Recently, Bangladesh celebrated its half-century of independence and victory, the golden jubilee, with great ceremony and circumstance. At the same time, the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of Bangladesh, has been celebrated with due dignity. On the occasion of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has administered oath all over the country simultaneously. All the people of the country have expressed their conviction to create a new Bangladesh, that Bangladesh will be free from corruption, non-communal and democratic. In other words, the future Bangladesh will be built in the light of the principles and ideals of the Father of the Nation - towards his Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal).
In the last half century, Bangladesh has achieved the desired success in various sectors including humanity and economy. It is time for Bangladesh to become a middle-income country, no more a 'bottomless basket'. Bangladesh's position and leadership in the global arena is now upright. Now it is necessary to pay attention to some special cases inside Bangladesh. Especially when the issue of religious freedom or religious pluralism is much discussed in the resolution of existing religious conflicts around the world and when the relevance of secularism formed by Bangabandhu is being uttered more and more in the context of Asia, necessary steps must be taken to remove the existing inconsistencies in Bangladesh. It is pertinent to mention here that Bengali economist Amartya Sen at the London School of Economics in the celebration of Bangabandhu's birth centenary (2020) placed great emphasis on imitating Bangabandhu's ideals (mainly Bangladeshi secularism) in the world, and particularly in South and East Asia.
In this context, it is necessary to place sincere importance on the proper implementation of the state policies enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972. The uniqueness of the four policies of the state is that it is not possible to implement the rest of the policies by omitting or giving less importance to any of them, and that step will not be successful. Therefore, in order to implement democracy, it is necessary to ensure secularism and religious freedom, just as socialism is necessary for social justice. Therefore, the establishment of Bangabandhu's Sonar Bangla is not possible without proper implementation of the four-state principles. Democracy is also essential for building a non-communal Bangladesh. But the implementation of any of them is not difficult or impossible in the reality of the society, history and tradition of Bangladesh. Because Bangabandhu did not formulate any of the four principles imitating from any other country. He took those four principles from the everyday life affairs of this Bengali village-town, educated-uneducated, rich-poor, Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist-Christian and everyone - from the life of Bengalis.
The majority of the people in Bangladesh are Muslims (about 90 percent). The rest are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others. But people of all faiths have been celebrating many secular festivals throughout the year since ancient times in Bengal, 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. So he realized from the life experience of the masses that only religious harmony could show the way to liberation and peace for the Bengalis in a new non-communal country. And so in the new constitution of independent Bangladesh in 1972, he included secularism as one of the four main policies of the state in order to run the country in the spirit of liberation war. Secularism is one of the four fundamental principles, which are inextricably linked with other principles. Secularism is a feeling, which is the traditional form of the people of this region, and the traditional sense of life.
Secularism means many things and it has various aspects. It literally refers to the separation of religion from the state. While western society views secularism as an obstacle to the growth of industrialization, individualism and modernity, it does not apply to all societies. Because it is an anti-history thesis. Since ancient times, development and progress have been achieved in many areas by maintaining religious pluralism, tolerance, nationalism and religious harmony. The Bengal region is similar, which Bangabandhu realized through his life-long struggles and political tours across the country. That is why secularism in Bangladesh was not done in imitation of western model. Secularism in the form of indigenous society, culture and tradition has been branded as 'secularism' and has been associated with 'religious freedom', which is significantly different from the western version. Inclusion of believers in different religions according to Bangladeshi policy, and promotes religious pluralism. The attitude and behavior of the government toward all religions is basically the same; no choice or deprivation is effective in this case. Thus, the concept of secularism in Bangladesh is literally and practically different from that of western one, and it is socially very close to Bengalis and Bangladesh. After the partition of the country in 1947 on the pretext of religion, Sheikh Mujib witnessed the religious hypocrisy of Pakistanis. That is why he was very careful to keep religion separate from politics to prevent misuse of religion. However, he was very liberal and pragmatic when it came to religious freedom. In the election manifesto and election rally of 1970, he spoke about building a state of harmony irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Bangabandhu's dream was that no one could destroy the thousand-year-old bond of harmony of Bengalis through the misuse of religion, that people of all religions should unite to build a non-communal country.
Regarding the inclusion of secularism in the constitution of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu explained secularism as follows: "First of all, I believe in democracy. Along with the belief in democracy, I firmly believe that democracy can be developed only in a society free from exploitation. That is why I speak of democracy with socialism. All religions in Bangladesh have equal rights. I mean secularism as freedom of religion. In the end, the most important thing is the need to inspire Bengali culture, language, culture and the whole Bengali environment, which I call nationalism." (Source: Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Proposal). In other words, in the relationship of religion with the state, his secularism literally means 'secularism and freedom of religion'.
