"Secularism", (or Dhormo Niropekhota in Bengali), is one of the fundamental principles that drove the Bengali nationalist movement and subsequent Bangladesh Liberation War which led to the creation of Bangladesh, which had been founded as a democratic secular nation-state. The term Secularity had been induced into the original Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 as one of the Four State Principles, the others being Democracy, Nationalism and Socialism. After the dramatic assassination in 1975 of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder, secularism would be condemned by subsequent military regimes and be eventually removed from the constitution by President Ziaur Rahman in 1977 by replacing the word "Secularity" with "Absolutue trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions".
The removal of secularism has been described by the country's largely secular establishment as a betrayal of Bengali nationalism and also opposed to mainstream Bengali culture and society, both of which are seen as remarkably pluralist and progressive. However, the Bangladesh Army with its close ideological association of center-right and conservative political parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have professed the term Bangladeshi nationalism, to refer the country as an Islamic nation given that 89% of the population is Muslim.
In 2009, the newly elected Awami League government announced that it would re-introduce the original Four State Principles into the Permeable of the Constitution of Bangladesh. Although recognized by the United Nations as a "moderate Muslim democracy", Bangladesh's new foreign minister Dipu Moni announced that the country would like to be viewed as, in her words, "a secular, not moderate Muslim, country". The announcements have been widely welcomed by a cross section of people including the country's outspoken media and civil society.
Despite the country ceasing to be a secular state constitutionally, secularism has been practised in the region of Bengal since ancient times. In fact, secularism in the region as a whole, is in many ways different from that of Western versions that assert complete separation of church and state. The ethos of secularism in south Asia is fundamentally the freedom of individuals to practice the faith he or she desires without being subject to any form of state or communal discrimination.
Ancient and medieval rulers, especially the Pala Empire and Nawabs of Bengal practised secularism in making decisions of the court. Hindus and Muslims would have prominent leaders from each community assisting the rulers. When the British East India Company came in the 18th Century, it instituted separate laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In doing so they laid the foundation for a civil code which remains largely unchanged to date.
However, the British had perpetuated division amongst Bengali communities on the basis of divide and rule. Bengali Hindus were seen as affluent, educated and were accepted in civil services. On the other hand, Bengali Muslims, especially those in East Bengal were highly discriminated. Most East Bengali Muslims were peasants and were persecuted by Hindu zamindars supported by the British Raj. This had led to several religious movements across East Bengal such as the Faraizi movement aimed at resisting the British and the Hindu zamindari class.
In 1905, Nawab Sir Khwaja Salimullah, the Nawab of Dhaka, proposed the partition of Bengal on communal lines to establish a separate province for the suppressed majority of the region who live in East Bengal and were mostly Muslim. The British accepted the parition and a new province by the name of Eastern Bengal and Assam was created. However the partition was annulled in 1911 due to resistance from the Swadeshi movement in West Bengal that demanded the unification of Bengal.
In 1947, Bengal would again be paritioned on communal lines with East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) joining Pakistan and West Bengal being part of India. After the establishment of Pakistan, Bengalis faced immense discrimination and economic suffering. This led to the unification of religious communities, that were once divided by the antagonism during the British Raj. The Bengali nationalist movement quickly geared momentum with the increasing cultural and linguistic nationalism that were inherently secular. The Bangladesh Liberation War would see Bengalis, irrespective of religion join the fight for their freedom.
After achieving victory, Bangladesh's consititution, drafted in 1972, stated Four State Principles as the character of the new state. They would be Nationalism, Democracy, Secularity and Socialism. In 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founding father was assassinated by junior officers in the military and martial law was declared. The new President Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad would even proclaim in his maiden radio address, that the country he now heads is the "Islamic Republic of Bangladesh". Mostaq Ahmed would eventually be removed by counter coups in the volatile situation and army chief and liberation war hero Lt. Gen Ziaur Rahman would take over as president.
After Zia assumed the presidency, he would ally with his one time enemies during the liberation war, the anti liberation leaders such as Shah Azizur Rahman, Sabur Khan and Kazi Abdul Kader. The decision to ally with anti liberation leaders was seen as necessary as part of political strategy in order to counter the Awami League of the assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although Zia was incredibly popular for bringing stability after the volatility after 1975, he began using religion as a major factor in politics. He formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that professed the more Islamic "Bangladeshi nationalism" to replace the secular Bengali nationalism. The Bangladesh parliament in 1977 amended the constitution by changing the Four State Principles. The amendment caused the term "Secularity" in the Permeable to be replaced with "Absolutue trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions".
Finally in 1988, the country's second military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad declared Islam as the state religion in Bangladesh. This would be the final blow to constitutional secularism in the country. Supporters of the BNP and the military would engage in various anti minority activities particularly against the Hindu and tribal communities of the country.
However, after the return to democracy in 1991, there have been growing calls by the country's "pro liberation forces", the largely secular civil society and freedom fighters, as well as from the young generation to re introduce secularism back into the constitution. In 2009, the Awami League government announced that it would amend the constitution and induce the original Four State Principles.
Secularism is a hugely controversial issue in Bangladesh, with the country's politics effectively divided between secularist and leftists forces and conservative and Islamist forces. Islamic fundamentalist parties have often termed the propagators of secularism as being "anti-Islam" and accused them of promoting blasphemy by terming Bangladesh a secular nation. For example, various speeches made by leaders of the leading religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, have said that the Muslim headscarf would be banned if the Awami League were to be allowed to put back secularism in the constitution. In 2008, when the military-backed caretaker government passed a landmark National Women Policy, the government came under criticism from Islamic fundamentalists for drafting what they termed as an "anti-Islamic" policy. Subsequently, following street protests by religious bigots and pressure from sections of the military, the government was forced to review the policy.
The Awami League, the mainstream secular party which was also instrumental in the war of liberation, has been accused of failing to define secularism to the common masses and also for being inconsistent in their loyalty to the secularist ideology. In 1996 the party had allied unofficially with Jamaat to strengthen opposition against the then BNP government. In 2006, the party was widely criticised for welcoming the ultra-radical Bangladesh Khelafat Andolon, a party that preaches Islamic Shari law be introduced in Bangladesh, into the Grand Alliance, the coalition of opposition parties led by the Awami League. What was more controversial is an agreement signed with the Khelafat Andolan that in the event of the Grand Alliance assuming power, no "anti-Islam", "anti-Quran" or "anti-Sunnah" laws would be passed. The Khelafat Andolon was eventually dropped from the Grand Alliance after the widespread criticism of the Awami League.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, although containing a significant number of freedom fighters, has declared "Islam to the fundamental way of life" in its party constitution and is often seen making similar claims like their alliance partner Jamaat against the Awami League. However the party has largely remained silent on whether they would support secularism being put back into the constitution. "Pro-liberation" leaders within the party have also been calling for it to end its alliance with the fundamentalist Jamaat that opposed the liberation of Bangladesh. Many within the party have expressed concern at the growing proximity of some leaders within the party itself, who have been alleged to be prominent razakars (those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in 1971), to the party Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia. Amongst these controversial leaders, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, against whom there is video footage of taking part in the killing of hundreds of Hindus in Chittagong, is the most controversial. The party is also widely viewed as "anti-India" and "pro-Pakistan" in its approach to engaging on the international stage, although the party constitution advocates a neutral and nationalistic foreign policy.
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