Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

Secularism in Bangladesh

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Secularism in Bangladesh

Secularism (Bengali: ধর্ম নিরপেক্ষতা) is one of the four fundamental principles according to the original 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh. The secularism principle was removed from the constitution in 1977 by Ziaur Rahman, replaced with a statement of "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah", and Islam was declared the state religion in 1988. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism as one of the basic tenets of the constitution but Islam remained the state religion. Over 90% of Bangladeshis are Muslims, the rest being Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others. People in Bangladesh observe various secular festivals at different times throughout the year. The ethos of secularism in South Asia is in many ways different from that of Western versions that assert complete separation of church and state. Rather, it is the freedom of individuals to practice the faith he or she desires without being subject to any form of state or communal discrimination.


Secularism in the Constitution

Secularism is one of the four fundamental principles that had been induced into the original Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972. The secularism principle was removed from the constitution in 1977 by the 5th amendment of the constitution by Ziaur Rahman and also declared Islam as the state religion in 1988 by Muhammad Ershad. In 2010, Bangladesh Supreme Court declared the 5th amendment illegal and restored secularism as one of the basic tenets of the Constitution

At present The Constitution of Bangladesh declares Secularism as one of the four fundamental principle of the state policy in Article-8 of Part-II and also declares Islam as the state religion in Article-2A of Part-I. In Article 12 of Part -II of the constitution which was restored by the 15th amendment states -

The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of -

  1. Communalism in all forms;
  2. the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion;
  3. the abuse of religion for political purposes;
  4. any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion."

Impact of constitutional changes

The removal of secularism from the constitution has been described by the country's largely secular establishment as a betrayal of Bengali nationalism and also opposed to mainstream Bengali culture and society, both of which are seen as remarkably pluralist and progressive. However, the Bangladesh Army with its close ideological association of center-right and conservative political parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have stated that the term Bangladeshi nationalism refers to the country as an Islamic nation given that 89% of the population is Muslim.

In 2008, the newly elected Awami League government announced that it would re-introduce the original Four State Principles into the Preamble of the Constitution of Bangladesh. Although recognized by the United Nations as a "moderate Muslim democracy", Bangladesh's foreign minister Dipu Moni stated that the country is, in her words, "a secular, not moderate Muslim, country".


Despite the country ceasing to be a secular state constitutionally once, secularism came back in 2010 and has been practiced in the region of Bengal since ancient times. Ancient and medieval rulers, especially the Pala Empire and Nawabs of Bengal practiced secularism in making decisions of the court. Hindus and Muslims would have prominent leaders from each community assisting the rulers. When the British East India Company came in the 18th century, it instituted separate laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In doing so they laid the foundation for a civil code which remains largely unchanged to date.

However, the British had perpetuated division amongst Bengali communities on the basis of divide and rule. Bengali Hindus were seen as affluent, educated and were accepted in civil services. On the other hand, Bengali Muslims, especially those in East Bengal were highly discriminated. Most East Bengali Muslims were peasants and were persecuted by Hindu zamindars supported by the British Raj. This had led to several religious movements across East Bengal such as the Faraizi movement aimed at resisting the British and the Hindu zamindars class. In 1905, Nawab Sir Khwaja Salimullah, the Nawab of Dhaka, proposed the partition of Bengal on communal lines to establish a separate province for the suppressed majority of the region who live in East Bengal and were mostly Muslim. The British accepted the partition and a new province by the name of Eastern Bengal and Assam was created. However the partition was annulled in 1911 due to resistance from the Swadeshi movement in West Bengal that demanded the unification of Bengal. In 1947, Bengal would again be partitioned on communal lines with East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) joining Pakistan and West Bengal being part of India though Hindu majority district of Khulna was awarded to Pakistan and Muslim majority districts of Malda and Murshidabad were awarded to West Bengal. Ethnic cleansing of Hindus forced many Hindus to migrate to India notably on the backdrop of 1950 Barisal Riots and 1964 East Bengal riots. After the establishment of Pakistan, Bengalis faced immense discrimination and economic suffering. The Bengali nationalist movement quickly geared momentum with the increasing cultural and linguistic nationalism that were inherently secular. The Bangladesh Liberation War would see Bengalis, irrespective of religion join the fight for their freedom.

After achieving victory, Bangladesh's constitution, drafted in 1972, stated Four State Principles as the character of the new state. They would be Nationalism, Democracy, Secularism and Socialism. In 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founding father was assassinated by junior officers in the military and martial law was declared. Mostaq Ahmed would eventually be removed by counter coups in the volatile situation and army chief and liberation war hero Lt. Gen Ziaur Rahman (known as Zia) would take over as president.

After Zia assumed the presidency, he allied himself with his one-time enemies during the liberation war, including anti-liberation leaders such as Shah Azizur Rahman, Sabur Khan and Kazi Abdul Kader. The decision to ally with anti-liberation leaders was seen as necessary political strategy in order to counter the Awami League of the assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although Zia was popular for bringing stability after the volatility after 1975, he began using religion as a major factor in politics. He formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that professed the more Islamic "Bangladeshi nationalism" to replace the secular Bengali nationalism. The Bangladesh parliament in 1977 amended the constitution by changing the Four State Principles. The amendment caused the term "secularism" in the Permeable to be replaced with "Absolutue trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions", and removed references to freedom of religion. Finally in 1988, the country's second military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad declared Islam as the state religion in Bangladesh. This would be the final blow to constitutional secularism in the country. Supporters of the BNP and the military would engage in various anti minority activities particularly against the Hindu and tribal communities of the country, most notably the anti-Hindu pogroms of 1988, 1990, 1992 and 2013 which caused widespread damage and devastation across the country. However, after the return to democracy in 1991, there have been growing calls by the country's "pro liberation forces", the largely secular civil society and freedom fighters, as well as from the young generation to re introduce secularism back into the constitution. In 2009, the Awami League government announced that it would amend the constitution and reintroduce the original Four State Principles.

Restoration by Supreme Court

The Fifth Amendment of the constitution was declared illegal by the High Court of Bangladesh in 2005, the government restored a constitution "in the spirit of the constitution of 1972" which also included secularism as one of the state principles. Nevertheless, the opening words 'bismillah-ar-rahman-ar rahim' (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful), that were added in 1997, remained in the constitution. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the 2005 High Court ruling that the Fifth Amendment to the constitution was illegal. The prime minister Sheik Hasina stated that she favours allowing religion-based political parties.

Petition in High court

After the Eighth Amendment of the constitution on 7 June 1988, 15 personalities had filed a public interest litigation challenging the provision of state religion. On 1 August 2015, a Supreme Court lawyer named Samendra Nath Goswami filed another petition with the High Court challenging the legality of the constitutional provision of Islam as the state religion despite revival of “secularism” as a fundamental state policy under a 2011 amendment to the Constitution. On 28 March 2016, the high court rejected the petition and retained Islam as the state religion.


Secularism in Bangladesh Wikipedia