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The fall of secularism in Bangladesh

  • Published at 07:06 pm March 8th, 2018
  • Last updated at 02:06 pm March 9th, 2018
The fall of secularism in Bangladesh
The young fanatic who sought to murder Professor Zafar Iqbal last week and almost succeeded in his attempt has told the police that he had acted the way he did for a particular reason. The noted academic-cum-writer, in his view, was an enemy of Islam. That chilling comment demonstrates yet once again the ease with which certain individuals and groups in this country have appropriated a religion to themselves and have tried to use it as a weapon to undermine the essential beauty of faith. Are we surprised at this new demonstration of the bad deal secular ideals have been going through in Bangladesh, despite the non-communal nature of the War of Liberation we waged nearly half a century ago, a principle that was enshrined in the constitution adopted and ratified in 1972? The assault on secularism began early on in independent Bangladesh when the politician-writer Abul Mansur Ahmed let it be known that the emergence of the country was a true reflection of the Lahore Resolution of 1940. It was anything but. The Lahore Resolution envisaged the creation of Muslim states in those regions of India where followers of the Islamic faith were in a majority. The war for Bangladesh’s freedom in 1971 was fought on the principle of Bengali nationalism, a secular base which made it clear that religion had nothing to do with the struggle. In simple terms, the Bengali triumph on the fields of battle in 1971 was an unambiguous repudiation of the Pakistan concept of 1940. Abul Mansur Ahmed was simply missing the point when he related 1971 with 1940. If that was the first discreet assault on Bengali secularism, the second came in the form of Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s sudden, disturbing emphasis on the need for a “Muslim Bangla” in Bangladesh. Bhashani’s politics in the early 1970s went a long way in cheering those who had mourned the demise of Pakistan in our part of the world. These elements were largely the fanatics who had happily assisted the Pakistan army in its attempted subjugation of the Bengali liberation struggle. Bhashani’s “Muslim Bangla” concept was, from such a perspective, a frontal assault on secular Bengali nationalism. In the years that followed, increasingly violent blows were directed at secular politics, to a point where communalism slowly but surely began to gain the upper hand. The violent coup d’etat which left Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family murdered and his government overthrown in August 1975 was a powerful manifestation of the creeping nature of communalism in the country. The coup makers and their patron Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed swiftly discarded the secular slogan of Joi Bangla for a patently communal “Bangladesh Zindabad,” a regressive idea that would gain increasing currency in the Zia dispensation through a voicing of what was given out as “Bangladeshi nationalism.” Added to that, of course, was the crude and blatant manner in which the Zia dictatorship prised secularism and socialism out of the constitution. But, given the medieval nature of politics in post-November 1975 Bangladesh, it was no surprise that “Bangladeshi nationalism” made its appearance as a careful, not too concealed reaffirmation of the communalism set into motion by the All-India Muslim League in the 1940s.
General Hussein Muhammad Ershad did lasting damage to the Bangladesh idea through imposing the concept of a state religion
That Bangladesh was being forced to repudiate itself was a notion loudly expressed when Zia loyalists in the army raised the non-secular slogan of “Nara-e-Takbeer” on the day they murdered Khaled Musharraf and his allies in November 1975. The progress to a communal Bangladesh gained new momentum in early 1976 when MG Tawab, the Bengali former officer of the Pakistan air force retrieved from Germany to be installed as Bangladesh’s air force chief post-August 1975, presided over a “seerat” conference at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka. The crowd at the conference was obviously a band of happy men who had only four years earlier wept at the fall of Pakistan at the same venue and who now had the opportunity to punish Bengali secularists for the infidels they had turned out to be. It would not be long before a second military dictatorship would add its own contribution to the slide in Bangladesh’s secular politics. General Hussein Muhammad Ershad did lasting damage to the Bangladesh idea through imposing the concept of a state religion, in the form of Islam, on the country. In the manner of General Ziaur Rahman, he went looking for ageing Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army to place in his administration. Among the “gems” he came up with was the notorious Moulana Mannan, to whom he gave a berth in the cabinet as minister for religious affairs. Mannan went travelling through the Middle East soliciting funds for the construction of mosques in Bangladesh. He succeeded beyond his expectations. And thus has the vehicle of communal politics moved on. In the mid-1970s the assassination of the Father of the Nation was a cause for celebration for Bengalis who had not quite been able to free themselves of the old communal taint. Remember the advocates of “najat dibosh,” a macabre public demonstration by a class of politicians relieved that Bangabandhu had been done to death? Ataur Rahman Khan, the veteran politician who once served under Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and would in a new avatar work for Hussein Muhammad Ershad, once expressed his disgust at the use of the Bengali term “maangsho” for meat. For him, the supposedly more Muslim “gosht” was the appropriate word which needed to be used. Communalism is thriving in Bangladesh, not merely through the placing of a religious inscription between the slogans of Joi Bangla and Joi Bangabandhu on Awami League posters but also -- and more ominously -- through a careful weeding out of non-Muslim writers from school textbooks that have the putative goal of enlightening the young through instilling liberalism in their thoughts and deeds. That misguided young man who tried to leave Zafar Iqbal dead is not the last of the fanatics. There are legions of similar such elements lurking around us. Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.