A 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.