Retaining faith

Print edition : July 29, 2011

The Sheikh Hasina government restores to the Constitution all its lost' principles but retains Islam as the state religion.

in Dhaka

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She, her close confidants say, was not in favour of retaining the non-secular provisions but decided not to force the change and hurt the sentiments of the overwhelming majority.-V.V. KRISHNAN

ON June 30, the Bangladesh Parliament passed the much-debated Constitution 15th Amendment Bill, 2011, which restored some of the basic provisions of the original Constitution of 1972. They were necessary to uphold the fundamental state principles of democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism that the original Constitution had derived after a two-decade-long struggle against the subjugation of Bangladeshis by the military rulers of Pakistan. These principles also represent the basic spirit of the nation's War of Liberation in 1971, in which an estimated three million people died and millions were tortured by the Pakistan Army. The Amendment Act will take effect upon receiving the consent of the President.

Secular Bangladesh came under military rule following the assassination of its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. For the next three decades or so the country saw successive military and pseudo-democratic rulers who amended the Constitution as they saw fit to meet their political needs.

General Ziaur Rahman first began the process of Islamisation of the Constitution in the 1970s, followed by Gen. H.M. Ershad in the 1980s. They did this through their controversial Fifth and Eighth amendments respectively, which had the effect of erasing the founding, pro-secular principles of the country.

Ziaur Rahman, who made himself President and subsequently founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which his widow, Khaleda Zia, now leads, also restored political rights to religion-based parties and to war crimes suspects.

Ershad, in 1988, formally made Islam the state religion, undermining the multi-religious fabric that East Bengal, before it became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, had cherished for centuries.

Independent Bangladesh watchers agree that these amendments led to the abandoning of secular Bangalee nationalism, which was the basis on which the people, irrespective of their religion, fought in the 1971 war.

The amendments brought about changes in the country's politics and in its cultural patterns, allowing Islamists a favourable climate to grow. This led to a clamour among pro-secular, pro-liberation political parties and civil society for the restoration of the state principles.

The present ruling grand alliance led by Sheikh Hasina, which came to power in January 2009 with a three-fourths majority, set up a special parliamentary committee last year to recommend suitable amendments to the Constitution. The apex court, meanwhile, struck down the two controversial amendments, thus invalidating the regimes of the two military rulers and restoring the four basic state principles, including secularism.

Progressive political quarters, freedom fighters and women's groups enthusiastically backed the demand for restoration of the original Constitution. But to their utter surprise, the Sheikh Hasina government, while restoring all the lost principles, including secularism, retained the state religion, Islam, and the political rights of religious parties.

The BNP and its pro-Islamist groups, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, quietly endorsed these changes, which they saw as favouring them politically. But the vast majority of civil society, freedom fighters, the Left parties and progressive social bodies, and a section of the ruling party and alliance saw this as an unethical compromise by the government.

The Bill passed in Parliament says the Arabic phrase Bismillahi-Ar Rahman-Ar-Rahim, meaning in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, or in Bangla In the name of the Creator, the Merciful, included in 1977 by Ziaur Rahman through the Fifth Amendment, shall be substituted in the preamble of the Constitution. This constitutes a slight change to what the military ruler did and did not satisfy the majority of the people, who are natural allies of the ruling coalition.

Despite objections from the Cabinet and the government's own political support groups, including minority sections, the Bill makes clear that Islam is the state religion. However, it adds that the state shall ensure equal status and equal rights to those who practise other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. It also says the principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of communalism in all its forms, the granting of political status for any religion, the prevention of the abuse of religion for political purposes and the ending of discrimination against or persecution of persons on religious grounds.

Another significant amendment is the one that makes unconstitutional the seizure of state power by military generals. The amendment describes such an act as treason and says that those involved in it shall be tried on the charge of sedition. It blocks the legitimising of power-grabbing through military takeovers and other unconstitutional means. Both Ziaur Rahman and Ershad had made the Constitution subservient to martial law.

Caretaker' no more

Another major amendment, which has become a key political issue for the BNP and its fundamentalist allies, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, is the scrapping of the system of caretaker government for conducting parliamentary elections. The last three elections since 1996, including the one in which the present ruling alliance got elected, were conducted under such governments. Elections will henceforth be held under an interim government during the last 90 days of the incumbent government's tenure.

Sheikh Hasina, as opposition leader, was instrumental in bringing the caretaker' provision in the Constitution, whereas the then government of Khaleda Zia was against it. But Sheikh Hasina's experience in the last three elections held under the system was not a happy one.

The Prime Minister said that though she herself had fought for the introduction of the caretaker system, it had failed to fulfil the objectives of holding free and fair elections. Besides, the experience of people under this system was a bitter one the reference being to the excesses during the last military-run caretaker government (2007-08). Even then, we wanted to keep the system in a modified way, but after the Supreme Court verdict declared the system illegal, we had to scrap it.

