A round-table discussion organized by Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha, in association with Dhaka Tribune
Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS), an organization working for gender equality, organized a round-table discussion, titled “Towards a democratic society and state: Importance of practicing secularism for resisting violent extremism and culture of supremacy,” at the conference hall of Dhaka Tribune on January 22, 2020.
Chaired and moderated by BNPS Executive Director Rokeya Kabir, the discussion was attended by representatives from reputed public universities, mass media, CSOs, NGOs, cultural activists, trade unions, researchers, experts and other stakeholders.
The round-table discussion was dedicated to renowned educationist and physicist Dr Ajoy Roy.
Addressing the event, Rokeya Kabir said indiscrimination among the citizens was a part of the Declaration of the War of Independence, which is largely associated with the elimination of all forms of disparities from the society.
“After 49 years of independence, inequality still exists in the families, the society, the institutions and the state, based on social status, ethnicity, religion and sex. Women in Bangladesh are subjected to inequality due to discriminatory law that sometimes contradict the constitution along with analysing religion in a way that favours men. There is no doubt that every sphere of society is influenced by patriarchy, which is supported and reinforced by different ideologies. Secularism as a philosophy is under threat from radicalism in our country,” Rokeya said.
“If we want to bring changes, we need appropriate measures on particular issues. All human beings are born free and they are to enjoy equal rights and dignity. But why is there discrimination? The answer is supremacy based on economical status, religion, race, social class and so on.”
Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS) has been working since 1986 covering a diverse field of development issues, such as gender equality, youth empowerment, socio-economic development of the marginalized, environment, and capacity building of stakeholders. The organization has been promoting the important role played by women during the 1971 Liberation War and advocating for policy-level changes on a range of issues.
The chair of the round-table discussion invited the discussants to share their opinion on the issue, and concrete suggestions on how to build a productive, peaceful society where there is no supremacy, no discrimination, no denial of equal rights, and no violence.
Kamal Uddin Kabir
Associate professor, Department of Theatre, Jagannath University
When a country explains equal rights using religion, it becomes complicated and bears different meanings to different groups. In this round-table discussion, the term “secularism” is used to explain that people are free to exercise their religious rights without considering which religion is better and which are not. A recent change in curriculum – addition of Ethical Education – gives us a beacon of hope since it promises to bring some modification.
Former president of Student Union, member, CPB Dhaka Committee and leader of Krishak Samity
The kind of religious extremism we notice today occurs when we remove our children from their culture and heritage. When we send our Muslim children to madrasas and our Hindu children to mandirs for their education, they do not learn how to recognize people; they learn how to recognize Muslims and Hindus.
Azizur Rahman Khan
We often tend to mix up the concept of nation and government. The government has to be loyal to the citizens and work together for the development of the country. In order to bring change in a nation, a society and its government have to work together.
Ziauddin Tarek Ali
President, Sammilito Samajik Andolon
After 1971, we have moved towards being a secular country. At present, socio-economic inequality is on the rise. To bring this under control, the government has a huge role to play and should take exemplary actions. As a measure, the government should organize massive campaigns where inclusiveness could thrive.
Chairman and Associate Professor, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, Dhaka University
There is a disconnect between our state and society. The term “secularism” is being widely misrepresented. A secular state with Islam as the state religion has been a political move by a military dictator.
Dr Md Tanzimuddin Khan
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University
Secularism focuses on inclusiveness. We teach our children to learn and memorize facts, but not to question them. We must recognize our education system as a crucial tool for achieving democracy and secularism. Our state must act responsibly in promoting awareness about violent extremism and equal rights for all.
Joint general secretary, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad
Extremism is an ideological agenda manifesting from supremacy. Our conventional view that it is born out of poverty and illiteracy is inaccurate. Nearly 50 years after gaining independence, we must revisit the questions that stimulated our Liberation War. The popular saying “Religion is personal, while the nation belongs to everyone” states that religion shouldn’t influence governance. But somehow religion became intertwined with politics. Politicians who did not embrace it chose to remain silent. This interlink spilled over to influence public mentality. However, even our progressive constitution does not address certain issues. It promises gender equality in public affairs, but it does not acknowledge that women are deprived of their rights in private matters.
