More than fifty years ago, Bangladeshi people fought a bloody war against Pakistani brutal oppression. In suppressing the legitimate demands of the people of then East Pakistan, Pakistani military authority had the ready and willing support of armed gang of the 5th columnists – the so-called Islamist thugs trying to save the country for religion.
Bangladesh won the independence after shedding tremendous amount of bloodshed, sacrificing the dignity of tens of thousands of Bengali women, millions of people had to flee their homeland by crossing the borders in all directions to India. After nine months of war, the country achieved independence by beating the Pakistani force.
Now the 5th columnists are attacking the very foundation of Bangladesh from within and to add insults to injury on the day of independence, on the day when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired the Bengali people to rise up and fight for our national dignity, for our national identity. How dare these Hefazat-e-Islam thugs attack Bangladesh’s national emblem as well as national properties when the country was primed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its independence.
These Hefazati people are not only the enemy of the State, they are also the vicious people and criminals. They cannot tolerate the celebration of independence of Bangladesh, which broke away from their stark racist religious state of Pakistan. Even after 50 years, they are hankering after their fanatic country Pakistan and scheming to end the secular state of Bangladesh.
Now the question is, who are these Hefazati people and how did they get such a strong foothold in the country which they opposed so violently? To answer this question, one has to look back to the political history of Bangladesh. The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, on 15th August 1975 was the turning point when the country had been wrenched out from secularism towards Islamisation. Ziaur Rahman who took control of the country after the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death started to change Bangladesh Constitution from secularity to Islamic Constitution, putting Bismillaher Rahmanir Rahim in the Preamble of the Constitution and stating Islam as the State religion. He then allowed Rajakars, al-Badr and other blatant religious groups who were violently involved in killing innocent people during the liberation war to come back to Bangladesh.
At the same time, Saudi money started pouring in to open madrasas – Qawmi type which is of the fundamentalist variety – throughout the whole country. In addition, mosques were established in almost every street corner of the capital city and all major cities of the country with Saudi money. Ziaur Rahman surreptitiously encouraged these religious activities and with the explicit and implicit support of these religious bigots, he started a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). After Ziaur Rahman, Mohammad Ershad continued in the same vane allowing and encouraging clandestine foreign supply of funds for political-religious purposes.
At the moment, there are at least 64,000 Qawmi madrasas in the country and the number of students is assumed to be nearly 10 million (as par Institute of Commonwealth Studies). The exact number of madrasas or madrasa students is not known as these madrasas are not registered and regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, as these madrasas are financed privately. That is where the problem lies and the dark side of madrasa education starts to emerge. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia as the main sponsor of the Salafist / Wahhabi ideology is the financier of these Qawmi madrasas and mosques, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia also financed the setting up of Ibn Sina banks, Ibn Sina hospitals, universities, primary schools and even bus services and hotels in Bangladesh. The tentacles of Islamic financial activities go far and wide and are deeply rooted. Obviously, with such financial muscle comes the political muscle and any democratic government of a relatively poor country would be hard pressed to confront them.
Hefazat-e-Islam as a political organisation emerged in 2010 when millions Qawmi madrassah people were readily available to populate this blatantly communal organisation. In fact, Hefazat has become the political forum for these Madrasa-trained people who have no vocation or skill to offer, other than simply reciting some verses from Quran without even understanding anything about it. These madrasas only produced millions of morons and enemies of the State. These people are total dead weight to the country.
Over the years, these madrasa-trained people had been piling up and they would now demand employment. That they are not suitable for any productive work is beyond their comprehension. However, the government should have warned them before they were allowed to go down the blind alley and now it falls on the government to train them and move them towards the constructive sector of the economy. These people, as they stand now, are now primed to be radicalised and can very easily be turned into Islamic terrorists.
Demonstrating against foreign leaders or foreign powers, vandalising private and public properties, attacking minorities and their properties etc would seem to be the pastimes for these people. The government must stop them firmly. The whole sector of madrasa education should be closed down without any delay. The problem that the military-people-turned-politician had created in the past to get a foothold in the political field has to be tackled now. The country has to bear the brunt of the thuggery of Hefazati people by deploying the Border Guards to protect foreign leaders and saving government and minority properties, but can this extra vigil continue indefinitely? The root cause, the source of the problem needs to be tackled head on; otherwise, the mayhem caused by these illiterate madrasa-trained people may continue.
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!
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.
South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) conducted a survey late last year to appraise the socio-economic condition of families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings of the survey contain enough negatives to alarm the policymakers and the concerned citizens alike.
According to the survey findings, the proportion of Bangladesh’s total population living below the poverty line has doubled from 21.6 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in late 2020 and the proportion of extreme poor tripled from a mere 9.4 percent to 28.5 percent over the corresponding period. The pandemic has caused serious economic hardship, especially for the poor, all over the world. But such a mammoth slippage is unfathomable, especially when the country achieved nearly 4 percent growth last year compared to negative growth posted by most South Asian countries.
The findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s recovery packages in reaching the population in dire need of government assistance. The population living marginally above the poverty line or in poverty are always vulnerable to slip into one level down at the slightest sign of any economic instability.
Our policymakers should keep in mind that no degree of economic growth is fulfilling if its benefits fail to reach the downtrodden masses. Development, no matter how glittering it appears, carries little value to the poor unless its benefits trickle down to them in some form or other. Else, they feel left behind as then they only see the glitter of development but not its benefits.
Moreover, such a substantial spike in poverty level may derail Bangladesh in its journey to achieve middle income country status. Apart from maintaining the required per capita Gross National Income (GNI) level, which it likely will, the country must also maintain the threshold level in one of the two other criteria, the Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) criteria, in the next triennial review to be held in 2021. Only then the chances of Bangladesh being recognized by the UN as a middle income country in 2024 will remain alive. Otherwise, there will be, at a minimum, three-year delay in Bangladesh achieving middle income status unless the UN relaxes the conditions due to the pandemic.
As of today, the chances of Bangladesh slipping below the threshold level on both counts appear real, demanding immediate pragmatic measures to counter them.
Now the question arises, what went wrong with the government’s relief packages. Why did they fail to deliver the desired benefit to the population in direst need? Was sufficient resources allocated for the vulnerable population in the relief packages? Did the mechanisms used for the delivering the resources to the target beneficiaries work? Well, the time has come to look seriously into the foregoing questions as a first step to mitigate the suffering of the people living below or hovering around the poverty line.
Understandably, the major goal of the relief packages is to keep the economic wheel rolling at a time of unprecedented difficulties caused by the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that preventing the consumption level from rock bottoming is pivotal to succeed in achieving this goal. The following measures may help the country in improving the poverty situation as well as giving the economy a boost:
1) Delivery of increased food and cash resources to the population in dire need;
2) expansion of agricultural grant or loan, as appropriate, to subsistence farmers; and
3) enhancing employment opportunities via increased assistance to small and cottage industries.
Both cash relief and cash freed through food relief will help increase purchasing power of the target population enabling them to buy more manufactured consumer goods, essential for steady economic recovery.
Much thought should be given on formulating the best possible path of achieving speedy economic recovery. The path on which poverty alleviation and economic recovery walks hand in hand. A path on which each complements the other.
It is heartening that the country has attained the economic capacity to make it happen. What’s needed is due diligence to develop necessary plans and programs and their effective execution.
ASM Jahangir is a former Senior Program Manager of USAID/Bangladesh.
From the early part of 17th century, the great news about India’s wealth and affluence started to spread far and wide and invariably it reached the Western ears. The West was, of course, the centres of political and military might of the world at that time. Although India’s population was about 10% of world population, its economy was more than 30% of world’s GDP, taking the whole of Western economy into consideration. The amazing quality of muslin fabric in Dhaka, the exotic aromatic spices of South India, the evocating flavour of Assam tea etc were great attractions to the Western explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers and, of course, colonizers.
The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and latterly British fortune seekers and colonizers all started streaming in various guises at various ports of India, Sri Lanka and even beyond into Indonesia and so forth. But the golden goose of India was the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India) where wealth was fabulous, people were generous, mild-mannered and hospitable. But the provincial administration was ridden with selfishness, sycophancy, antagonism and conspiracy; in short, it was simply in dysfunctional state. On top of that, the Moghul Empire at the centre in Delhi was just crumbling down. The European fortune seekers and colonizers could not dream of a better set of conditions to fulfil their ambitions than in India.
The East India Company of Britain started their stall in Calcutta in the 17th century as a simple trading post for import and export of various commodities. As they made jaw-dropping profits and their economic and political powers grew much bigger for their boots, the British government took notice. Moreover, when America managed to tear itself away from the British hegemony, Britain turned its attention towards the East. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (the 1st Indian War of Independence) when the British colonizers just managed to hang on to powers by the skin of their teeth, the East India Company was nationalised urgently and India was taken under the British Crown and it became officially a British colony in 1858 CE.
Fast forward nearly a hundred years and come to the turbulent period of 1940s, when World War II was ravaging and tearing apart the very fabric of human society and civilisation, Britain as a major combatant had no option but to agree to grant freedom to the people whose support she needed badly at that time. America also had been exerting tremendous amount of pressure on Britain to decolonise its territories. After the end of war in 1945, Britain started to decolonise in earnest and in great haste.
In India, the poison of sectarian division had been sown for decades, if not centuries, first by the petty bourgeoisie administration and then firmly by the British Raj to ‘Divide and Rule’ the country. The Hindus and Muslims had been told that they were totally different people, different race and different culture. It played very nicely at the hands of opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians and rulers, although the great national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders took a somewhat different stance. They asserted that the Muslims and Hindus in independent India would live in self-governing states based on democratic principles. But that that did not assuage the fear of the underclass Muslims being overwhelmed by the Hindu majority or the Hindu superiority. The political leaders of the Hindu majority did nothing to dispel such fears of the minority community; on the contrary they were rather flaming the fears.
