Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Sister, my Sister

My sister: Your departure from this Earth on 25th April 2021 was a great shock and deeply painful to everybody who knew you. You touched the hearts and minds of not only your near and dear ones, but also everybody who happened to come across you.

But why did you have to leave Earth on the day I was born? Was there a sublime message you were leaving behind for me? Couldn’t we stay together, as we had been doing for many, many years now? A few more years together, happy care-free lives, wouldn’t have caused anybody any harm. So, why did you have to go now? Life is undoubtedly brutal and Tagore expressed that very succinctly in one of his songs:

আমি তোমারি মাটির কন্যা        

জননী বসুন্ধরা !!

তবে আমার মানব জন্ম

কেন বঞ্চিত করো ?

Translated in English, it may read like this:

I am the product of your soil, Mother Earth,

then why do you deprive me of my human life?

Your life and my life, as your younger brother, kept flashing in front of my eyes now. The days when I was just a tiny tot, I used to trail you, follow you, copy you, do everything you did. In my childhood years in Hemnagar, Mymensingh you were my guide, my mentor. Although I was not of schooling age, but you showed me the English alphabet and taught me very gently and lovingly how to write my name in English. I used to wonder how on Earth you can read English and even understand it! You used to tell me stories from your books.  You told me the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, which I liked very much and asked you to tell me over and over again. Years later in Dhaka, you told me in simple Bengali language the story of The Merchant of Venice, and I developed a deep dislike for Shylock who asked for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for non-payment of debt!

As our father was the Manager of the Hemnagar Zamindari – appointed by the government of Pakistan in the absence of Hindu Zamindar after the partition of India – we had all the trappings and social privileges of zamindari life style. Although we did not live in the Zamindar’s palace, our home was quite spacious and very comfortable. At the crack of dawn, you used to wake me up, put a flower bucket (ফুলের ডালা) in my hand and asked me to go and collect ‘bokulful’ (a very fragrant flower of jasmine genus). There were two or three bokulful trees just outside our house. Bokulful opens up its buds and becomes extremely fragrant in the early morning and drops on the ground. When I used to bring back bucket full of ‘bokulful’, you used to make garlands. The perfume was simply divine. The habit of rising in the early morning that you induced in me stayed with me almost all my life.

In the tin-roof bungalow type of house where you used to stay while in Hemnagar, there were two tiger cages at one side, each about 3ft high. You used to have one tiger cage and I had the other. There were four mango trees behind the bungalow you had been staying. During the seasonal fruit time, at the slightest of breeze, the ripe mangoes would fall on the ground and that was the time when you and I would compete. Although I was much smaller, I managed to fill my ‘tiger cage’ almost to half of its height, whereas your cage was no more than third full. The reason was that I was more persistent in collecting mangoes than you were. Eating mangoes was not the purpose, filling the cages was.  

When we came back to Dhaka to live permanently and you were in Kamrunnesa Girls school, I was your outside arm. You used to ask me to take your sarees to the laundry that was good 15 minutes’ walk and then a day or two later I had to go and collect the sarees. You used to give me your letters to post at the post office, which was more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. All these things I used to do for a little cuddle and a praise from you. When I learnt how to ride bicycle, one day I borrowed an almost dilapidated bike from my cousin next door and as I was going out, you gave me a letter to post. So, I headed for the post office. On the way there, through the bumpy road, bicycle chain fell off and it took me quite a while to put the chain back, post the letter and come back home. Seeing me back, you said, “You came back quite quickly”. Although that was not exactly true, but that pleased me quite a lot.

Years later, after the death of our father, when within a few months your marriage had been arranged, it was a big occasion. However, the arrangement of this wedding was bit dramatic. In the summer of 1958, you and I went to Boro Khalamma’s (eldest auntie) house in Boiyder Bazaar for a holiday. After about three days, we saw that our Mum had sent a man to Boiyder Bazaar to bring us back to Dhaka immediately. As per instructions, we came back to Dhaka cutting short our holiday and found that your marriage had been arranged. The groom’s side needed no meeting with the bride, no background check of our family etc, as the groom’s side had surreptitiously been fact finding for months and just waited for the opportune moment to propose to our family.

