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Dhaka Tribune

Secularism, thy name is Bangladesh

Update : 26 Jun 2014, 07:18 PM

Make no mistake about it; South Asia is a deeply religious place. There are holy sites all around the region and holy days all across our calendars. Our governments issue “spiritual visas,” organise pilgrimages, and declare public holidays for virtually every religious occasion, no matter how minor.

Mass congregations occur annually, ceremonial bathings happen almost daily, and a famous temple town recently played host, in spectacular fashion, to a prime minister. People are routinely murdered for giving religious offence and state-sponsored (or at best state-unchecked) terrorism against religious minorities occurs frequently enough to make it an established fact of life here.

Political leaders cannot appear too divorced from their religious backgrounds and religious leaders are close enough to politics to influence debates that surround the passing of laws.

If there is any separation of the temporal and the spiritual in South Asia, it doesn’t manifest very much in our statecraft. Indeed, the very foundations of our respective statehoods are religiously motivated, and while this may be less obvious in Bangladesh after 1971, our existence as East Pakistan is a testament to the fact that religious nationalism is a potent force in sub-continental political organisation.

Even when it isn’t institutionalised, its psychological hold can be overpowering enough to lead to things like say, Muhammed Ali Jinnah being denied his legitimate right to become prime minister of India in 1947 solely because of his religion.

But in spite of all this and against numerous odds, at least one country in the region still flies its secular colours high, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t India, its Bangladesh.

For all its pretentions to secularism, India’s commitment to the principle is often just skin deep. As mentioned, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s religion disqualified him from becoming prime minister of India way back in 1947 and the All-India Hindu Mahasabha presided over the disastrous vivisection of Bengal on religious lines in the same year.

In fact, so low was India’s original interest in secularism that it wasn’t until 1977, with the 42nd Amendment of the Indian constitution, that the word “secular” was added to its preamble, a full 30 years after the Republic of India was proclaimed.

For context, contrast that with the Bangladeshi constitution, which has included the word, and the value, since 1972 – since the very beginning of our statehood. Even before we became a state, our nationalism was consciously inclusive and slogans and posters from the war of liberation testify to this fact.

The recent election of Narendra Modi, who stands firmly on a Hindutva platform, further exemplifies India’s indifference to secularism, and though he has claimed his government will not seek to appease any religious community, his party’s reluctance to antagonise the Hindu right, his core vote bank, is evidenced through comments made in Bengal about Bangladeshi Hindus.

Neither Modi’s nor the BJP’s track record in dealing with extreme Hindu elements, the likes of which murdered Mohsin Sadiq Sheikh in Pune for being Muslim just days after Modi took office in Delhi, is encouraging enough to suggest that he will take a serious stand against communalism.

Bangladesh’s commitment to secularism was tested early on, and when the Saudi King, in a non-aligned summit in 1975, insisted that Bangladesh declare itself an Islamic republic in order for Bangladeshis to gain access to Mecca and Medina, the Bangladeshi leadership at the time refused to bow to communal blackmail, and chose to forgo the Hajj even at the risk of antagonising the Muslims of Bangladesh, an overwhelming majority of the population. That’s what a refusal to appease any religious community, even the majority, really looks like.

But this isn’t just about Bangladesh versus India. A quick glance around the neighbourhood will confirm that Bangladesh is the true bastion of South Asian secularism, even if increasing communal tensions on the ground threaten to undermine its well-earned credentials. Pakistan and Afghanistan are officially Islamic republics; Nepal was, until 2006, officially a Hindu kingdom, Bhutan is virtually a Buddhist monastery; the constitution of the Maldives only allows Muslims to be citizens of the country, and Sri Lanka is a country where Tamil Hindus were officially persecuted and people can be deported for having tattoos that offend Buddhist sentiments.

Even our nationalistic symbols contain nothing overtly religious. Our flag, unlike the flags of some of our neighbours, has no religious connotation. Pakistan and Maldives have the Islamic crescent moon on their flags, the triangular Nepali flag is said to represent a Vedic banner of victory, the flag of Afghanistan contains the Muslim declaration of faith, and the colours on the Sri Lankan flag along with the Bo leaves are religiously symbolic.

The colours on the Indian flag were originally religious but this was later reinvented, still the Dharma Chakra and the Ashokan Lion on the Indian passport are unmistakably religious in nature.

Nor is Bangladeshi secularism an imported concept. Mother England didn’t teach us how to be secular, in fact she never really had the authority to do so, not while her head of state, the Queen, is also the head of the Church of England, and her flag is a collection of Christian crosses.

No, Bangladeshi secularism is much older and stretches deep into our history where Buddhist Pala kings supported Hindu scriptural literature, and Medieval Muslim Sultans sent Buddhist preachers to China. It’s reflected in the syncretic nature of our mystic tradition and in the composite nature of our culture and vocabulary. In fact these are not just Bengali phenomena, but things that occurred all across South Asia once before myopic religious nationalism pitted us against each other and unravelled our rich, diverse tapestry.

As more countries in the neighbourhood succumb to the seductive charm of religious nationalism, it becomes all the more necessary for Bangladesh to stay its course and remains true to the principles upon which it was founded - principles that are natural to all of us in the region and provide us with an essential shield against an encroaching one-dimensionality. If in the end we are the only country here that still holds aloft the values of pluralism and secularity, then at least there will be one country that still does, and that counts for a lot. 

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