The two communities started drifting apart ever since Allama Iqbal proclaimed his sectarian Two-Nation Theory (TNT) in 1930, where he envisaged the creation of a separate Muslim State in the North West part of India for Indian Muslims. Only as an after-thought Iqbal said years later that there was no reason why Bengal should not join the Muslim State. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not keen to have a separate Muslim State at the beginning, but under Iqbal’s persuasion and, to some extent, due to antagonistic attitudes of some communal Hindu politicians, he gradually drifted towards separate two-nation-state idea.
However, when at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League (ML) in 1940, the creation of a Muslim State, called Pakistan, on the basis of two-nation theory was adopted, the partition of India was virtually sealed. Communal feelings ran high throughout the whole of India and sometimes they boiled over into communal riots. In the 1946 provincial election in British India, the creation of Pakistan was a matter of patriotism, self-preservation and religiosity all rolled into one for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in the province were mostly landless farmers, day labourers and contract workers. So, they took the election as an opportunity to seek emancipation from not only the British colonial yoke but also Hindu dominance.
The election was also taken as a new dawn for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslim League got nearly 95% Muslim seats (114 out of 119 of all Muslim seats) in Legislative Assembly of Bengal. That was the best performance of the Muslim League in the whole of the country. Although 114 seats out of the Provincial Seats of 250 were not the majority, but they were the overwhelmingly dominant group.
Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a student leader, was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and was associated with Husain Shahid Suhrawardy, a very prominent leader of the Muslim League from Bengal. He went to Sylhet with about 500 students from Calcutta to campaign for Pakistan before plebiscite in that district of Assam. The election result was the outcome of emancipation of dispossessed and landless farmers who had been promised to be made landed farmers.
Things started moving at break-neck speed after the Provincial Election in 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared on 20 February, 1947 to give independence to India within two years. On 3rd June 1947, British government formally accepted the division of British India into India and Pakistan. However, nobody, not even the top leaders like Jinnah and Nehru had the faintest idea on 3rd June what the two countries would look like. Communal riots broke out throughout the whole country due to uncertainty. This vagueness had created a grave chaotic situation and aggravated the plight of people who suffered tremendously during the partition. Hindus in their millions moved from anticipated Pakistani territories in one direction and Muslims from Indian territories moved in the opposite direction and anger spilled over these moving migrants!
The British government washed its hands off from all responsibilities for the peaceful transfer of power and oversight of proper partition of the subcontinent under the guise of its commitment to transfer power as soon as possible. On 17th August 1947, the first batch of British military troops set sail out of Bombay for home. Both India and Pakistan had been left on their own devices to slug it out.
But the province of Bengal (the then East Pakistan) where the British East India Company first set its foot some 200 years ago was in much disorientated state. It joined up, albeit on the strength of the provincial election in 1946, with another province (in fact, four provinces in West Pakistan which were later merged into one) which was some 1500 miles away, separated by an enemy state (as per Pakistani version). There was no common tenuous bondage between these two provinces except only religion; everything else like culture, language, attire, attitude and even race were different. The state of Pakistan was simply huddled up on the outcome of an election, which was based on emotion and centuries of pent-up injustices on the Muslims, and from undue haste of the British colonial masters to depart.
Within one year of Pakistan’s independence, in 1948, the severe fault line appeared when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka, East Pakistan that Urdu would be the national language. But by far the majority, nearly 55%, of the whole country’s population was Bengali speaking and Urdu was spoken by less than 20% of the population. So, what was the justification for Urdu to be national language other than sheer subjugation of East Pakistan?
The Language Movement ensued in 1952 when police opened fire on unarmed university students and killed eight of them, when they demanded Bengali to be the national language. Ever since that time, West Pakistan tried to kowtow the Bengalis into total submission and keep them as the underclass in the country. The Punjabis of West Pakistan started dominating by sheer military strength all spheres of activities in life – economy, education, employment, the civil service, sports and so forth and worst of all, they were conducting organised campaign to wipe out the Bengali identity by disenfranchising Bengali and to force people to learn Urdu. When Britain withdrew in 1947, Pakistan became the de-fact colonial power over East Pakistan and started exploiting with even more ruthlessness than the British.
Pertaining to Bangladesh liberation war, 1971
The independence for Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) in Bangladesh did not come about until 16th December 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and became a sovereign independent state. So, it can truly be said that there was a hiatus of 24 years for the Bengalis. The process of independence, which started on 14th August 1947 when the British Crown hurriedly left the scene without fulfilling its colonial obligations and responsibilities, did not come to completion until the 16th December 1971. Then and only then the true partition could be said to have been completed.
Dr. Anisur Rahman (a nuclear scientist) is an author and a columnist and
Dr. Jadabeswar Bhatrtacharjee (a medical doctor) is a freelance writer.
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.