressive forces of the counter-revolution destroyed the national consensus centred on the pristine four fundamental principles of state policy. Thus began a battle of polities between the pre-‘75 secular-socialist polity and the post-’75 Islam-pasand polity. The core issue is: will Bangladesh re-embrace secularism?  Alternatively, will Islamisation of the polity continue?

The compromise: The Fifteenth Amendment should be viewed in the context of the battle of polities.

Three developments prepared the ground for the Fifteenth Amendment. First, the Court sent the killers of Mujib to the gallows. This dealt a body blow to the counter-revolution. Secondly, the Court declared the Fifth Amendment unconstitutional. The legal and constitutional basis of the counter-revolution was demolished. Last but not the least, the movement of the Sector Commanders’ Forum in 2007-08 in demand of the trial of war criminals galvanised the people, particularly the young generation, with a call for the revival and re-establishment of ‘Mukti Judhyer Chetona’ –– the restoration of the 1972 version of the Constitution. This contributed to the massive victory of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance in the 2008 parliamentary election. The Islam-pasand Four-Party Alliance, led by the BNP, lay prostrate.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led government of the Grand Alliance, which commands more than three-fourths majority in parliament, was presented with a unique opportunity to exorcise the Constitution of the ghosts of the counter-revolution as well as to cleanse it of the Islam-pasand provisions. But that was not to happen.

In the neo-rich-dominated Bangladesh of today where the Left movement has lost vitality, the Fifteenth Amendment has restored socialism as a fundamental principle of state policy –– albeit, as an innocuous ideal to pay respect to the past of the nation without having any practical implication for the present.

The principle of secularism has, however, been seriously compromised. While secularism has been restored as a fundamental principle of state policy, ‘Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim’ and Islam as the state religion have been retained. Also has been kept the scope to conduct religion-based politics which was originally forbidden in the 1972 version of the Constitution.

The Fifteenth Amendment has obviously rolled back the counter-revolution to some extent with the restoration of secularism and socialism as fundamental principles of state policy. The votaries of secularism and socialism may arguably find a bigger constitutional space. This may, however, prove to be a small consolation as Islam-pasand politics has been given a new lease of constitutional life. Though ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ has been dropped as a fundamental principle of state policy, renewed Islamisation of the polity may now be pursued as Islam continues to be the state religion.

Hybrid polity: The Fifteenth Amendment apparently attempts at making a fusion of Islam and secularism. It is a desperate move to turn Bangladesh into a so-called moderate Muslim country. This hybrid polity seems to be designed as a halfway house between secularism, the soul of original Bangladesh polity as visualised in the Constitution in the euphoric early days of independence, and Islamic sharia law as demanded by the Islamist parties, a demand which was dramatised by synchronised bombings in 500 places by the now-banned JMB in 2005.

This ideological hotchpotch may suit the ruling classes who are overwhelmingly Muslim and have gone conspicuously religious in the post-’75 period. The two leading parties, the Awami League and the BNP which together polled 82.2 per cent of votes in the 2008 parliamentary election, are known to be under pressure from their western mentors and patrons to make Bangladesh a so-called moderate Muslim country, eschewing both Islamic fundamentalism and radical secular ideologies.

With the Awami League, which has been publicly championing secularism since it embraced the principle in 1956 and at the initiative of which secularism was made a fundamental principle of state policy in the newly-independent Bangladesh, now deciding to experiment with secularism-with-Islam, the cause of secularism has suffered a setback. The fight for secularism will now enter a new phase.

–––––––
NM Harun is a retired journalist.

NM Harunis a journalist.

16 Responses to “Fifteenth Amendment introduces fusion of ideologies”

  1. Zafar

    Dear Mr. Harun

    I start with your quote:-

    “Last but not the least, the movement of the Sector Commanders’ Forum in 2007-08 in demand of the trial of war criminals galvanised the people, particularly the young generation, with a call for the revival and re-establishment of ‘Mukti Judhyer Chetona’ –– the restoration of the 1972 version of the Constitution. This contributed to the massive victory of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance in the 2008 parliamentary election. The Islam-pasand Four-Party Alliance, led by the BNP, lay prostrate.”

    Now, I want to draw your attention for a little exercise to collect and represent the 2008 election agenda and menefesto of Awami League to find, out of those what really attracted most to the general public who are mostly illitrate and hence does not bother at all about what you said as quoted above.

    I hope this exercise will prove a real fusion and gimmic of the party to whom respoded the said general public in 2008 election.

    Don’t forget this is a vast majority muslim nation of dedication and soft corner with their religion.

    Playing at the tune of the minority never fits and never survives.
    But it is never to be ignored and denyed that they should be given their due and legitimate rght.

