Secularism was a state policy adopted in Bangladesh’s constitution of 1972. The context of the manner in which secularism was viewed at the time, this policy was to draw a line between politics and religion in public perception. It was a sort of commitment by the state to remain neutral. The reason behind this was because during the Pakistan colonial rule, Islam was established as an ideology to be used as a tool to rule. But now, 50 years since the independence, religion has re-entered Bangladesh’s political scene. The speeches of political leaders are rife with religious rhetoric, the ruling party is eager to appease Islamists, the opposition remains entangled in the knot they tied with the Islamic groups, and religion-based parties have become strongly entrenched in the country’s politics. Religion has become the accepted ideology.
The return of religion to politics, in effect, began shortly after the constitution was drawn up in 1972. From the politicians in power down to the common people, no one quite understood the actual theory of secularism. Or perhaps, there had been no initiative to create a wider understanding of the concept. There had been no detailed social discourse on the complex relations between politics and religion, between the state and religion. No scope for discussion and debate on the issue had been created. In a sense, the perception of an elite section of society had been put forward as public perception. And after that, the military governments used religion and religion-based politics to assuage their legitimacy crisis. They amended the constitution and expressed their empathy for religion-based parties.
In 1978 secularism was dropped from the constitution and in 1988 Islam was declared the state religion. The Islamic parties also took part in the anti-Ershad movement (against the rule of military dictator HM Ershad). Even during the post-1991 democratic phase, the ruling and opposition parties forged alliances with the Islamic parties in order to consolidate their power or boost their struggle for power. It is undeniable that the violent conflict between BNP and Awami League led to the rise and consolidation of the Islamic forces.
In 2014, actually Awami League made it clear that they needed the Islamists more than they needed the Shahbagh-centric secularists. In March 2014 the prime minister declared that the country would run on lines of the Madinah Charter
Over the last few decades, just as the governments and the political parties have introduced religion into political discourse and have lent legitimacy to the religious players, the Islamic organisations and movements have increased political influence in society. The context of religion was implicated with the national identity of Bangladesh’s citizens in such a manner, as if there is a conflict between the anthropological Bengali identity and adherence to the Islamic faith. Yet the multidimensional identity of Bengalis is evident down the ages of history.
Before the 1996 election, Awami League forged ties with Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami inside and outside the parliament. They joined hands in a movement against BNP. Then in 1999, BNP formed an alliance with Jamaat, took part in the 2001 election and won. Prior to the 2007 election, both of the major political parties began to pull their Islamic elements towards their respective camps. Though claiming to be secularist, Awami League signed a memorandum of understanding with the hardliner Islamic party Khelafat Majlis.
The presence of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote in the BNP-led four-party alliance, is an instance of the use of religion in election politics. Even before the 2018 election, Awami League sought to appease religion-based parties. Of the 66 Islamic political parties in Bangladesh, 61 were a part of Awami League’s mahajote (grand alliance) and five were with BNP.
Interestingly, the political legitimacy and social influence of the Islamic parties increased significantly after the 2013 Shahbagh movement. The background of this was the 2010 war crimes tribunal. The objective of this tribunal was to place on trial persons involved in crimes against humanity in 1971 and bring an end to the culture of impunity. However, while there was support for the objective of the tribunal, it was criticised at an international level for procedural flaws. The Shahbagh movement flared up against a perceived understanding between the government and the accused war criminals to lighten the sentences. But Awami League adroitly manipulated the movement into its own favour.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of Hefazat-e-Islam, Qawmi madrasah-based organisations and a number of other minor Islamic parties came together against this movement. They termed the Shahbagh demonstrators as anti-Islamic atheists. Their long march to Dhaka in April, 2013, their gathering at the Shapla Chattar of the capital city in May that year, was evidence of their strength and their public appeal. Their 13-point demand which included enactment of a blasphemy law and provisions for maximum punishment for insulting Islam, gave rise to a sort of division in society. The two movements – one at Shahbagh and the other at the Shapla Chattar – divided everything in Bangladesh’s society into two and created a sharp divide. On one hand were the hardliner secularists and on the other were the orthodox Islamists, both adopting stances contrary to the easy-going tolerant and middle-of-the-road Bangladesh society.
With the ruling parties and the parties outside of power becoming dependent on the Islamic parties, particularly orthodox Islamists, religion-based politics wields influence in society beyond their actual strength. They are determining political discourse. It is hardly likely that these circumstances will change any time soon. On the contrary, this may intensify
The people’s tolerant democratic aspirations were crushed between religious and secular extremism. Awami League had taken a stern stance against the Hefazat-e-Islam gathering at Shapla Chattar. Yet later it forged close ties with Hefazat. In fact, after the 2014 controversial election, the more Awami League grew authoritarian, the more it drew Islamic elements close. In was in 2014 actually that Awami League made it clear that they needed the Islamists more than they needed the Shahbagh-centric secularists. In March 2014 the prime minister declared that the country would run on lines of the Madinah Charter.
In order to appease Hefazat and keep their own legitimacy intact, in 2017 the government brought about changes to school textbooks, discarding writings of non-Muslim writers. It also removed the statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court premises. Also in 2017, the government took the decision to construct 560 mosques all over the country.
After 2013, the Islamic terrorist groups also rose up. International terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State created links with local organisations in Bangladesh. However, under force as well as due to the weakening of the international terrorist groups, the militant groups in Bangladesh have apparently become weak. However, the lack of democracy and the loss of confidence in conventional politics may accelerate a future rise in terrorism.
Over the past 50 years, the more the major political parties and governments in Bangladesh fell into legitimacy crises and moved away from democracy, the more they became dependent on religion and religion-based politics. There was certainly scope for Islamic parties to participate in politics in a healthy democratic system through which they could either flourish or prove to be a weak entity in the public eye. Islamic parties did not fare well in the elections that had been free and fair and support for them was on a steady wane. But with the ruling parties and the parties outside of power becoming dependent on the Islamic parties, particularly orthodox Islamists, religion-based politics wields influence in society beyond their actual strength. They are determining political discourse. It is hardly likely that these circumstances will change any time soon. On the contrary, this may intensify.
* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US, a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.
* Saimum Parvez is a teacher at North South University’s department of political science and sociology. He recently earned his doctorate degree from the University of Sydney. He carries out research on terrorism, digital media and Bangladesh politics.
* This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir