Thursday, 2 December, 2021

Upholding Secularism Is Need of the Hour

Professor Dr Ala Uddin

Upholding Secularism Is Need of the Hour
Professor Dr Ala Uddin

Popular News

A review of the recent communal violence in various parts of the country has shown that although secularism and religious freedom have been restored in the constitution after nearly 35 years, communal attitudes penetrated into society for political purposes after the late-1975 have not been eradicated. On the contrary, the vested groups are always waiting for the opportunity, the negative reflection of which has been manifested in October 2021. In this situation, the perspective, interpretation, and analysis of Bangladeshi secularism formulated by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and its proper practice to prevent the recurrence of such communal conflicts in the future are undeniable for building a non-communal society.

In Bangladesh, more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, and the rest are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others. But people of all religions have celebrated many secular festivals throughout the year since ancient times, such as Pahela Boishakh, and Ekushey February. Historically, religious tolerance and pluralism have been the traditional characteristics of the people of this region. Bangabandhu was the leader of the land and people of the region, and witnessed the misuse of religion during the 25-year rule of religion-based Pakistan. He realized that only religious harmony could lead the Bengalis to the path of liberation and peace in a new non-communal country. That is why in the new constitution of post-independence Bangladesh in 1972, Bangabandhu included secularism as one of the four guiding state policies to rule the country in the spirit of the war of liberation.

Secularism has various meanings and applications. It refers to the separation of religion from the state. However, secularism in Bangladesh has not imitated the Western model. The concept of secularism in Bangladesh is literally and practically different from the Western one, and it pertains to Bangladeshi society. Secularism in Bangladesh has been framed according to the society, culture, and tradition of this region, and associated with 'religious freedom'-- significantly different from the Western version.

In the context of Bangladesh, secularism means religious freedom in public life. Thus, Bangladeshi secularism mainly emphasizes religious freedom. As Bangabandhu mentioned in his definition in the parliament in 1972: "Secularism does not mean the absence of religion. Muslims will practice their religion and no one in this state has the power to prevent it. Hindus will practice their religion and no one has the power to prevent it. Buddhists and Christians will practice their respective religions and no one will be able to stop them. Our only objection is that religion will not be allowed to be used as a political weapon” (Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh).

As a secular Bengali, Bangabandhu believed that it was possible to maintain the religious ideology of Islam in the spirit of secularism. That is why he has adopted the song of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore as the national anthem (Amar Sonar Bangla). He also brought the ill poet Kazi Nazrul Islam from India to Bangladesh and arranged for his stay and treatment. Many people think that Bangabandhu's lifestyle was influenced by Kazi Nazrul's poems and songs. In particular, the main slogan of the liberation movement in Bangladesh, 'Joy Bangla' is believed to have originated from Nazrul's poems. Nazrul was a secular Bengali poet who composed numerous secular songs and poems, including GahiSamayerGaan. One of the popular slogans in the 1970s was: Hindus of Bengal, Christians of Bengal, Buddhists of Bengal, Muslims of Bengal, we all are Bengalis.

The Father of the Nation wanted to show the world that 'there is at least one Muslim country, where justice is established'. He understood that religious pluralism was inherent in the soil and hearts of the people of Bengal. In his childhood and political journey, he witnessed how Muslims rejoice in the worship of Hindus, and the followers of other religions share the joy in the two Eids of Muslims. Through his secular principles he wanted to build a non-communal Sonar Bangla (Golden Benga) free from exploitation.

But the vested groups were waiting for the opportunity to fulfil their ambitions. Accordingly, they assassinated Bangabandhu and his family on 15 August 1975 for political gain, and in effect, his dream of a golden Bengal remained unfulfilled. The killers removed secularism from the constitution, instead, incorporated Islamic phrases and consciousness. Although the Bengali translation of secularism is dharmanirapekkhata (religiously neutral), the military government and its allies promoted its translation as dharmahinata (irreligion). Islam was gradually declared the state religion in the ‘80s. Thus, for almost two decades after 1975, religious conflict and hatred penetrated into society by using/misusing Islamic notions everywhere, mainly for political purposes. Apart from politicians, a number of 'religious leaders, who opposed the independence of Bangladesh, have propagated secularism as anti-Islamic (dharmahinata) through various propaganda and waj-mahfils with the support of the state and sowed the seeds of religious hatred. 

Almost thirty-five years after the removal of secularism, it was reinstated in the constitution under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. However, now it is not as smooth as before because the religious divisions in the society have already taken a definite form caused by the subsequent changes since 1975. Therefore, in terms of its application and practice, the secularism of 2011-2021 is little distinctive from the secularism of 1970-75. As a result, some accommodations have to be made to revive and sustain it after a long time. Islam remains the state religion. However, strict laws have also been enacted for the rights of all religions, protection of religious institutions, and freedom of expression.

In the wake of the communal violence across the country in October 2021, it has been depicted that religious hatred or conflict cannot be eradicated by law alone. A comprehensive move is required to eliminate the already deep-seated religious divisions in the society and the misuse or political use of religion. In this context, Bangabandhu’s secularism is still relevant today, as Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen mentioned at a discussion last year. According to him, Bangabandhu's secularism is relevant and exemplary for the present world, especially for South and Southeast Asia, in order to reduce the prevalent religious conflicts.

On the eve of the recent communal clashes in Bangladesh, the widespread manifestation of religious messages (particularly Islamic ones) has been noticed more positively than spreading hatred on social media. If the followers of their respective religions keep that in mind, then hopefully the situation like October 2021 will not repeat in the future with the condition that the message of peace, the teachings of Islam, the words of the Qur'an and the initiation of the Prophet, and the coexistence of other religions are maintained accordingly. In this case, the law enforcement agencies have to show more efficiency and intelligence than this time. National newspapers have a great responsibility to play a positive role in this regard.

Bangladesh is crossing the golden jubilee of its independence. It cannot go backward. Religious harmony is one of the main foundations of Bangabandhu's secular Bangladesh, the oldest feature of the region. It is the responsibility of all of us to uphold it.


The writer is a Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chittagong