The wedding was on 27th June. I do remember the date because many of the wedding presents came with the inscription, 27th June, Zu-un’s wedding (২৭ জুন , জুনের বিয়েতে). The large gathering, the glitch and the glamour of the wedding party were all very enjoyable to us all. I was at the centre of attraction in the party as the younger brother of the bride. But within a month, Dulabhai took you away to Karachi, his place of work. When after three or four months, you did not come back, I got impatient. I asked my mum, “Mum, why Chhoto Apa is not coming back?”. Mum said, “She is married now.”, I said, “So what? Pay back all the money Dulabhai had spent on Chhoto Apa and bring her back”. That did not go down well with Dulabhai! I was only 12.

About ten years later, in February 1968, after my M.Sc. exam I went to visit you and our other siblings in Karachi. Probably realising that 10 years earlier I had to endure the agony of losing you to Dulabhai, he made up for everything. He treated me as if I was the most precious person in the whole world! I had the most fantastic time with you in your house at the Karachi University campus. After coming back, when I got the M.Sc. result and immediately got the University Lecturer’s job; you and Dulabhai were the first persons to congratulate me.   

Just after a short four years, after the liberation of Bangladesh, all of you came back to Bangladesh and Dulabhai took the teaching position at Jahangirnagar University Bengali Department. By that time, I came to England to do my Ph.D. However, I visited your place at Jahangirnagar University every time I went to Bangladesh and found you so happy in the academic atmosphere of the University. After Dulabhai’s retirement from University, you did come back to our parental home in late 1980s(?), with Dulabhai of course, from where you left with Dulabhai over 30 years earlier. Of course, our parental home had changed into a multi-storied apartment block and my apartment was right next to your apartment and then I would have no grounds to complain that you were not with me.

I visited your apartment many times. In fact, most of the times when I visited Bangladesh, I stayed with you. Years earlier when I was staying with you, on the second or third day, you wanted me to make sure that I dine with you. Not knowing what was going on, I stayed home to dine with you and you brought duck meat. I said, “Oh, my God, this is my most favourite meat”. You said, you knew and that’s why you had cooked it by yourself. And then you brought Bhuna Khichuri. I was taken completely aback. I thought, only my Mum knew about my most favourite dish. But you knew too and entertained me with such a dish. You took the role of our Mum.

You were the glue to the whole of our family. You always treated everybody with love, care and affection. Even if someone misbehaved with you, you never fought back. When you told me many of such instances, I used to ask you, why didn’t you reply back? You used to say, what was the point in hurting the feeling of that person. You were always compromising to maintain amity within the family. 

You were very proud of all of us. When I wrote a text book about 10 years ago on “Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management” for graduate and post-graduate studies in British and European Universities, you asked me to give you a copy. I said, I wouldn’t expect you to read it. You said, “No, but I would show others that my brother had written it.” So, I gave you a copy.

Your love and affection to all our relations, even to strangers, were legendary. When you were in the ICU with Covid infection only a few days ago, a doctor came to see you; after his visit, you asked the doctor whether he had his lunch yet. The doctor was stunned, no patient ever enquired about doctor’s well-being or his lunch. The doctor said that she was like his mother. You loved and empathised with anybody who came in contact with you. That is why, the helpers in your apartment building were so very distraught at your demise.

We all love life and despise death. It is definitely very painful to see someone gone forever. But to create a false narrative that heaven and hell are all waiting (somewhere) is just misleading and delusional. The poet, D L Roy expressed the ultimate truth in more realistic and mundane way when he said:

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

আলোর মতন, হাসির মতন

কুসুমগন্ধ রাশির মতন

হাওয়ার মতন, নেশার মতন

ঢেউয়ের মতন ভেসে যাই

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

Translated in English, it may look like:

“We just come and float away

            like the ray of light, like a smile,

            like the sweet smell of a fragrant flower,

            like a breeze, like an intoxication,

like the crest of a wave,

            We just come and float away.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary

Mita Haque – the obituary

Mita Haque, the eminent Rabindra Sangeet singer

Mita Haque, one of the foremost Rabindra Sangeet singers not only in Bangladesh but also in West Bengal of India had sadly passed away only at the age of 59 at 6:15 am on 11 April, 2021 in Dhaka. It is a great loss, almost irreparable loss, to the Tagore song lovers all over the world. The inconsolable grief of the people of Bangladesh and of West Bengal at her demise is heart rending to watch.

