The constitution respects all religions equally. This is the concluding part of yesterday’s op-ed
Secularism is one of the state principles, Article 8(1), which is fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh, applied by the state in making laws, a guide to the interpretation of the constitution and other laws, and which forms the basis of the work of the state and its citizens.
Article 9 speaks about solidarity on the basis of Bengali nationalism deriving its identity from its language and culture, which was the spirit of Liberation War, and also ascribes attainment of a just and egalitarian society free from exploitation.
Article 12 declares that secularism shall be realized by the elimination of communalism, the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion, abuse of religion for political purposes, discrimination against or persecution of persons practicing a particular religion.
Under Article 41 every citizen has the right to profess, propagate, or, practice any religion and, also provides rights to religious communities to establish and maintain their own religious institutions. This Article further articulates that no person attending any educational institution shall be forced to attend or follow religious instructions of other religions.
The constitution encompasses several provisions that emphasize complete equality and equal status of its citizens irrespective of their religion. Articles 27-28 of the constitution stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law; the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of, among others, sex and religion.
Therefore, any Hindu or Christian in Bangladesh has the right not to be discriminated against due to their religious identity and can practice or propagate their religion freely.
All religions are treated with the same respect, and the constitution has ascribed equality for all citizens, Hindu and Muslim alike. The constitutional recognition of this ideology is also manifested in the state policy and laws which support the equal protection of minorities against violence and discrimination.
The 1860 Penal Code explicitly condemns murder, rape, abduction, and other abuses against all citizens, as well as the damage or defilement of places of worship, the outrage of religious feeling, and the disturbance of religious assembly -- all threats impacting especially on minorities.
Bangladesh has also a Human Rights Commission which is mandated to observe any human rights violation and recommend any measure to protect the rights of the citizens, which obviously includes the minorities.
Furthermore, the ministry of religious affairs is responsible for maintaining the affairs of all religious communities.
In the light of the above, the promise of a “ministry for religious minorities” by Jatiya Oikya Front (as per their election manifesto of December 2018), is contested and not desirable for a few reasons.
First, creating such a ministry would further divide the people on the basis of their religious identity. Identity affects behaviour, and historians contend that societies all over the world have systematically invented identities such as religion, symbols, etiquette, rituals, dress codes, to divide people and foster segregation.
If a society is segmented on the basis of identity and identity is defined on the basis of religion, then identity becomes even more important to create dominance. Identity is important as individuals tend to favour members of their own group over members of other groups.
Recognition means a facility, and many minorities may fall in that trap, but a segmented society based on religious identity is bound to neglect the development of true secular culture.
If secularism and secular culture are overlooked ,then, in the long run, Bangladesh will lack that unified Bengali culture and tradition that combines all religions. Implementing an inclusive and secular platform that includes respect for the right to religious freedom would be jeopardized if people are identified and segregated on the basis of religion.
A separate ministry for religious minorities would only hamper the growth of cohesion and unity of the citizens, and minorities themselves will be the victims of such segregation. Furthermore, differential treatment for different religious groups can run the risk of systemic discrimination.
Third, prejudice within majority communities can also be triggered, as they might feel that they are losing their rights and status and minorities are receiving more preferences.
Another concern is that by identifying religious minorities as a priority, Bangladesh might be a target of religious violence by religious extremist groups and minority persecution might increase, since prioritizing religious minorities mean excluding or ignoring the majority, which can ignite fear and hatred among them.
In this context, a more practical response is to fortify implementation of secularism and secularization of the society, and to ensure that the minorities get similar treatment within the existing framework that respects the rights and status of all.
When the constitution, laws, and state policy ensures equal status of all religion, and equality of all citizens irrespective of religious identity, creating a separate ministry for religious minorities will only bring negative consequences.
The promise of a seemingly beneficial minority ministry may cause a huge toll on the religious harmony and secular culture of the country. This promise has a political and ideological significance which deserves to be clarified by the constitutional experts and Oikya Front leaders.
Farzana Mahmood is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.