Secular Bangladesh: Is It An Impossible Dream? | 2017-04-30 |

Secular Bangladesh: Is It An Impossible Dream?

Rajib Kanti Roy     30th April, 2017 12:01:56 printer

Secular Bangladesh: Is It An Impossible Dream?

When the people of this region participated in the Pakistan movement, they thought that they were marginalised because of their religious identity. That is why they worked to create a separate country for the Muslims.


But when the West Pakistani rulers didn’t hesitate to deprive them for the religious similarity, the mass Bangalis realised the importance of establishing a new country coming out of disparity to practice Bangla language and Bangali culture.

During our long struggle for freedom, there were numbers of religion-based political parties, but none of them took stand in favour of the independence movement. Moreover, Nezam-e-Islam, Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami directly opposed the independence of Bangladesh and helped Pakistan Army to operate genocide in 1971. They also formed paramilitary forces like Razakar, Al-Badr, Al-Shams and conducted brutal torture, killing and destruction in the name of religion. Their leaders claimed that the survival of Islam depends on the existence of Pakistan. In the post-Liberation War Bangladesh, when the constitution was formed in 1972, it upheld nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, as four pillars for building the independent nation-state. Politics in the name of religion was prohibited. Political parties involved with the war crimes were banned. But within the three and half years of independence, through the barbaric killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, maximum of his family members and four of our national leaders, Bangladesh was deviated from its desired course. Military dictators occupied the power, brought major changes in the constitution, withdrew the ban on religion based politics, released the identified war criminals from jail, allowed them to do politics, declared a state religion and patronised communal politics and communalism to play with the religious emotion of the mass people only for securing their power.


When democracy was restored, it was expected that finally the country will walk on the path of secularism again, but it didn’t happen. Main political parties either sat with the religion based political parties to begin movement against the government or made coalition with them to capitalise in the electoral politics. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) opened the field for religion-based political parties and took their stand for promoting Islamic nationalism in disguise of nationalism. Consequently they created an electoral alliance with anti-liberation force Jamaat-e-Islami and made identified war criminals ministers. As a result no one expected secular politics from BNP. On the other hand despite Bangladesh Awami League faced severe criticism for making a deal with Khelafat Majlish at the end of 2006 (which was scrapped later), but they somehow managed to lead the secular politics. Secularism is one of the main principles of Awami League and they repeatedly reaffirmed this during their different campaigns.

However, Awami League’s recent engagement with Hefajat-e-Islam has raised serious questions about their political ideologies. Hefajat-e-Islam, a podium mainly consisting the students and teachers of Qawmi madrasas, has come out as one of the most influential religion-based political forces in absence of Jamaat-e-Islami. Supporters of Hefajat-e-Islam first conducted programmes against setting up a Baul sculpture in the airport intersection in 2008 in the banner of ‘Murti Protirodh Committee’. During that caretaker regime, they forced the government to take defensive strategy by placing a different sculpture there. They emerged with their present name in 2010 to conduct movement against the Women Development Policy. Because of their continuous pressure government had to reform the draft of Women Development Policy 2011. It is because of their disagreement government couldn’t modify the inheritance law for equal sharing of family wealth between sons and daughters. On December 24, 2012, they presented their 13 point demands in a rally beside the national mosque Baitul Mukarram.

The issue of writing offensive comments online about Islam provided Hefajat-e-Islam an opportunity to highlight their presence again. They termed the bloggers and online activists as atheists and claimed capital punishment for them. On April 6, 2013, they arranged a long march and gave an ultimatum of one month for accepting their 13 point demands. On May 5, thousands of Islamists gathered to join a rally in the Shapla Squire, Motijheel from different parts of the country. BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia called her party activists to stay beside Hefazat leaders and her representatives joined the rally. On the other hand, the then General Secretary of Awami League, Sayed Ashraful Islam, at a press conference, warned Hefazat to leave Dhaka. They were allowed to conduct the rally in condition of leaving the place before evening. Their peaceful programme turned vicious at noon and many of them took part in violent activities. A number of people were killed in the clash. Security forces comprising police, RAB and BGB members jointly launched a drive named ‘Operation Secure Shapla’ to prevent Hefazat’s violence by pushing them out of Dhaka.

A few months later several videos of Hefazat-e-Islam chief Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi went viral on the social media where he made objectionable comments about women. He said, “Your girls are studying in schools, colleges and universities. Make them educated up to class 4-5. If they can calculate their husband’s finance and accounts when married off, that much education is sufficient for them.” Comparing women with tamarind, he stated, “When you see a small boy sucking tamarind, your mouth will salivate. Your mouth waters when you visit that part of the market which sells tamarind. Is it true or not? Women are worse than that. When you see women, your soul salivates, you want to marry her.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reacted to Shafi’s speech on July 13, 2013 at a programme held in Dhaka. She mentioned, “He (Shafi) compared women with tamarind. He said water comes from the mouth when a man sees a woman. I don’t know how the BNP chairperson supports him.” “His speech regarding women and their empowerment was both shameful and hateful,” the Premier added.