Mita Haque was born on 6th September, 1962 in Dhaka in a very music-oriented family where songs, music, performing arts etc were parts of life. Her father was an enthusiast musical instrumentalist. But the major influence on her life came from her paternal uncle, Mr Waheedul Haque and his wife, Dr Sanjida Khatun, both of them were stalwarts in vocal music. Waheedul Haque must have sensed her talent at an early age in vocal songs, particularly Tagore songs, and encouraged her to follow it up.

As Mita Haque herself reminisced in her later life that even before she could speak, she used to rhyme. When she was about seven years old, she used to listen to elders singing Tagore songs and she would sing on her own a line and then she might forget the next line, she used to make it up and sing! As a small school girl, she was a regular singer at the annual school cultural activities. When she was eleven, she participated at the International Children’s Festival in Berlin in 1973.

She started taking music lessons seriously at the age of 13 from Mohammad Hossain Khan, who was a leading tabla player at that time. Although as a child she used to listen to and sing all varieties of songs such as Atul Prasad songs, D L Roy songs, Nazrul Geeti, modern songs etc, but she was wedded to Tagore songs right from childhood. She said, all other songs were for her to listen, Tagore songs were for her to sing. She embraced Tagore songs, Tagore poems, Tagore’s myriad of literature etc with all her life. Tagore was with her ‘in dreams as well as in waking hours’ (শয়নে স্বপনে).

Although she showed tremendous promise at an early age, she never went to Santiniketan, the school which Tagore family established and Rabindranath expanded for Bengali arts and culture. She learned everything, her love for Tagore songs and music etc, from Waheedul Haque and Sanjida Khatun. In that sense, she was purely a home grown product in Bangladesh

When Shailaja Ranjan Majumdar, a direct disciple of Rabindranath Tagore who worked on making notations in a number of Tagore songs, came to Dhaka in 1981, she along with other budding Tagore singers met him, sang songs for him. Before he left Dhaka, he said to Mita Haque, “Don’t take pride in your achievements and someday you will be a great singer”.

Indeed, she achieved greatness. She was the highest grade Rabindra Sangeet singer in Bangladesh Radio and Televisions. In her relatively short life, she had 14 solo musical albums released in India and 10 albums released in Bangladesh. She received almost all the awards, accolades that there are to receive. She was awarded Shilpakala Padak for Vocal Music, Rabindra Puraskar (Rabindra Prize) from Bangla Academy in 2017, Ekushe Padak for Arts (Music) in 2020 by the Government of Bangladesh. Nearly 15 years ago, she set up a music school called Surtirtha (translated as Centre of Lyrics) to give music lessons to students. She was also the Head of the Department of Rabindra Sangeet at Chhayanat Music School.

Mita Haque was married to renowned actor-director Khaled Khan who died in 2013. She leaves behind her only daughter, Farhin Khan Joyita, who is an accomplished Rabindra Sangeet singer in her own rights.

Lately, for about four years, she was not well. She had problems with her kidney and she had to have dialysis once a week. Few months ago, kidneys deteriorated further and she had to go through dialysis three times a week. Around two weeks or so before her expiry she was diagnosed with Covid-19; although she received best possible treatment, she succumbed to it. Her body was taken to Chhayanat for homage by colleagues, students and the general public within the prevailing restrictions and then taken to her ancestral home at Keraniganj in Dhaka, where she was buried beside her parents’ graves.

Mita Haque gave enormous pleasure to all Bengali speaking people by her melodious rendition of Tagore songs. People will continue to enjoy her songs and admire her enormously. It is said, “Do take heart that a person is not dead while his or her name is still spoken”.

Mita Haque held Tagore in her heart. Tagore wrote poems, songs, verses on all possible human emotions – love, joy, devotion, birth, death, grief, eternity and so forth. Her sad demise would bring grief to millions of Bengali people all over the world, but we can pay homage to her memory by remembering one of Tagore’s songs, which reads:

 আছে দুঃখ, আছে মৃত্যু,

                           বিরহ দহন লাগে !

  তবু শান্তি, তবু আনন্দ,

                           তবু অনন্ত জাগে !

Translated in English, it may read like this:

                 There is pain, there is death,

                               the grieving soul burns.

                 Yet there is bliss, there is merriment,

                              the eternal life runs.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Religious

International Mother Language Day

Language is the most important and principal method of communication between humans and only language sets us apart from other animals. Yes, animals do communicate by making noises, by the sign language or by body language. But we, the Homo sapiens, had taken the method of communication to a higher level by inventing language comprising letters, words, punctuation etc in structured forms to convey our feelings by oral and written methods.

Thus, language confers us our mode of expression, our identity, our existential experience. We inherit it from our mothers, almost through umbilical cord – like blood, like nutrition. We develop our tongue like our mothers’ and that is why it is called the mother tongue and the language is called the mother language.

So, when language is challenged, the very identity is challenged. That is what happened immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Two Nation Theory (TNT) propounded by Allama Iqbal in 1930 and supported by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to fork out a separate Muslim State called Pakistan in India was the beginning of Political Islam in India. The low-level sectarianism that had existed in India for centuries had been uplifted to communalism and patriotism by the support of the opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians.

The Indian subcontinent had been divided into India and Muslim Pakistan in August 1947. The province of East Pakistan comprising 55% of the whole country’s population was totally Bengali speaking, whereas West Pakistan having 45% population had Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi as well as Urdu speaking people; with Urdu spoken by about 7% population.

The fault line between the two provinces appeared in less than a year after partition when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in a speech on 21st March 1948 at the Race Course in Dhaka that Urdu would be the only national language of this nation. It was an injustice of monumental scale. It was an attempt to rob the mother language of 55% of the people and impose Urdu in the name of Islam.

The students from university level downwards felt betrayed and humiliated. Only a few months ago they spearheaded the creation of the Muslim State on the assumption that two provinces would be self-governing with their own culture, own language. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Guwahati, Assam in 1946 with more than 500 students from Calcutta to campaign in the plebiscite in Assam for Pakistan. Now they were at the brink of losing their language, their identity!

The students’ movement started to grow; low level local protests merged into sub-district and district levels. From 1948 to 1952 students’ grievances and anger were palpable and at the boiling point. They felt that they had been made to jump, at the urging of the politicians, religious leaders and above all their parents, from frying pan to fire!

The students took a decision to observe the Language Movement Day on 21 February, 1952 throughout the whole province and Dhaka University students took the lead. The government declared Section 144 of the Penal Code in Dhaka and banned all assemblies of more than five people. But schools, colleges and universities were left open and so assemblies of five or more people were inevitable. The government of Pakistan wanted to teach a brutal lesson to the arrogant and disobedient students and thereby to the people of the province!

The students started gathering at the Dhaka University Arts Faculty campus in the morning of 21st February. They wanted to express their demand that Bengali should be one of the national languages of the country. Slowly and cautiously, they emerged through the main gate of the campus and turned left towards the Dhaka Medical College. They had no weapon of any sort and had only placards. Hardly the front the demonstration moved 100 meters or so, the waiting police at the edge of the campus opened fire on the students. Five students died almost instantly with blood spilling over the street and more than 17 students were seriously injured. In less than five years of creation of Pakistan, the students had to pay with their own blood for the sins of their forefathers (and their sins too) for opting for a Muslim State!

First Shaheed Minar in Dhaka in 1952

A day later the university students along with medical college students started building a monument in memory of their fallen students at the side of the road, which was only a stone’s throw away from the campus, and it was completed on 23rd Feb. The police came and with all their brutality desecrated the memory and demolished the monument. It was an insult to the memory of martyred students and an all-out onslaught on the people of East Pakistan. However, a few days later, on 26 February, 1952 the editor of local Bengali newspaper, Daily Azad, inaugurated a new monument within the compound of the Medical College and it had been named as the Shaheed Minar – the Martyrs’ Monument.

The government of Pakistan eventually accepted Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan, when the National Assembly adopted it on 7th May 1954. In Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1956, Bengali and Urdu were given the status of national languages under Article 214.

But what led to the bloodshed of students on the street of Dhaka could not be swept away any more. The constant denigration of Bengali culture and language by the Pakistani government, economic subjugation, employment disparity etc added fuel to the fire of language movement. On 26th March 1971, Pakistani military junta launched an unprovoked attack with full military force on civilians and the Dhaka university students and teachers to teach another lesson. The hitherto tenuous link of Muslim fraternity between the East and West had then broken down completely and after nine months of brutal war, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh achieved liberation on the 16th of December 1971.

