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Bangladeshi identity since 1971

April 22 2013





Secularism was one of the cornerstones of Bengali nationalism, but its spirit was enforced only by pen and paper. How can demands to ban religion from politics be satisfied?

The United Nations categorizes Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim democracy. Meanwhile, the current Foreign Minister called Bangladesh a secular country. She defined Bangladesh to be a “non-communal country” with a “Muslim majority population”. The Foreign Minister further added that the concept of a moderate Muslim democracy cannot be applied in the case of Bangladesh because it fought its war of independence on basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a major contestation in the creation of its national identity. Identity questions for Bangladesh still stand: is it a country of secular Bengalis or Muslim Bangladeshis?

This split personality of Bangladesh confounds the international observer. For an outsider, it makes perfect sense to call it a moderate Muslim democracy as a Muslim majority population lives in a country that recognizes Islam as the state religion. Since the Shahbag movement has erupted with the demands of the death penalty for the war criminals, international media remains substantially silent about it. Perhaps one of the reasons could be their inability to comprehend why a population of Muslim origin are angered over using religion (read Islam) for political purposes? As we look at the issues brought forward by the Shahbag movement, we need to analyse it from a historical perspective. We are not talking about redressing the wound that was created 42 years back; rather how it was ‘silenced’ to maximize narrow political gains for the major political parties of the country.

‘Secularism’ in independent Bangladesh

Many point to the 1947 division of the subcontinent on the basis of the Two Nation theory with ‘religion’ at its core as the principle factor that tied religion to politics in this region. It was primarily the overwhelming support of the Muslims of Bengal in the 1946 election that decided the fate of the Two Nation theory. But does this mean that people of East Bengal supported the Two Nations theory with a religious fervour? The answer is quite the opposite. Historians have shown that support in East Bengal was mobilized with the aim of economic emancipation from West Bengal. The people of East Bengal gathered under the umbrella of Fazlul Haque’s leadership, who provided a non-communal approach to the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations and brought the economic issues to the forefront. As research shows, the massive support coming from the rural areas of Bengal for the dream of Pakistan was aimed at resolving their basic ‘dal-bhat’ (rice-lentil: considered Bengali people’s basic food at that period) problem. Islam was not the primary political mode of thought in Bengal nor was able to present itself as an ‘ideological’ alternative to the existing political thoughts.

However, the Two Nation Theory, formulated on the basis of Hindu-Muslim division, turned out to truly be a theory of two nations as it depicted East and West Pakistan as inherently different from each other. They do not understand why we subaltern Muslims do not agree to speak Urdu. They do not understand why we Muslims are mesmerized with the Hindu poet Tagore. While students protested Jinnah’s proclamation that, “Urdu, and only Urdu shall be the national language of Pakistan”, the seed of a new nation was sown as early as 1948 on the campus of the University of Dhaka. The Bengali Language Movement gave birth to the idea of a new nation, within the geographic border of former East Pakistan.

While secularism was one of the cornerstones of Bengali nationalism, its spirit was enforced only by pen and paper but not in practice – apprehension that secularism could be easily misinterpreted as atheism. Even while secularism was preached in the pre-1971 period, Article 2 of the Awami League’s election manifesto in 1970 stated that no law would be enacted against the dictums of the Quran and the Sunnah. Similarly, political leader Maulana Bhashani declared, “we want food and we want clothes but we do not want them excluding Allah”. Such contradictions extended far. Upon his return from Pakistan via London in 1972, at the one hand, Sheikh Mujib declared himself as a Muslim and Bangladesh as the second largest Muslim country as secularism was embedded as one of the four principles of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Secularism versus religiosity

History shows that there was a public fear and rejection of secularism back in 1972. A public procession was carried out against it on the streets of Dhaka that chanted “Joy Bangla joy-heen, Lungi chere dhuti pin” on the day of the formal acceptance of the constitution. This particular slogan stated that the traditional Awami League slogan of Joy Bangla, i.e., victory to Bangladesh, became meaningless in independent Bangladesh and would be devoid of ‘victory’. Moreover, the traditional Bengali Muslim men’s attire lungi would be replaced by traditional Hindu men’s attire dhuti due to adoption of secularism as a state principle. The ultimate failure of the government, alongside rampant corruption, was to give in to these Islamic emphases by the regime of the Awami League in an attempt to regain its lost popularity. Simultaneously, as a reaction to the Awami League’s pen and paper commitment to ‘secularism’, the alternative was to embrace ‘religion’ in its fullest form and was manifested in Bangladeshi nationalism.