Unfortunately political rhetoric doesn’t match with reality. That is why the government couldn’t implement the Education Policy 2010 properly. This year they have changed textbooks of the tender aged students following the demands of Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefazat provided 29 recommendations to the government to include 17 new poems and stories which have Islamic philosophy and omit 12 poems and stories which encourage secularism and are written by non-Muslim writers. Education Ministry accepted and implemented all their recommendations. It is not a coincidence at all. The authorities, apparently, were quite receptive. In English textbooks for madrasas, all Hindu and Christian names have been replaced by Muslim names. Conversations between boys and girls have been omitted. Illustrations of girls with bare heads have been edited out. There has been a demand for modernising the outdated syllabus of the Qawmi madrassas, but all the efforts went in vain due to rigid opposition of Hefazat-e-Islam. Instead, they have become successful in enforcing their demands on the national educational curriculum.

In the face of serious criticism by the feminists and human rights activists, on February 27, 2017, the Bangladesh’s parliament approved a law that permits girls less than 18 years to marry under ‘special circumstances,’ with permission from their parents and a court. This law is a shocking step for the fight against child marriage in our country as Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in Asia, and fourth highest rate in the world. Every two of three marriages in Bangladesh involves a bride aged less than 18 years. Eighty percent of such marriages take place in poor families. By the age of 19, one in every three girls either becomes pregnant or gives birth to a child. While Bangladesh’s previous law setting marriage age for girls at 18 was widely ignored, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina projected a target of completely stopping girls getting married below the age of 15 by the year 2021 and below 18 by the year 2041 at the Girl Summit jointly organised by UNICEF and the UK government in London from 21-23 July last year. Feminists and human rights activists of the country have observed the new law as a compromise with the fundamentalists who want to keep women inside the household.

The latest incident astonished everyone on April 12 this year, when agreeing with the Islamist hardliners Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she also dislikes the statue of Greek goddess Themis wearing saree at the Supreme Court premises and will talk to the chief justice about removing it while addressing a meeting with the alems-ulemas of the Qawmi madrasas at Ganabhaban. She declared recognition of certificates of Dawrae Hadith under Qawmi Madrasa Education Boards as equivalent to Masters Degree. Following her announcement Education Ministry published a gazette noting the Dawrae Hadith certificate, which the Qawmi madrasas confers on pupils with the fundamentals of Darul Uloom Deoband as the basis, has been accorded the status of Masters Degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. The government also formed a committee headed by Shah Ahmed Shafi. That committee formed a separate organisation named ‘Al Hyatul Ulya Lil Jamiatil Kawmia Bangladesh’ to accredit the certificates of Dawrae Hadith examination. No government representative or educationist from any university was included in the committee. Government even didn’t think of discussing the matter with University Grants Commission, Education Ministry officials, educationists and experts. Approving Masters Degree under an organisation without the accreditation of any university is rare in the world. Government recognition was a much expected decision for the 1.4 million students studying in some 14,000 Qawmi madrasas. But unconditionally without reforming the syllabus and curriculum, such recognition will not bring any meaningful change for them. It will only make the Islamists related to the Qawmi madrasas happy and benefit the government in the next national election. It is mentionable that the BNP-led Four Party Alliance government published a gazette in 2006 recognising Dawrae Hadith certificate, but couldn’t implement. That was also an attempt before the national election to satisfy the fundamentalists.

Political analysts have opined that the ruling party is trying to develop a close relation with the religion-based political forces keeping the upcoming election in mind. Government wants to create an impression to the communal political parties and their supporters so that BNP can’t tag them as an anti-Islamic party and expects that even if they don’t vote in favour of Awami League, at least they don’t organise new movement against them on any issue. Through the fifteenth amendment, government has created a sarcastic situation by keeping secularism and state religion together in the constitution. As Bangladesh has witnessed several terrorist attacks and series of targeted killings in the recent years, government needed to remove contradiction from the constitution and work for some certain social, political and cultural efforts to combat militancy. Instead, they are patronising the fundamentalists and implementing their demands, who were previously criticised and accused of committing terrorist activities. This political U-turn of the government proves that they can do anything and everything for their political benefits without considering ethics and ideology. Whenever the state policy changed in Bangladesh only for bringing political mileage for the ruling party, fundamentalists were encouraged. The present Awami League government is no exception in this regard. With such political backtrack, they may cash out instant benefits, but the history will not forgive them for compromising with the dream of our valiant freedom fighters and three million martyrs.