Thus, Bangladesh became the first and only country in the world that fought for and gained freedom to preserve the mother language. In recognition of the unique sacrifice that the Bangladeshis made to establish Bengali as the national language, UNESCO had assigned 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. This day is celebrated throughout the whole world, wherever Bengalis are. The Bengali language is the 5th largest language in the world and is spoken by nearly 275 million people – Bangladesh (162 million), West Bengal (100 million) in India and the diaspora of Bengalis in the world (13 million). The top five languages are: 1. Mandarin Chinese (1051 million); 2. English (510 million); 3. Hindi (490 million); 4. Spanish (420 million) and 5. Bengali 275 million. Bengali is also one the culturally richest languages in the world, enriched by Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1912), Nazrul Islam, DL Roy, Atul Prasad, Bankim Chandra and many more.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Morality

Religious scholars and even some philosophers lay claims that religion and morality are intricately intertwined; without morality religion would be baseless and without religion morality would be without foundation. The main purpose of religion is to impart moral values to mankind. When religion instils morality, humanity sees the true value of life, unbridled beauty of life and the majestic creation; without morality humans would lead a life in depravity.  

All these high-sounding, mouthful preaching of the religious scholars may appear to have deep inner meaning; but one must appreciate that religion has no unique claim on morality. In fact, most of the religions embody in practice just the reverse – sectarian, antagonistic and insular codes for the followers of a particular religion. These basic traits of a religion are against the very grains of morality. To appreciate the inner discord between religion and morality, let us look at the meaning and essence of morality.

Morality fundamentally embodies the ‘corporate rule’ – the rule embracing cooperation among the people of the community, the society, the country and beyond. The corporate rule that brings benefits to all in a cooperative way – for all, not for just the few – is a moral imperative. In the terminology of the game theory, it can be stated that morality inherently offers more than zero sum. If an attribute brings benefit to some people at the cost of others, then that attribute may be called zero sum issue and that has no moral underpinning. For example, when government taxes the rich to help the poor, that may be considered a good political decision, but not a moral issue. On the other hand, if an attribute brings benefit to everybody, equally or proportionately, without harming any particular section, that can be viewed as a moral decision. For example, giving free education to all within a country or free medical care at the point of need may be considered moral undertaking. Morality brings benefit to everybody and hence it is viewed as offering more than zero sum.

Morality maybe considered to have seven basic strands and these are: Family, Group, Reciprocity, Heroism, Deference, Fairness and Property. Human beings being social animals tend to live together in the family and the inherent desire of fair, equitable and cooperative distribution of benefits drawn collectively among the small bubble of Family members constitutes the first strand of morality. The morality of the Group is an extension of that of Family issue. What can be shared and sacrificed within the wider circle of the group, beyond the family, is the Group morality. The morality of Reciprocity is that if one person helps another person at the time of need, it is a moral imperative on the recipient to reciprocate the initial help at the right occasion. It helps both the initial giver and the recipient when it is needed most. Heroism is that strand of morality when one carries out a task to help others even at the risk to himself. The morality of Heroism is not to earn the plaudit of heroism, but an impartial attempt to help others. An example of it can be given as, recently when a Chinese man fell into a river in Shanghai and was struggling to save his life, a British diplomat (aged well over 60) instinctively jumped into the river and pulled the man to the shore and saved his life. This is the morality of Heroism – without any expectation for any reward or plaudit – pure desire to help others in need. Deference implies submission or yielding to judgement of recognised superiors or higher officials and thereby maintain harmonious relationship in the society. This is an important part of morality by maintaining corporate culture. Fairness comes as an essential element of morality as without it the whole corporate rule would breakdown to chaos. What is right, what is true, what is wrong etc should be established with Fairness as part of morality. And finally, Property offers the morality of maintaining one’s right to own and maintain property and possession. As a proverb says, An Englishman’s home is his castle. It is morally right that he should be allowed to live in his own home in a safe and dignified way and that is part of morality.

All of these strands, singly or collectively, offer the spirit and essence of morality. Morality is not only ethically justifiable but also beneficial from evolutionary point of view. Individual genes may exhibit selfish behaviour, but when it comes to the welfare of the whole survival machine (the whole body), morality encompassing corporate rule plays a dominant role. A moral society encourages a code of conduct where all the people may live comfortably, equitably and in dignified ways.