Numan Ahmed Khan
Executive director, Institute of Environment and Development
From technology to education, our society is one that is rapidly transforming in every aspect. We are not prepared for those changes. We stubbornly adhere to our conservative mind-set. As men, we want to remain in positions of power in a patriarchal society. As employers, we seek to establish dominance over our workers. Then we look at the western world and wish for democracy without taking responsibility to change.
To achieve democracy, we must collectively foster a logical mind-set. The absence of such is the result of limitations at the family and state levels. There is no point in playing the blame game and pointing our fingers at the state. We must, as individuals, take responsibility for changing ourselves. Our activities must be aligned with our desire for democracy through the practice of flexibility.
General secretary,Bangladesh Adivasi Forum
Diversity is a concept that has to be emphasized since people do not realize the lack of respect and empathy the minorities are subjected to on a daily basis. The nation has to recognize all the languages spoken by Garo or Chakma or any other community.
Speaking of the Rohingyas, the nation has shown great humanity accepting the influx of one million people, but no major news was made or was assisted when the host community, especially many from the Chakma and Marma communities lost their homes. The Bengalis need to show more empathy towards all citizens belonging to smaller communities. It would be one of the most effective ways to bridge the gap.
Assistant professor, Department of English, Stamford University Bangladesh
The reasons behind supremacy and extremism are complicated and multifaceted. It is not good enough to simply mention that they are the products of poverty or idleness. They exist because of our political, economic and societal infrastructures, and the tendency to compromise our freedom of expression and basic social rights. We should uphold the principles of our Liberation War.
I also find the anti-women rhetoric that some religious leaders use during Friday sermons and other sermons. It is important to stop this practice as it is harmful, against the state policy, and disrespectful towards women.
Former president of Student Union, and member, Citizen Forum
We have to learn to let go of our tendency to compromise. The kind of religious extremism that is present today occurs only due to our lack of strength and willpower, and our habit of compromise.
It is also because we simply cannot rely on the state to ensure our safety. It is not that people are not discussing these matters, but they are much more afraid of the fact that the state is going to be dissatisfied with their opinions.
I feel like the only reason people do not speak up is because of the loyalty to the vested groups. Our society is moving towards a communal one, and we are bringing in the same elements that we fought against in 1971.
President, TGWF and trade union leader
Economy is the driving force of politics, and we cannot transform governance without emphasizing on the economy. We are victims of consumerism. Politicians obsessed with power is the reality no matter how we feel about it. As far as the education system is concerned, learning about Rabindranath is not necessary but English grammar is, that is how far our perceptions have fallen. We need to address these issues and set them right.
General secretary, Sammilito Samajik Andolon
We are living through difficult times. During the Liberation War, I noticed people of all religions came together to support the freedom fighters in any way possible. This was due to the collective ambition of the people of building a prosperous nation. We are missing that spirit now. We must unite the people, make them aware of the discriminatory practices so that they can play their role effectively to contribute to the changing processes.
Journalist, Prothom Alo
In 1971, the majority of people, freedom fighters and people in power demanded a secular, democratic nation with equal rights for people irrespective of races, religions and sex, but the situation started changing after 1975. The constitution of 1972 assured basic rights of the people; this claim must include racial, familial and religious rights of a citizen. The role of the privileged section of the society is also lacking; we only accept democracy when it caters to our own interest, but we do not bother whether it is creating barriers for people of other religions and ethnic groups. We must collectively look for the right path to build a truly democratic nation.
Staff reporter, Dhaka Tribune
We’re inclined to think that children are too young to grasp concepts such as secularism, but that is wrong. When I was in school, we would all have maths and English classes together. It was only during religion classes that we could sense a distinction. Regardless of how much we talk about equality in pen and paper, we do not see it in practice in our family and at the state level.
The main points discussed at the dialogue
The role of state is to ensure constitutional rights and entitlements of the citizens, ensure constitutional supremacy over religious supremacy, and dismantle all other supremacies
Different cultures of ethnic minorities within larger context must be recognized
The civil society and the government must work together to improve democratic practices
Education curricula need to be revised to teach secularism
Inadequacy of our legal and political systems must be addressed
Train the new generation on how to celebrate pluralism
Women must be empowered to build a barrier-free society.
The separation of state and religion is mandatory to build a secular society where all citizens can enjoy their rights equally