    Seculiraisim is a scape goat which fits only to those who does not care and desire to practice and impose their own religious requirements be it at individual level or at state level.

    I will be waiting to see in this steemed forum, your prestation of above requested fusion vis – a – vis to election agenda with more realistic and unbiased approach.

    • SHAMSUL HUDA

      You said it all and so nicely too, Zafar. I really liked your comment especially when you said, “Don’t forget this is a vast majority Muslim nation of dedication and soft corner towards their religion.”

  2. Syed Imtiaz Ali

    We are not necessarily talking about core ideologies here rather we are talking about politics. Politics of making a comeback. We cannot afford to lose popular votes.

    We Bangladeshis are very emotional and easily believe in hearsay. Most of the popular votes are not concerned about national core issues rather they are looking at a little respite in their lives with meals and deals (work, employment), economic emancipation.

    However, a lot of brain-storming must have had got into the decision of the amendments as we see and hear, keeping in mind the large majority. I personally believe it is a very good, and intelligent decision to have retained and respected the ‘belief and practices’ of the vast majority. Again, politics is the bottom line.

    By doing this I am sure there is No dilution of Secularism, but due respect for other religions and their practice have been shown and made mention of.

    I feel assured that apart from a small section, we all are very tolerant in general of religious beliefs and practices. We do respect one and all, religiously speaking. Bangladeshi secularism is more in practice than in mere words. It is enshrined in our hearts and peaceful co-existence. Only vested interests are there always to create ado at times.

    Let us now look forward; our nation has so many issues to take care of. We are to see soon what happens to our long-awaited (40 year old) issues with our friendly neighbour. I am positive this time around we can make some headway with proper solutions.

  3. Golam Arshad

    Fifteenth amendment will divide the nation! The fusion of confusion will fester AL’s Himalayan blunder!

    • minar

      Bangladesh was liberated with Joy Bangla not Bangladesh Zindabad.

  4. Shoumya C

    How can Islamisation or any ‘religionisation’ can be accepted by anyone who believes in equal rights for all?

    The writer is so correct when he says, “With the Awami League, which has been publicly championing secularism since it embraced the principle in 1956 and at the initiative of which secularism was made a fundamental principle of state policy in the newly-independent Bangladesh, now deciding to experiment with secularism-with-Islam, the cause of secularism has suffered a setback”.

    • Zafar

      When you are eating, do all your fingers get equal opportunity to pick up the food?

      Everybody should be allowed to enjoy their rights, but everybody cannot be given equal rights.

  5. Shamsur Rahman

    As a supporter of AL, I was crushed and shocked when ‘Bismillah’ was retained in the 15th Amendment.

    I for one didn’t expect it from Bangabandhu’s party.

    • sajjad

      Did you support the 4th Amendment? Surely you did not support Baksal! Or did you?

      Why this silence about Bangabandhu’s 4th Amendment?

      • minar

        I supported BAKSAL – it was an experiment to prosper Bangladesh – the dream never materialised though – to unite all parties – to advance social equality – socialism – not bunch of millinaires at the cost of poor who liberated Bangladesh.

        Bangabandhu himself would have abolished it if it had not worked.

      • Syed Imtiaz Ali

        Absolutely hypothetical! How can you experiment with a system that affects the nation at every step and conscience while externally eulogising Democracy and multi-party practices, accountability?
        The Creation of Rakkhi Bahini was also wrongly advised to Bangabandhu. Our institutions had failed him, and he had to pay so heavily.

      • SHAMSUL HUDA

        very surprising that nothing is said about the 4th Amendment. Even the print media is silent about it.

  6. Tanvir Siddiqui

    I wholeheartedly agree with the writer. Via 15th Amendment, we have compromised with our core and the most important of all principles – secularism.

    Thank you NM Harun for spelling it out in such an apt manner.

  7. Russel

    Very good article: what kind of dire times the state will face? Will it go back in the 72 constitution? Because the state was enunciated four fundamental principles — democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism. It was the prima facie of the then state, Bangladesh which got sovereignty during the war 1971 under the great leader of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujib. Why are we acting blind?

  8. sajjad

    Fusion or confusion, that is the question, Harun.
    You seem to be very confused.

  9. Golam Arshad

    Harun Bhai: Why not we talk about the FOURTH AMENDMENT in our Constitution, which triggered the Tsunami of present contradiction, be it ISLAM vs SECULARISM or ONE PARTY vs MULTI-PARTY? I did not agree with you that Awami League was voted with two third majority for establishing SECULARISM in Bangladesh. What an interesting observation. Stay tuned more to follow!

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