Now the big question is what role does religion play in maintaining morality or corporate rule? To answer this question, one has to trace back what role religion plays traditionally. The basic premise is that a religion inherently wants to establish its superiority and supremacy over other religions – as religions are competing against one another. This very basic competitive strand goes against the grain of morality of corporate rule. One religion does not accept or tolerate another religion’s theological stand and that is evident by their mutual antagonism and centuries of fighting. So, there cannot be a universal morality applicable to the whole society comprising various religions. The morality of cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, property etc may be applicable to people within a particular religion, but they may not be extended to people of other religions.  

So, in a theocratic state having people of many religious affiliations cannot get morally justifiable rule. Morality becomes subservient to theocracy or may even be abandoned in favour of theocratic dogma, as in many Islamic states and even in India at the moment. The claims by the religious scholars and leaders that religion is the custodian of morality and without religion morality would disappear are absurdly ludicrous and without any basis. Religion is detrimental to morality, as religion is sectarian whereas morality requires corporate rule. Therefore, one can say religion is amoral, not immoral.  

Almost all philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, writers, thinkers, scientists and so forth have expressed views that morality is not a good bedfellow to religion, in fact just the opposite. Their dislike to associate religion with morality had been expressed in many different ways and one particular area where their abhorrence was expressed firmly against religions when assessed against the perceived punishment and reward as depicted in religious books.

The British philosopher and polymath, Bertrand Russell, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1950, expressed his revulsion against religion when he said, “Religion is based mainly upon fear, fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”

Albert Einstein, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1921, said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

Christopher Hitchens, a British intellectual, said, “Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.” 

Thus, religion and morality do not go hand in hand in the modern society. The Secularism within the Constitution may provide the rightful place for morality overriding communalism and sectarianism of various religions.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Secularism in Bangladesh: The troubled Constitutional pillar

The ubiquity of the word “secularism” (it is mentioned in more than 75 of the world’s Constitutions as an ideal the State promotes, or an organising principle that it affirms), and the passionate discussions it generates throughout the world, sometimes distracts us from the fact that its origins are relatively recent.

It was only after the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries; after the bloody inter-denominational conflicts in Europe, or the clashes between ecclesiastical and temporal authorities, which eventually led to the sovereignty of the State (occurring between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815); after Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between Church and State”, and Voltaire’s “privatisation of religion” found a welcoming environment in the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, did the idea of secularism become well entrenched in European literary and political consciousness. The English writer George Holyoake was the first to use it in a systematic manner only in 1851. It was during the French Third Republic (1870-1940) that it was declared to be the “defining ideology of the State”.

Not only is it a relatively new concept, it was also delimited by geography. It was essentially a European phenomenon, both in terms of the intellectual tradition that generated it, and the military conflicts that necessitated it. Hence for the rest of the world, which did not share that reality, it was a foreign concept where its relevance was dimly understood, its meaning fuzzy, its embrace clumsy.

It may be argued that the idea of “democracy” is similarly alien. But democracy was easier to explain, it animated the anti-colonial struggles, and it was reflected in some concrete practices and institutions that were identifiable and populist. Secularism was not. But, more importantly, while democracy did not challenge deeply held commitments and values, secularism problematised the core of their belief systems, and sometimes even their identity. It should be pointed out, as Karen Armstrong has done, that the notion of “religion” understood in the West, is subtly but substantially different from what the Arabic word “deen” or the South Asian word “dharma” connotes.

It was expected that the road to secularism would be rocky in South Asia, perhaps more so in Bangladesh. There were pre-existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims (mitigated to some extent by Sufi teachings, some syncretistic cultural practices, and the moral economy of the peasantry) which were aggravated by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 that conflated class and religion and sharpened earlier divisions. There were the machinations, and sometimes the confusions, of the British. There was the emergence of a middle class in both communities (a little later, and weaker, for the Muslims) which led to a competition for political power and economic favour from the British, and provoked the self-conscious exploitation of religion, the creation of the dreadful “other”, and the divergence of the faith communities. And finally, there was the Partition of India in 1947 which appeared to confirm the primacy of faith as the very basis of personal and national identity.

Nonetheless, its journey in independent Bangladesh began in some optimism and apparent clarity. The constitution of 1972 unambiguously accepted secularism as one of the four foundational pillars of the State. This was entirely expected. This followed the logic of linguistic/cultural nationalism that had challenged the earlier Pakistani formulation, as well as the defeat of the Pakistani military which had pursued an overtly religious agenda. They lost. While the other pillars, such as democracy and socialism, were going to entail further negotiations and struggles, this issue, it was felt, had been settled. That confidence was seemingly misplaced.

