Upholding secularism in Bangladesh
Despite having a secular Constitution originally, successive governments after 1975 chipped away the secular edifice, to make the country more Islamic
There is a puzzling hide-and-seek going on at the Supreme Court in Dhaka. Last week, workers carefully dismantled a statue of a blindfolded woman in a sari, holding a sword in one arm and the scales of justice in another. She was meant to represent Themis, the Greek deity of fairness and law.
Her removal was not on aesthetic grounds, nor had the Greeks protested because their deity was dressed in a sari. It was because the fundamentalist organization Hefazat-e-Islam objected to its presence.
The Hefazat’s main argument was religious—Islam prohibits idolatry, so how could Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country, have an idol, and that too Greek, on the premises of its courts? That the “idol” was a woman may have irritated the Hefazat too: It has demanded that the government should cancel Bangladesh’s women’s development policies (one of Bangladesh’s major achievements has been female empowerment). If the Hefazat men can’t bear looking at a woman dispensing justice, surely they can avert their eyes. But they’d like to make women invisible in public life.
When some students protested the statue’s removal, they were charged with “attempt to murder”, and tear gas and water cannons were used against them (they are now out on bail). The Hefazat warmly praised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who had mildly criticized the statue when it was erected in 2016. Emboldened Hefazat leaders demanded that all statues be removed from the country.
There is never a dull moment in Bangladesh politics. The statue returned soon to the court’s annexe building, as if to reinforce the idea that justice ultimately prevails. Hefazat has now threatened a full-scale agitation. Tempers will get tested this Ramzan.
Behind this tragicomic saga is the deeper, older debate: Is Bangladesh Bengali or Muslim? Many Bangladeshis from all sections of society fast during Ramzan but also celebrate Pujo; they visit the mosque and sing Rabindrasangeet, seeing no contradiction between the two activities, and indeed, there need not be any. It is an outlook which Pakistan simply could not understand during the 24 years that Bangladesh was its eastern wing. Pakistan wouldn’t allow Bengali to be a national language. It crushed dissent, shot students, jailed opponents, nullified elections when it didn’t like the results, and unleashed the martial law after which hundreds of thousands died in the massacres, many women were raped, and after the war, Bangladesh gained independence.
The Bangladeshi-American poet Tarfia Faizullah captures the tragedy well:
Each week I pull hard
The water from the well
Bathe in my sari, wring
It out, beat it against
The flattest rocks—Are you
Muslim or Bengali, they
Asked again and again.
Both, I said, both—then
Rocks were broken along
My spine, my hair a black
Fist in their hands, pulled
Down into the river again
Each day, each
Night: river, rock, fist
The “both” identities that Tarfia Faizullah’s poem embraces are a spiritual commitment to Islam and a cultural affiliation to being Bengali. When I was writing a book about Bangladesh’s war of independence and its aftermath, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star, told me that during India’s freedom struggle, the perception among Muslims in Bengal was that “the structure of the state of Pakistan will give my religious heritage some security, and so we rushed into it. But very soon we realized that while the structure ensured Islamic heritage, it also threatened Bengali identity. My language and my culture were affected. I couldn’t sing or dance; my Tagore was being taken away from me. So the Bengali Muslim wanted to break that structure.”
The founding fathers of Bangladesh did not see the spiritual and the cultural as mutually exclusive; they preferred coexistence. The original constitution was secular. But after Bangladesh’s leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, successive governments chipped away the secular edifice, to make the country more Islamic. Soon after taking power in 1977, General Ziaur Rahman removed “secularism” from the constitution, and in the late 1980s, General H.M. Ershad made Islam the state religion. It was only in 2010 (after Sheikh Hasina returned to power) that the Supreme Court reinstated the principle of secularism, and in 2015, the 15th amendment was passed, making Bangladesh a secular country with Islam as the state religion, letting confusion persist.
The Awami League claims to uphold secularism. Its leaders blame their rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, for opposing Bangladesh’s independence. While Awami leaders say they have no links with the Hefazat, relations between the two have warmed, complicating matters.
A poem inscribed on a memorial at Rayer Bazar, commemorating the many intellectuals murdered in the last days of the 1971 war, says: Tomader ja bolarchhilo, bolchhe ki ta Bangladesh? (Does Bangladesh speak what you wanted it to say?)
Indeed, did they die for a Bangladesh where the statue of a woman dispensing justice would get removed?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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