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Will High Court restore Secular status of Bangladesh?

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Dhaka, Bangladesh: A spirited debate is unfolding in Bangladesh as its Supreme Court prepares to hear a 28-year-old petition challenging the constitutionality of an amendment that made Islam the state’s religion.

The High Court division of the Supreme Court on March 27 is scheduled to hear the petition and set a future date for a ruling on the amendment, which was enacted under the dictatorship of Gen H M Ershad in 1988.

The country’s constitution guarantees secularism, but the legal move aimed at stripping Islam of its status as the official religion in predominantly Muslim but multi-religious Bangladesh has ruled Islamic groups and parties.

The writ petition was filed 28 years ago by 15 civil society leaders after Ershad’s Jatiya Party led parliament declared Islam as the state religion. But the Supreme Court never heard the case, Rana Dasgupta, one of the lawyers representing the petitioners, told reporters.

“Ten of the petitioners already died before any hearing took place. We firmly believe that the court will examine the documents and give a verdict without being influenced by the comments of others on the issue,” he said.

Dasgupta is also general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Oikya Parishad, an association representing religious minorities that have been targeted in recent and sometimes deadly attacks by suspected Islamic militants, amid a growing wave of fundamentalism.

He said some leaders of Islamic party publically were calling for retaining Islam as the state religion in order to influence the justices before the hearing.

Bangladesh’s original constitution, framed in 1972, adopted secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the state, according to Dasgupta. However in 1976, the country’s first military ruler and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Gen Ziaur Rahman, removed the secular provision in the constitution and replaced it with “Faith in the Almighty Allah.”

Ershad, the second military ruler, 12 years later added another change that made Islam into the state religion.

Millions sacrificed in name of secularism

“In 1988, we formed a committee against autocracy and fundamentalism and filed the writ petition. … We sacrificed three million people in the 1971 war [of independence] against Pakistan for a secular country,” Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, one of the 15 petitioners, told reporters.

“Mr Ershad made Islam as the state religion to cash in on common people’s sympathy with a view to prolonging his rule, not for passion for Islam,” he added.

Since 1971, Bangladesh has pursued secularism as a state policy, but the military rulers who usurped power following the August 1975 assassination of the country’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Islamized the constitution in a way that went against the spirit of the independence war, Chowdhury said.

“The writ petition is going to be heard after 28 years,” he added, noting that the political atmosphere now was relatively better and more conducive to discussing this issue.

“[W]e think the issue of State religion should be settled now,” he said.

Defaming Islam?

Islamic parties and groups are resisting the legal move, with some leaders even threatened to stage protests over the upcoming court case, according to reports.

“We want Islam to retain [its status] as the State Religion of Bangladesh because the Muslims are the majority here. You will see state religions in many countries in the world,” Abdul Latif Nizami, president of the conservative Islami Oikya Jote party, told agencies.

Islami Oikya Jote is aligned with Bangladesh’s largest faith-based party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the main opposition the BNP.

Nizami said the majority of Muslims in Bangladesh would not accept scrapping Islam as the state religion. But he declined to say whether the Islamic parties would stage street protests.

“And I hope the judiciary would consider the opinion of the majority of the people while delivering the judgment,” Nizami added.

But a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) last week quoted Islamic Oikya Jote Secretary General Mufti Mohammad Faiz Ullah as saying that protests could happen.

“Any move to scrap Islam’s status will undermine and defame the religion,” Faiz Ullah told AFP.

“Obviously, the Islamic parties, general people and the clerics will resist the move by holding protests.”

Gauging how people might react

But according to Professor Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and author of several books on Bangladeshi politics, the average citizen doesn’t really care about the issue of Islam’s official status in Bangladesh.

“The common people of Bangladesh have never been bothered whether Islam should be the state religion,” he told reporters.

“I personally think that the abrogation of Islam as the state religion would not heat up the country’s political situation because the Islamic parties are cautious about waging a street movement over the issue. Again, they are divided, too,” he added.

In his view, the constitutional amendments passed by the regimes of generals Rahman and Ershad no longer are legitimate because, in 2010, the Supreme Court declared their regimes as illegal.

“In line with the court order, the [ruling] Awami League restored the original 1972 constitution, but they did not risk removing Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh, fearing tough street agitation. Now, both the Islamic parties and the opposition are at bay; the government has established a tight grip,” Ahmed said.

However, another commentator warned that doing away with the provision in the amendment that established Islam as the state religion might worsen the country’s current political climate.

“The hardline Islamic parties and the militant outfit would preach it (replacing Islam with secularism in the constitution) as an anti-Islamic act. Every possibility is there that the militants may mislead the people about secularism,” Brig Gen Shahedul Anma Khan, a security analyst and columnist, told reporters.

(Published with permission from BenarNews)

  • Annesha Das Gupta

    It is not anti-Islam or anti anything. It is just pro liberalism. And high time it should be. There should be mutual respect for every cultural and religious diversity.

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Bangladesh PM Gets Global Support, Will Withstand Calls To Investigate Allegations

She dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote and said it was a “very peaceful election.”

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Bangladesh, media
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 31, 2018. VOA

Congratulatory messages are flowing to Bangladesh Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Hasina, ensuring she will withstand calls to investigate allegations of widespread serious irregularities in Sunday’s election that was dominated by her coalition.