A BANGLADESH NATIONALIST Party activist at a rally against the government's move to amend the Constitution, on June 15. Subsequently, the BNP and its pro-Islamist allies, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, quietly endorsed the retention of the state religion and political rights of religious parties, which they saw as favouring them politically-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

Sheikh Hasina told her political adversaries that the government would welcome any alternative formula from the opposition and take necessary action. But her critics, who refrained from joining the constitutional committee despite repeated calls, smell a conspiracy and claim that the change has been made in order to manipulate the next election. Some partners of the ruling grand alliance and sections of civil society, too, have expressed the fear that the change may result in political chaos ahead of the next parliamentary election.

Nonetheless, there are many changes that people welcome, including the recognition of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Father of the Nation. The pro-liberation and secular forces have welcomed this recognition against the backdrop of repeated and calculated distortions of the country's independence history by the post-1975 rulers.

Another welcome provision is the disqualification of those who have been accused of war crimes from contesting and even voting in elections.

Bangalee nationalism'

An important provision, welcomed by the pro-secular forces but condemned by the BNP and its fundamentalist allies, is the replacement of Bangladeshi nationalism' by Bangalee nationalism, on which basis the Bangladesh war was fought, with active support from India. The people, irrespective of religion, took part in it, leading to its logical culmination on December 16, 1971. In the changed Constitution, Bangalee is the national identity but the citizens shall be known as Bangladeshis. This, apart from leaving the Islamists frustrated, has alienated the ethnic minorities who are proud of their ethnic identities and cultures.

The Constitution amendment Bill also incorporates a new clause aimed at protecting the ethnic minorities, and suggests that the state shall ensure equal opportunity to women for participation in every aspect of national life.

The turn of events has upset the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami and their allies, who have enjoyed the fruits of the post-1975 changes in the Constitution through martial law decrees. They have launched a campaign, which involves street agitations, hartals and other forms of protest, to dislodge the government.

Although they are happy that the Sheikh Hasina government retained the Islamist provisions, they blame the government for removing the phrase - absolute trust on the Allah, and another one on maintaining a special relationship with the Muslim world. Independent analysts believe that the campaign may get only a lukewarm response.

Close advisers of the government said it had been careful not to alienate the vast majority of the people over sensitive religious issues. The special place given to Islam appears to be part of a political strategy aimed at taking the sting out of the attacks of the Islamists and their allies.

Interestingly, while declaring the Fifth and Eighth amendments unconstitutional and void, the apex court did not touch the state religion, Islam, and the phrase Bismillahi-Ar Rahman-Ar-Rahim. This is one of the reasons those provisions have been retained, policymakers say. Senior policymakers argued in private that the opposition, backed by Islamist groups, might have had an opportunity to mislead people if the phrase had been removed and Islam's status as the state religion had been altered.

The constitutional changes, despite the alleged contradictions in the ground realities on the issue of secularism, have been seen as largely progressive by many. However, secular-liberals fear that after the restoration of secularism as a fundamental principle there is no point in retaining non-secular Articles. It is an unethical compromise, they say.

There was opposition inside the Cabinet, too. Planning Minister A.K. Khandoker, who was the Deputy Chief of the Staff of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) in 1971, opposed the Cabinet decision, pointing out that it contradicted the principle of secularism. Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith noted that the continuation of Islam as the state religion was against the spirit of the original Constitution.

After the passage of the Bill in the absence of the opposition, which has boycotted Parliament for quite some time now, criticism by the government's support groups has become stronger despite Parliament suggesting that the state should be neutral on questions of religion, ethnicity and culture.

Sheikh Hasina herself, her close confidants say, was not in favour of retaining the non-secular provisions but decided not to force the change and hurt the sentiments of the overwhelming majority. She perhaps understands the reactions, as she had held the view that there were no grounds for the inclusion of a state religion and the phrase Bismillah' in the Constitution and that the people who supported their inclusion were doing so for political gain. Interestingly, when Ershad made Islam the state religion, both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina had criticised the move.

There is apprehension among civil society groups that the failure to remove the non-secular provisions from the Constitution may significantly embolden religious fanatics. There is also worry about adverse reactions by religious minorities, including the large number of young voters, who voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League-led coalition in the last general election responding to the promise that it would hold trials of alleged war criminals and uphold the secular spirit of the 1971 war.

The apex body of the country's religious minorities, the Hindu-Boudhha- Christian Oikya Parishad, which alleged that the Eighth Amendment made the minorities second-class citizens, has reasons again to be unhappy. It is supported by various freedom fighters' organisations, including the Sector Commanders' Forum (representing field commanders of the war), the Sammilita Sangskritik Jote (a confederation of the country's cultural bodies) and Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee.

Soon after the passage of the Bill, Sheikh Hasina told Parliament: Today is a historic day. Through the passage of this Bill, people's empowerment is ensured and from now elections will be held in the country like the other democratic countries of the world. But things may not be as simple as that.

Despite many of the basic principles of the original Constitution being restored, they are far short of what people expected from the daughter of the country's founding father, who presented the country a Constitution that was secular and socialist in character.

The ruling party, it seems, is not fully satisfied with the amendments. Its general secretary, Syed Ashraful Islam, said, We are not 100 per cent happy with the latest amendments to the Constitution. Our aim is absolute return to the 1972 charter. So, there is a scope for more amendments before the Sheikh Hasina government's term ends in two and a half years.

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