A call for secular Bangladesh

By Veena Sikri

SOMETHING REMARKABLE is happening in Bangladesh. For over two weeks now thousands of youngsters have been protesting at the Shahbagh Square around the university area in Dhaka, demanding that war criminals of 1971 be given capital punishment. Interestingly, it is the post-1971 generation that is at the heart of the protests.

In December 2008, when the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, won the elections the biggest promise it made, which resonated with the youth, was that it will institute the war crimes tribunal. For the youth in Bangladesh, memories of the liberation war are a valuable lesson in history and identity. They want to know if there are people in their midst who were against the formation of Bangladesh, who did not support the liberation war.

After taking over as prime minister in January 2009 Sheikh Hasina ordered the setting up of the war crimes tribunal, which has been hearing cases ever since. The first verdict given by the tribunal was a death sentence to a popular Jamaat leader and cleric Abul Kalam Azad. The second verdict came two weeks ago, when Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat was awarded a life sentence. The sentence left a majority of the Bangladeshis bewildered, who felt that Mollah was let off even though there is staggering evidence against him for the violence that followed the liberation war.
Following the sentence, Mollah expressed his pleasure over the verdict, flashing a victory sign outside the court. This irked a section of the youngsters who went on an offensive on the Internet. The blogging community started an online campaign demanding death sentence to those involved in war crimes. And soon the streets of Dhaka were flooded with youngsters, poets, artists, journalists and ordinary Bengali citizens avowing to rid Bangladeshi politics of Pakistani elements.

The protesters are demanding a ban on religion in politics. Although, the Bangladeshi Constitution formulated under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, envisioned a secular state and banned the Jamaat, in the 15 years that followed his assasination, the Constitution was amended and the commitment to secularism was replaced with Absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, paving the way for Islamic elements to gain a foothold in matters concerning the State.

While it is impossible to revert back to the secular Constitution of 1972, what is heartening is the younger generation, which is protesting in tens of thousands at the Shahbagh Square, does not seem to have any such concerns. In fact, they have renamed the square Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Square). Their approach and their secular philosophies are beyond something the political parties are willing to take on.

And while the Awami League has empathised with this apolitical movement, its rival Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had entered into an alliance with the Jamaat before the 2008 election, has really not been able to put the finger on the pulse of the people. In fact, the party finds the protest slogan, Joy Bangla, offensive. Joy Bangla was the slogan of the 1971 Liberation Army. Following Mujibur’s assassination, the slogan was banned and replaced with Bangla Zindabad by Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP. The youngsters believe that Ziaur tilted towards Pakistan and therefore they revived the old slogans. The BNP now is unable to comprehend the youth.

One of the biggest demands of the protesters is to separate religion and the state. The Jamaat-e-Islami is the largest Islamic political party in Bangladesh, and played a crucial part in the genocide of the 1971 Liberation War. The country’s first PM, Mujibur Rahman, banned the Jamaat. Following his assassination in 1975 the ban was lifted. The Jamaat has continued to play a pivotal role in the country’s politics since. In fact, the party came to power in 2001 in a four-party alliance.

Banning a political party cannot be democratic. But separating religion and state can keep communalism at bay. Maulana Abul Kalam, our first education minister had said that in South Asia every person is religious. But this is fine as long as it remains at the personal level. And perhaps that’s what the essence of the protests at Shahbagh Square is.(This article was originally published in Tehelka dot com)

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