It was very ironic that the province where the Muslim League was most popular and had struck deep roots became the first to break away from the country, and
Dilemma of nation state
Yaqoob Khan Bangash
Pakistan, its constitution, politics and society have come to have everything to do with religion. Is secular character of the constitution still a possibility?
State formation and consolidation has been the bane of most post-colonial states. As post-colonial states, based on the ‘nation-state’ model, emerged from multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires where there was no need to have a rationale for incorporating a territory beyond physical occupation, the modern nation-states faced a grave dilemma. If each nation deserved a state, then what constituted a nation? Most wars in the twentieth century have been a result of disagreements over the nature of the ‘state’ and ‘nation.’
Some states and nations are easier to decipher than others. So the Irish live in Ireland, the Spaniards live in Spain, the French in France and so on. Most modern nations have had some medieval and early modern manifestations too. Hence even though Italy did not emerge as a nation-state till 1870, the ‘idea’ of Italy and Italians was present for centuries and similarly the notion of the Germanic people and their lands was present much before the unification of Germany by the Prussians in 1871.
When Pakistan was created in August 1947, it did not have such historical claims. Pakistan was a new country carved out of ‘India’ which while it had not been united in a complete way except under Emperor Ashoka more than two thousand years ago and then under the British, the ‘idea’ of India still carried its charm and captivating power. Therefore, while ‘India’ emerged as the successor to the British Indian Empire, Pakistan, created for the Muslims of South Asia, was considered to have ‘seceded.’ So Pakistan had to create a new identity based on its religious or community based ideology, and as we all know, it is still very contested.
After 1947, the nature of the state and even the society became so controversial that a deep rift was created between the two wings of the country — East Bengal, renamed East Pakistan, and West Pakistan, which was composed of the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and the territory of Balochistan. The disparity, political, economic, societal and cultural, between the two wings became so stark by 1970 that the refusal of West Pakistani politicians to honour the first general elections in the country led to the bloody vivisection of the country and the birth of Bangladesh — the land of the Bangla people.
It was very ironic that the province where the Muslim League was most popular and had struck deep roots became the first to break away from the country, and that even though the overwhelming majority of Bengali’s professed Islam as their religion they chose language and culture as their primary identity markers. The constitution of the Republic of Bangladesh enacted in 1972 under the leadership of the founder of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was secular in nature. It based the citizenship and identity of the people of the country on their language and culture, rather than religion.
Sheikh Mujib was brutally murdered, together with most of his family on August 15, 1975 and only two of his daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana who were abroad at the time survived. Thence followed bouts of military rule and, as in Pakistan, attempts to infuse religion in the state and society. An amendment to the constitution in 1988 declared Islam to be the state religion, and further changes introduced by the Proclamations Order in 1997 removed the world ‘secular’ from the preamble, and inserted the ‘Bismillah’ at the beginning of the constitution.
While these changes did not make the constitution of Bangladesh nearly as Islamic as Pakistan’s, since there was no compulsion that the prime minister and the president be Muslims, or that Ahmedis are non-Muslims, or that there is no freedom of conscience, yet the changes did insert a religious dimension to the constitution, which had hitherto been national and secular in character.
I met the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh in March 2011 in Oxford. After her talk at the Oxford Union, I had a chance to sit and converse with her for a time. The ease with which she talked to me — a mere student at the time — and her frank answers to the questions of a Pakistani (after all!), impressed me greatly. While it seemed that she still reeled from the memories of the incidents of 1970-1, she also clearly wanted good relations with Pakistan. However, the wounds of the past do no heal so quickly especially when the other side refuses to acknowledge and apologise for any wrongdoing.
In my conversation with Sheikh Hasina, I asked her what measures she was undertaking to restore the liberal and progressive line of her father — something she had also committed to. With forthright honesty and frankness, she admitted that while she could not do away with all the Islamising provisions of the constitution, she would aim to bring it as close to the vision of her father as possible. And true she was to her word!
I have very recently read the text of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Bangladeshi Constitution which was passed in 2011, and was simply struck by its brilliance. Without touching the wording of the Islamic provisions, Sheikh Hasina’s amendments have in effect restored the secular character of the constitution. The amendment began with a change in the preamble of the constitution where ‘secularism’ was restored as the ‘fundamental principle.’ This change gave no anti-religious, but a religiously neutral foundation to the governing principles of the country.
Then an amendment to Article 2A, while retaining Islam as the state religion made the equal treatment of other religions compulsory, let alone their mere toleration. The new Article 2A hence reads: ‘The State religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.’ This change in effect makes all religions equal in the country while keeping the honourary place of Islam as a premier religion in place.
The 15th Amendment also inserted definition of ‘nationalism’ for the Bangladeshi people. Article 9 therefore notes: ‘The unity and solidarity of the Bangalee nation, which, deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bangalee nationalism.’ This amendment brings the entire ‘Bangalee nation,’ be they Muslim or Hindu, Christian or tribal, together as part of one nation based on their shared language and culture. While it is very hard to confine to a few sentences the essence of nationalism in any country, by placing its national identity within the confines of the language and culture, Bangladesh has now given itself a holistic definition as a country.
A major change brought about by the amendment was the restoration of Article 12 of the original constitution on secularism and religious freedom. This article, which was omitted by the Proclamations Order of 1977, now states: ‘The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of? (a) communalism in all its forms; (b) the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion; (c) the abuse of religion for political purposes; (d) any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.’ This critical clause not only defines secularism as the states’ neutral approach towards religion, but also explicitly prohibits its abuse for political or other purposes. In a multi-religious society, such provisions are essential for peace, security and harmony among the general population.
In her efforts to make the constitution as equal as possible, Sheikh Hasina’s amendment also gave the option of translating the ‘Bismillah’ as ‘In the name of the Creator,’ keeping in mind the sentiments of the non-Muslim population of the country.
In a country which hosts the world largest Muslim gathering outside the Hajj — the Bishwa Ijtema — and which boasts one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, these changes are very momentous. Sheikh Hasina’s successful endeavour to restore the constitution to its original 1972 form, much like our attempt to ‘restore’ the 1973 constitution, neither created a godless society and nor did it precipitate a revolt.
In fact, taking religion out of the political realm makes its more personal, meaningful and effective. More than anything else, the 2011 amendments reestablished the vision of the founders of the country who wanted to see a Bangladesh for the Bengali people — irrespective of other dividing factors. It was the secular nature of Bengali nationalism which brought the people together against British imperialism in 1947, and then again against West Pakistani imperialism in 1970, and which, I hope, will create a more coherent, united and strong Bengali nation and country.
A fierce debate still rages in Pakistan over what Jinnah really wanted. Some liberals contend that once he had achieved Pakistan, Jinnah advocated a secular republic where Muslims — and others — would enjoy equal rights and privileges. Quoting the famous speech on August 11, 1947 these people claim that the founder of the country in fact wanted that religion should have ‘nothing to do with the business of the state.’
However, as time has shown, slowly, but surely, Pakistan, its constitution, politics and society have everything to do with religion, with the debate usually focused on the ‘right type’ of religion. While I still have some issues with such an interpretation, what is clear is that the founding father of Bangladesh — who should also have been the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1971 — did indeed want a liberal and secular Bangladesh — the same was his wish for a united Pakistan. Where Sheikh Mujib’s vision was thwarted after his assassination in 1975, his daughter Sheikh Hasina kept the hope alive and restored the original vision of Bangladesh in 2011. Will such a thing ever happen in Pakistan, I wonder?