Hasina is set to form her third consecutive government and fourth overall, and on Thursday figurehead President M. Abdul Hamid invited her to form a Cabinet. The new members of Parliament took their oaths on Thursday, though seven opposition members boycotted the ceremony. The new Cabinet ministers are to take their oaths on Monday.

International reaction to the allegations of irregularities was not clear initially, but the scenario quickly settled after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed the way and China followed, congratulating Hasina for the massive victory, in which her Awami League party-led alliance won 288 seats in the 300-seat Parliament. The opposition-led alliance had only seven seats.

Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan and Pakistan congratulated Hasina, while the United States and the European Union said they wanted to continue to cooperate with the government.

Bagladesh, election
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote in the morning during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

After coming to power in 2008, Hasina cautiously began building strategic partnerships with India, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. She repeated that when she returned to power in 2014.

Bangladesh joined a 34-nation Islamic military coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism and is building its first nuclear power plant with Russia and India. Hasina bought two submarines from China and invited Japan to invest in infrastructure development, especially in power plants.

Bangladesh also became a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is a potential rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The European Union is a big export market, especially for Bangladesh garment products. Bangladesh traditionally buys its regular military weapons from China.

The country earns about $30 billion a year from exports of its cheap garment products, mainly to the United States and European Union, and is the world’s second-largest garment producer after China.

China is Bangladesh’s largest import source, while India is the second largest.

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An opposition BNP activist is being arrested by policemen in Dhaka. In 2018, thousands of opposition leaders and activists were arrested in Bangladesh on allegedly trumped up cases of political violence. VOA

“So we import from them and then we export to Western markets,” M. Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Washington and an analyst in international affairs, said in an interview.

Bangladesh has other ties to the West beyond trade. “Value-wise we believe in democracy. So, we are also value-wise connected to them,” Kabir said.

European nations and the U.S. are also home to a large Bangladeshi diaspora. “These are people living in those countries becoming or contributing to those societies. So, this … is how we are connected to the Western countries,” he said.

In a statement issued after Sunday’s election, the U.S. expressed concern about “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence” but said it wanted continue to work with Bangladesh.

“The United States remains deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development,” it said. “Bangladesh’s impressive record of economic development and respect for democracy and human rights are mutually reinforcing, and we look forward to continue working with the ruling government and opposition toward advancing these interrelated goals.”

Bangladesh, election
An opposition BNP activist is being arrested by policemen in Dhaka. In 2018, thousands of opposition leaders and activists were arrested in Bangladesh on allegedly trumped up cases of political violence. VOA

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated Hasina for winning the election.

Analyst Kabir said during her 10 years leading Bangladesh, Hasina has built a successful relationship with influential and strategically crucial countries and has upgraded her image by hosting Rohingya Muslim refugees who were driven violently from neighboring Myanmar.

“Bangladesh is a good story in terms of development and progress,” Kabir said. And her solid election victory shows that Bangladesh’s economic development has the political support of voters, he said.

“So that story is now resonating well on the international community and that’s why we are seeing (so many countries) are congratulating the prime minister for the outstanding performance in the election,” he said.

Kabir said the international community wants to see Bangladesh as a stable nation. “We need to be more competitive for example, we need to do reforms in our labor sector for example, we need to also develop our infrastructure for example, we need to update our regulatory framework for example, because international investors always look at those issues, so now they’re looking at Bangladesh from a positive frame,” he said.

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Salahuddin Ahmed, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) candidate for general election, is seen bleeding as he was stabbed on a election day in Dhaka, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

But Kabir said authorities should address the concerns of irregularities in the election.

More than a dozen people were killed in election-related violence Sunday, and the election campaign was dogged by allegations of the arrests and jailing of thousands of Hasina’s opponents. The most prominent of those jailed is Hasina’s archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was deemed ineligible to run for office because of a corruption case her supporters say was politically motivated.

The Election Commission and other departments were accused of overlooking complaints of irregularities. Ahead of the election, a new digital security law was enacted that raised concern it would curb speech and media freedoms.

On Friday, Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a briefing in Geneva that they were concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh before, during and after the elections.

“There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases. Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers,” Shamdasani said.

Bangladesh, election
Women stand in a line at a voting center to cast their ballot during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged an independent investigation into the alleged irregularities. The U.S., the EU and the U.N. all expressed their concerns.

“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.

In Zia’s absence, opposition parties formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, a former member of Hasina’s Awami League who was foreign minister under Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader.

Hossain’s small party, Gono Forum, does not have much popular support. Hasina and Zia, on the other hand, have much larger support bases and attract hundreds of thousands of supporters to their rallies.

Also Read: Violence And Intimidation Directed Towards Rohingyas In Bangladeshian Camps

A day after the election during a briefing with foreign journalists and election observers, Hasina came down heavily on the opposition. She refused a suggestion that she offer her political foes an olive branch.

“The opposition you see, who are they? The main party, BNP, it was established by a military dictator (Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman) who introduced martial law in this country. There were no constitutional rights for the people,” Hasina said.

She dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote and said it was a “very peaceful election.” (VOA)