In the context of Bangladesh, secularism means religious freedom in public life as Bangladesh belongs to all. Thus, Bangladeshi secularism emphasizes on religious freedom. As Bangabandhu mentioned in his definition in the National Assembly 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). (quoted from Moniruzzaman, 1994). To him, 'Secularism does not mean irreligion or the absence of religion. Seven and a half crores people of Bengal will have the right to practice their religion. We do not want to stop religion by law.... For 25 years we have seen exploitation, oppression, murder in the name of religion. Religion is a very sacred thing. Holy religion should not be used as a political tool.
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'). In the same time, he brought sick 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 thought to have originated from Nazrul's poem. During Bangabandhu's period, religious messages from the holy texts of different religions began to be sent on Bangladesh Betar and Television to institutionalize the masses in order to ensure secularism and freedom of all religions and equal status. Thus, secularism in Bangladesh basically refers to 'religious pluralism'. As a result, religious pluralism was prevalent in the national consciousness in Bangladesh in the early 1970's.
As a Bengali Muslim, Bangabandhu used to present the meaning, importance and necessity of secularism and independence in public meetings. As he mentioned in a gathering held on the occasion of Siratun Nabi at Baitul Mukarram Mosque in 1972, 'Religion is no longer a business. Exploitation and harassment will not continue in the name of religion. No one can try to gain interest by dragging religion into politics. As an advocate of religious freedom, there is no animosity or hostility towards all other religions. Together, they expressed their firm conviction in building Bangladesh as an ideal state free from exploitation, which would be based on justice. He wanted to show the world that 'there is at least one Muslim country, where justice has been established'.
The Father of the Nation realized that religious pluralism was inherent in the soil and heart of Bengal. Peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance are the oldest traditions of the region. Bangabandhu witnessed in his childhood and political travels how Muslims rejoice in the worship of Hindus and the followers of other religions share joy in the two Eids of the Muslims. In addition to religious freedom, secularism is a monument to humanitarian, democratic, justice and freedom. In fact, Bangabandhu's other inseparable principles including secularism are very close to the life of the people. As a result, the common man adopted his policy and constitution as a way of life like secularism rather than policy or rule. Through this he wanted to build a non-communal Sonar Bangla, free from exploitation. As a result, as long as the policies formulated by Bangabandhu were effective, the progress of Bangladesh was positive.
But the vicious circle was always waiting for the opportunity. They assassinated Bangabandhu and his family on 15th August 1975 for the sake of political interests and for the purpose of plundering state resources, and as a result his dream of a the Sonar Bangla remained unfulfilled. His killers removed secularism from the constitution. Instead, it purposefully combines Islamic message and consciousness. But their lives did not reflect the consciousness or teachings of Islam. The military government and its allies have promoted secularism as dharmohinata not dharmonirpekkha, for political purposes. Islam was gradually declared the state religion in the eighties. Thus, for almost two decades after 1975, religious conflict and religious hatred penetrated deep into the society through the incorporation of Islamic consciousness everywhere in Bangladesh. Apart from politicians, a number of 'religious' leaders, who opposed the independence of Bangladesh, have propagated secularism as anti-Islamic through various propaganda and waz-mahfils in favor of the state and sowed the seeds of religious hatred. Whose influence still exists in society today.
Almost thirty-five years after the removal of secularism, Bangabandhu's daughter Sheikh Hasina restored secularism in the constitution in 2011. But over time, that is not all the same situation. Therefore, in the case of its application and practice, the secularism of 2011-2021 differed from the secularism of 1970-75. As a result, some adjustments have to be made to revive it after a long time. Islam has to be kept intact as a state religion. However, strict laws have been enacted to protect the rights of all religions, religious institutions and freedom of expression.
Regarding the practice of religion, the current government believes that tolerance and coexistence is the best way to stay away from religious conflicts. And so, in the mindset of the government, there is a positive attitude towards religious freedom and pluralism. Rejecting Islamists' demands for blasphemy laws, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangabandhu's secular successor, stated secular democracy is prevailing in the country... Therefore, every religion has the right to practice its religion freely and fairly. But it is not right to hurt someone's religious feelings. The existing law is enough to punish anyone who tries to insult religion. Thus the legacy of Bangabandhu's philosophy and ideology exists at the present regime (Sadeka Halim, 2021).
However, communal riots still take place in Bangladesh sporadically. Because religious hatred or conflict cannot be eliminated by law alone. In order to eliminate communal conflict or religious hatred, all possible steps must be taken at all levels - education, workplace, everywhere - to eliminate the already deep-rooted religious divisions in society and the misuse or political use of religion. Therefore, proper implementation of the four-state policy including secularism and democracy is essential for building an exploitation-free Sonar Bangla of Bangabandhu's dream.
Bangladesh has successfully passed the golden jubilee of its independence and victory. It can't step back in the second half of the century. The only goal now is the progressive Bangladesh in a democratic environment with secular values.
Dr. Ala Uddin, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chittagong. Email: [email protected]
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