Secularism was not killed with Bangabandhu’s brutal assassination in 1975, but it was dealt a crippling blow. The subsequent leadership did not pursue this ideal with the courage, commitment or the charismatic authority that he had represented. Religious groups and leaders, who had remained defensive and tentative initially, were allowed and, at times invited, into the political arena, gradually began to assert their presence, eventually emerged as critical players in bargaining-based and alliance- oriented “democratic” arrangements, and steadily pushed back against earlier secular guarantees. Even its location in the constitution became far less settled than had been originally assumed.

In fact, the 5th amendment (1979) removed secularism from the constitution, and the Divine invocation (Bismillah-Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim) was inserted at the beginning. By the 8th amendment (1988), Islam was declared the “State religion”. In 2005, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th amendment (not on the religious question per se, but on the unconstitutionality of the Martial Law that had been promulgated and hence all laws, acts and amendments passed at the time were deemed to have been automatically nullified). In 2011, Part II, Article 8 of the 15th amendment restored secularism as a fundamental principle of State policy, and Article 12, Part II specifically indicated the elimination of communalism, the non-privileging of any religion, or any discrimination based on faith. However, in Article 2A, Part I, Islam was retained as the State religion, and the invocation remained unchanged. Thus, the constitutional position of secularism became a bit murky.

The increasing influence of the religionists was reflected in other areas as well. First, in education, Prof Abul Barkat reported that between 1970 and 2008, the number of alia madrasas increased from 2,721 to 14,152, and the number of qawmi madrasas went up correspondingly. By 2015, the government indicated the existence of 13,902 qawmi madrasas (though, largely because of definitional imprecisions, some estimates could be several times higher).

Moreover, in 2017, the qawmi madrasas, which had always resisted any government interference in terms of academic substance, quality or control, was able to get its Dawrah degree recognised as equivalent to an official MA degree.

These forces, spearheaded by Hefazat-i-Islam, were also able to influence the curricula of the official education system. In 2017, as many as nine chapters were quietly deleted from school textbooks (which included contributions from Lalon, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sarat Chandra, Satyen Sen, Humayun Azad and Rabindranath Tagore) and substituted them with more religious-minded pieces (from Shah Ahmad Sagir, Alaol, Golam Mostafa, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Habibullah Bahar). Similar other texts were added. Further changes were demanded and remain under consideration.

Second, such groups, and others emboldened by them, carried out various acts of repression and violence against religious minorities. Odhikar (a Human Rights based organisation), reported that between 2007 and 2019, 12 people belonging to minority faith communities were killed, 1,536 injured, seven abducted and 19 raped, while 62 pieces of land and 40 houses were grabbed, 1,013 properties and 390 temples were attacked, and 889 idols damaged or destroyed. It should be pointed out that the victims were mostly Hindus, but also included Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadiyya adherents. Minority organisations report numbers that are understandably higher.

A large number of minorities have felt compelled to leave the country. According to the official census reports published by the government, in the 1951 census (i.e., after the early exodus forced by the Partition), Hindus were 22 percent of the population of East Pakistan. By 1961 it had come down to 18.5 percent, by 1971 to 13.5 percent, by 1991 to 10.5 percent and by 2011 to 8.5 percent. Some of this may be partly explained by economic and family factors, but it would be quite implausible to deny that the atmosphere of threat and vulnerability they faced did not contribute to this migration.

Third, these groups have also been successful in creating an intimidating environment that has caused a “chilling effect” on free speech. They have assassinated secular and atheist writers and bloggers, attacked teachers and editors, and threatened artists and performers on the pretext that their religious sentiments and sensibilities had been hurt or offended. Even the suspicion or accusation that someone had done so may lead a Hindu principal of a school to be forced to do sit-ups in front of an entire assembly of students and citizens, or a person being burned to death.

The Digital Security Act vastly expanded the arsenal of weapons available to the politically or religiously hyper-sensitive. With its sweeping generalities and lack of clarity about the meaning of “religious sentiments” or what constitutes being “hurt” or “offended”, legal harassment was added to public humiliation and physical attacks as a relatively safe and seductive tool in the service of intellectual and religious intolerance.

