Despite the fact that Bangladesh constitution does not allow ‘state religion’, military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad had violated the constitutional provision by proclaiming Islam as the state religion of the country.
According to the constitution of Bangladesh, secularity is further explained in Article 12 of the constitution. Article 12 sets out several goals, including the elimination of inter-religious conflict, the prohibition of religious discrimination and discouraging the use of religion in politics. The article is quoted below.
- The principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of:
(a) communalism in all its forms;
(b) the granting by the State of political status in favor of any religion;
(c) the abuse of religion for political purposes;
(d) any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion].
It may be mentioned here that, Bangladesh is the first constitutionally secular country in South Asia, having declared itself as an explicitly secular state in 1972. It was the first and only Muslim-majority country in South Asia to enshrine secularism in its constitution. In the Constitution of Bangladesh, secularism is mentioned in the preamble as one of the fundamental principles of Bangladeshi law. Article 8 enshrines secularism as one of the fundamental principles of state policy. Article 12 elaborates further on secularism and freedom of religion.
In 1977, secularism was removed from the constitution by a Martial Law directive during the military dictatorship of Ziaur Rahman. In 1988, the Parliament of Bangladesh declared Islam as the state religion during the presidency of Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
After the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1990, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League governments retained Islam as the state religion. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled that the removal of secularism in 1977 was illegal because it was done by an unconstitutional martial law regime. The court reinstated secularism in the constitution. The principle of secularity now co-exists with the state religion.
Secularism is a recurring topic in Bangladeshi politics. For example, in 2019, a demand by the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh to curtail women’s education was dismissed by the Deputy Minister of Education Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury as contrary to the fundamental principles of state policy. The separation of religion and state prevails across large parts of Bangladeshi law. However, family law is based on religious law. A civil marriage is allowed under the Special Marriages Act 1872 only if one renounces faith in either Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity.
The preamble of the Bangladeshi constitution declares secularity as a basic constitutional principle. The second paragraph reads “Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution”.
Article 8 of the constitution enshrines secularism as a basis for government policy. Part II of the constitution includes the fundamental principles of state policy. These 16 principles will have to be guided by secularism. Article 8 provides that “The principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, together with the principles derived from those as set out in this Part, shall constitute the fundamental principles of state policy. The principles set out in this Part shall be fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh, shall be applied by the State in the making of laws, shall be a guide to the interpretation of the Constitution and of the other laws of Bangladesh, and shall form the basis of the work of the State and of its citizens, but shall not be judicially enforceable”.
Secularism is seen as a pillar of upholding religious diversity in Bangladesh. Alongside Muslim majority holidays like Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, all governments in Bangladesh have celebrated religious minority festivals as public holidays, including Durga Puja, Krishna Janmashtami, Buddha’s Birthday and Christmas. Both the President of Bangladesh and Prime Minister of Bangladesh host events in Bangabhaban [President’s official residence] and Gonobhaban [Prime Minister’s official residence] respectively to mark these holidays. According to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, no Bangladeshi citizen should not consider themselves as minorities. Speaking in October 2021, Hasina remarked that “You are considered as citizens of this country. You live in equal rights. You will enjoy equal rights. You will observe your religion and celebrate festivals with equal rights. That’s what we want. This is the real policy of our Bangladesh and our ideal. I urge you again never to think of yourself as a minority”.
Here I would like to humbly argue, if Islam remains the official religion of Bangladesh, non-Muslims will always be seen as “minority” in this country. The only way to ensure equal rights to people of all the religions is to immediately make a constitutional amendment and return to secularism. We need to remember, heroic 30 million Bangalees did not sacrifice their lives for an Islamic Bangladesh nor for a country having Islam as its state religion. Our Bangladesh is a secular country and it is time for our leaders to strike-out the wrongdoings of military dictators Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammed Ershad from our constitution.
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