While the Shahbag movement is asking for a fair trial of war criminals, it cannot remain confined by only banning Jamaat-e-Islami’s politics or overall politics based on religion. Rather, the whole issue of secularism versus religiosity has to be taken into consideration to redress the way politicians have misused religion. We have not forgotten the electoral slogan of the Awami League, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami during the 1996 election: La ilaha illallha, Naukar malik tui Allah (There is no God but Allah, and Allah is the Owner of boat); La ilaha illalha, Dhaner shishe Bismillah (There is no God but Allah, and Allah willing, vote for the paddy sheaf); Vote diley pallay, Khushi hobe Allah(Allah would be pleased if you vote for scale). It is a country where an electoral campaign still starts from Sylhet, by visiting Islamic shrines and seeking blessings of the Pirs for a good result in election.

We have changed our traditional age-old greetings from ‘Khuda Hafiz’ to ‘Allah Hafiz’ with the excuse that ‘Allah’ is Arabic while ‘Khuda’ originates from Persian. We do not even know or probably do not even care about the fact that ‘hafiz’, an original Persian word and etymologically derived from Arabic ‘hifz’, remains attached with the phrase. But we are happy to replace Khuda with Allah with an aim to prove ourselves as true Muslims. Is that a true representation of Bangladesh, of our national culture? On a similar note, in any public gathering, it is excruciating to see how the sari, the traditional Bengali attire for women, is disappearing and is being increasingly replaced by salwar-kamiz. While the younger generation have embraced the latter with the excuse of it being more manageable and convenient, the older generation is much more direct in expressing how the sari is ‘unIslamic’ dress that reveals significant female body parts while salwar-kamiz does not.

Our whole national culture is in transition. Otherwise why is YouTube still banned in Bangladesh? Why is it necessary for the editor of a renowned newspaper to apologize to the Khatib of Baitul Mukarram over the publication of a cartoon that allegedly insulted religious sentiments? Not so long ago, Facebook was also banned in the country under the same accusation. Scholar Rafiuddin Ahmed indeed pointed it out very succinctly, “a Bengali Muslim may have seen himself primarily as a ‘Muslim’ the other day, as a ‘Bengali’ yesterday, and a ‘Bengali Muslim’ today, depending on objective conditions, but on none of these occasions did his thoughts and his idea of destiny become separated from his territorial identity”.

Secularism as a top-down approach

The fact remains that secularism cannot be imposed from the top, merely as a state directive. The term secularism itself was coined and introduced in the English vocabulary in 1851 by George Jacob Hollyake in order to create a conscious difference between secularism and atheism. It is the same tension that we face in our country right now. Moreover when secularism is imposed as a top-down approach, it looks like nothing short of an attempt to ‘catch up’ with the West or try to prove to the West that “look, we have denounced religion; we are modern too!” This is a typical crisis that non-Western societies face: how to define themselves as modern so the West understands. But what is overlooked here is that secularism cannot just be imposed as an ‘add and stir’ method, for non-Western societies have their own uniqueness to add both to the concepts of modernity and secularism.

There is no singular way to be modern; there is no singular way to be secular, especially not by incorporating it into the Constitution while ignoring the drastic changes in the social fabric of a country. Moreover, countless research shows that while a non-Western society is being modernized, it does not shake off its religious legacies and historical experiences. Rather its own values, culture and religion formulate the core of a resistance identity in response to the intrusion of Westernization. Secularism therefore cannot be perceived from only mainstream and liberal conceptions as it is presented through the Western lens.

As one scholar has put it, 1971 shows that Bangladesh rejected the Pakistani interpretation of fundamentalist Islam but this did not mean that Bangladesh has rejected Islam from its own identity. The inability of the elites to understand this fact has trapped them into the secular-religious divide. Schendel has rightly pointed out that the post-independent, or first leaders of Bangladesh failed to deliver the dreams of nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy based on a vernacular cultural model. Such failure essentially led towards creating the dichotomy between the religious and the secular and between anti-1971 and pro-1971.

There is no legal way to tackle the rise of religiosity in Bangladesh. Instead, the failure to acknowledge these silent ‘religious’ transitions, where political parties are interested only in the bigger share of the pie using religion, will only add to the existing tension and divide the unity of the country further between the religious and the secular. Instead we must continue to implore why we are rapidly turning more religious than before, and why consider it a solemn duty to continuously project this religious identity.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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