It must be pointed out that the most serious and worrisome challenges to our democracy do not come from wild-eyed, bomb-throwing fanatics who can attack a cultural programme celebrating the Bengali New Year’s Day and kill 10 people (April 14, 2001), cause more than 400 simultaneous explosions in 63 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh (August 17, 2005), or slaughter 28 people, including 17 foreigners in an upscale Dhaka restaurant (July 1, 2016). These are dramatic and dangerous manifestations of Jihadi militancy. But, they can be, and have been, largely contained. The much greater threat, more insidious and more far-reaching in its consequences, is the creeping advance of religionists in the country through a process that has been deliberate, organised and strategic.

It must be emphasised that there is a distinction between the concepts of being “religious” and becoming a “religionist”. The first refers to a commitment to personal piety, rigorous practice and spiritual salvation, the second indicates an interest in attaining political power, dictating government policy and dominating the public discourse. The first is perfectly compatible with secularism, can embrace modernity and scientific progress, and peacefully co-exist with other faiths and persuasions. The second is skeptical of science, judgmental about other faiths, and ready to retaliate against any questions about their own. Secularism is integral to, and a precondition for, democracy, while religionist absolutism is a threat.

This does not mean that secularism automatically ensures democracy. History is replete with examples of very secular authorities being cruelly illiberal and authoritarian. This only refers to the fact that unless there is tolerance for other ideas, respect for other faiths, acceptance of questions and criticisms, openness to science and evidence-based enquiry, trust of the will of the people (and not merely the assertions of dogmatic clerics) to make right decisions and judgments, and a strict separation between the private sphere of individual faith and the public space for civic engagement—unless these “secular” values and practices are upheld, democracy cannot be sustained.

The secularist argument, hence democracy itself, has been under considerable stress. The anxieties and uncertainties created by technology and global dislocations, the increasing inequalities everywhere, world-wide conflict particularly the instabilities in the Middle East (and the feeling that Islam is under siege), and the corruptions and inefficiencies in so many countries, have all contributed to a widespread skepticism about the West, a hostility to its traditions and examples, and a turning inward among Muslims.

Reinforcing this anti-secular backlash here has been India’s unfair and selfish pursuit of its interest (in relation to Bangladesh), and the increasing bigotry and viciousness it has displayed against Muslims. Moreover, financial patronage and Salafi indoctrination flowing in from Arab countries provided support and direction to the religionists. Finally, the stereotypical dismissal of religious people as backward, misogynist, violent, one-dimensional and unpatriotic has been arrogant, counter-productive and polarising. Instead of helping the cause of secularism and democracy, it has only strengthened its enemies.

But, more importantly, the leaders of supposedly secular parties in Bangladesh have probably been complicit in creating this Frankenstein. It is not a question of apportioning blame, as the parties are now childishly doing. Almost all parties had probably tended to this poisonous plant (perhaps some more readily than others), and helped it to flourish through compromise and accommodation.

It may be argued that compromise is part of the democratic process, and hence should be supported. But compromising what, and with whom, is relevant. This was the fatal fallacy of the (in)famous policies of “appeasement” pursued by the Allied powers in dealing with Hitler. Throughout the 1930s he consistently violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles—building his armed forces, remilitarising the Rhineland, stopping reparation payments, reuniting with Austria through the Anschluss, and finally claiming the Sudetanland (at that time a province of Czechoslovakia). The Allied Powers, desperate to “secure peace for our time” once again, gave in. Hitler not only occupied the province, but the entire country. And then he demanded Poland, and invaded it in 1939. World War II, preventable earlier, became inevitable.

“Appeasement” was destined to fail. To a bully, a compromise is a capitulation. It does not make the problem disappear, it only encourages the next demand. The religionists kept on steadily advancing their agenda (affecting the constitution, education, public policy, free speech, etc). The parties in power did not confront them. In this sense, our “Sudetanland moment” was perhaps the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the High Court premises. That crucial “victory” may have paved the way for the unimaginable and unforgiveable audacity of the religionists in defacing Bangabandhu’s sculpture in Kushtia, and demanding that none others be built.

If we care for Bangabandhu, the spirit of our Liberation War, our obligation to our own constitutional principles, and our commitment to democracy, we must be bold, decisive and resolute to protect secularism in order to consolidate democracy. A Faustian bargain with the religionists may provide political gains that are illusory and temporary, but moral losses that are substantive and permanent. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who forsake their constitution for the sake of power, deserve neither.

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus at Black Hills State University, USA.